NEW ORLEANS — Far from the tourists strolling past the stray saxophonists bellowing in the shadows along Bourbon Street and the preachers squawking about impending doom in the French Quarter, a report crackles over the radio alerting two police officers to the most serious disturbance so far this balmy December night.
The dispatcher advises that crowds are blocking the streets and neighbors are flooding 911 with complaints. When the cops arrive, they find a rowdy throng of revelers spilling out of a small nightclub, bopping along side streets in a Big Easy tradition called a "second line" - a sort of chaotic conga line.
"It's fun until it turns into a shooting," grunts Patrick Evans, a New Orleans Police Department veteran, who breaks up similar spontaneous jubilees about once a week. "Sometimes it's a birthday, another day it's a funeral. We just try to knock them down before they really get started and the other problems develop."
Those "other problems" are what only four years ago made New Orleans the nation's most violent city. Not anymore. Since 1994, the murder rate has fallen more than 46 percent and violent crime overall has taken a 43 percent dive.
The city belatedly mirrors a dramatic drop in crime nationwide that is sending people back into urban parks to jog and walk streets a little less warily.
Overall, homicides, rape, and other violent offenses stand at their lowest level in 25 years. Nor does the trend show any sign of retreating: The US Department of Justice reported this week that robbery fell an unexpected 17 percent last year.
Nationally, the decline has been linked to a strong economy, a drop in the crack market, community policing, and efforts to keep guns away from juveniles.
New Orleans credits its success to yet another factor: Police Superintendent Richard Pennington, a retired deputy police chief from Washington, D.C., who took over the department in 1994.
Many believe chief Pennington - who still wears a police-issued, clip-on tie despite a 50 percent raise that made him the nation's second-highest-paid police chief - has made good on his promise to revamp the force.
He doubled starting salaries to about $30,000, beefed up the force with 400 rookies, and clamped down on corrupt cops by refashioning the internal investigations division. He also persuaded the city council to add $10 million to the police budget.
The results have been better qualified officers, more cruisers patrolling high-crime areas, some 200 officers either suspended, fired, or sent into early retirement, and drops in everything from purse snatchings to armed robberies.
A recent poll published in The Times-Picayune showed residents are feeling the difference. The number of those who think crime is the city's biggest problem has dropped 34 percent since 1994. In addition, those who feel the quality of police protection is good or excellent climbed 31 percent during that time.
That's not to say this Southern city has completely wiped out its twin evils of crime and corruption. On the day the survey was published, a 14-year vice squad veteran was sent to prison for extorting money from a prostitution ring, and police launched an investigation into the year's 214th homicide.
"We still have a ways to go," says Pennington, who commands an 86 percent approval rating among city residents. "Once we didn't think we could really impact crime. We just thought we were here to service complaints. It's different now."
Better police tactics
In addition to the new cops and increased budget, the chief attributes the safer streets to better police tactics. Modeled after strategies that helped cut New York City's murder rate by 50 percent, Pennington has used computer-aided crime analysis, set up permanent stations in public housing complexes, and held weekly meetings among district captains to exchange crime intelligence.
The dramatic drop in crime, however, hasn't come without criticism. Some have argued that police brutality has increased and others point out the strain of more arrests on an unprepared prison system.
But the most rankling charge is that the police department doctors its crime statistics to make the city appear safer. For example, reports have surfaced that at least half a dozen sexual assaults were classified as aggravated burglary, which isn't entered as violent in federal crime statistics. And others say many crimes have simply gone unrecorded.
"People need to have faith in the statistics," says Carole Dahlem, director of Crime and Prevention Resources at Tulane University in New Orleans. "It shouldn't be a mystery."
But others say that despite questions about crime statistics, there's no denying Pennington's success. "I don't think there's any question the city's a safer place," says Jim Wright, a sociology professor who studies crime statistics at Tulane. "It's hard to fudge the homicide rate, and that has dropped significantly."