NEW ORLEANS — The young men who lounge in shiny cars thumping with rap beats, whom locals suspect of drug dealing, seem to move unhindered through this wrecked but still grand old city.
People here see their presence as just one sign of a crime wave that, if left unchecked, will bring New Orleans' struggling recovery to its knees. Funerals of murder victims – too many in too short a time – are another sign. So are protest marches by locals, who trace a surge in crime to both official neglect and persistent poverty.
More than hurricane Katrina itself, last year's spike in holdups, carjackings, and murders – and law enforcement's inability so far to bring crime to heel – is sapping people's resolve to stick with this city, say many residents. If middle-class returnees abandon it, and those yet to return are too scared to come back, New Orleans will face a precarious future, they warn.
"The crime is way worse than the storm," says Charles Cannon, an English professor at the University of New Orleans who was born and raised here.
While New Orleanians could blame other forces – that is, nature and government – for the failures after Katrina, residents today must take an introspective look at the city's longstanding tendency to wink at vice and crime, and chart a new course, says Professor Cannon. "We can't shake our fists and blame someone else for what's happening."
About half the population, or 200,000 people, have returned since the waters of hurricane Katrina abated. As crime has worsened, some have taken extra measures – backyard floodlights, guns, dogs – to protect themselves. But counting 10 murders in the first two weeks of the new year, alarmed residents are putting intense pressure on city leaders and police to crack down on crime – and address underlying issues that contribute to the Big Easy's culture of permissiveness.
The task is, by most accounts, a huge one. Mayor Ray Nagin already has his hands full trying to rebuild a city, and earlier efforts by previous mayors to curb crime have run headlong into concerns that a muscular response would ruin Bourbon Street businesses and drive away tourists and their dollars. Moreover, the police force is having trouble retaining officers, losing them at the rate of 17 per month, according to the New Orleans Police Department. And relations have been strained of late between the police and the district attorney's office, which need to work together to win convictions, especially now that seven officers have each been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two people in the chaotic days after Katrina hit the city.
In 2003 and 2004, the conviction rate for murder and attempted murder was at best 12 percent, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission. By comparison, the national conviction rate for murder and attempted murder is 80 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"People who are most affected by the crime have no confidence in the system," says Dee Harper, a criminologist at Loyola University here. "People don't come forward. We can't impanel juries that will convict anybody, especially if the only witness is a police officer. The system is really, really, seriously broken."
Against these challenges, city leaders have been slow to react. As late as December, Police Chief Warren Riley tried to put a positive spin on the crime picture, noting the number of murders last year was among the lowest in city history. But that's only because half as many people live here now. Murders per capita – which criminologists say is the more credible assessment – put New Orleans on course to become once again the "US Murder Capital."
In the past week, however, Mayor Nagin has moved with greater urgency, especially following two high-profile killings – of Dinerral Shavers, a drummer, and Helen Hill, a filmmaker. Nagin has asked police to set up early-morning checkpoints in the most crime-prone areas to nab drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He promised the installation of more video cameras on public streets to thwart miscreants. And he pledged to accelerate court processing of murder cases.
"We're sending a signal that the system that used to allow you to commit a murder and there were no consequences is over," Nagin said last week when unveiling his crime-fighting initiatives. "It has been easier to commit a murder than another crime in New Orleans."
Both Chief Riley and district attorney Eddie Jordan are vowing to work more closely with federal law enforcement and US prosecutors, who in 1994, the city's deadliest year, disrupted a crime gang that was accused of committing dozens of murders.
Kara Morgan, who lives in the Irish Channel neighborhood, is one who showed up Jan. 9 to hear the mayor announce his new crime-prevention measures. She had watched the devastation from Seattle and then last summer returned to her hometown to help bring the city back. "What's striking about what's happening now is that, unlike the 1980s [when a crack cocaine epidemic caused a crime wave], there's no new drug to blame it on, no new phenomenon," she says. "It's a frustrating thing to watch."
She says the city still has the mettle to save itself. Though race and class tensions linger, New Orleans is a deeply integrated city where residents are fighting block to block to keep criminal elements from the corners, she says.
Dave Scott, who lives in Central City, the epicenter of the crime wave, says he has run youths he suspects of dealing drugs off corners. If they threaten him, he says, "I tell them, 'What are you going to do? Send me to heaven?' " Mr. Scott also travels around the neighborhood with his church group, inviting teens to join a Christian-themed basketball league.
Scott, who says his nephew was gunned down four weeks ago after trying to pass off soap shavings as drugs, sees renegade, unsupervised young people as major contributors to violent crime. Many parents and older adults – including "grandmas" who used to keep an eye on the streets – have yet to return from, say, Houston or Atlanta, but the footloose teens and 20-somethings are squatting in empty houses or housing projects, forming gangs and peddling drugs, he says. Turf wars over territory are a major cause of the violence, he suggests.
Yet even amid the run-down shotgun houses in Central City, where some black residents say they fear cops as much as criminals, people are looking inward for answers to what's going wrong in New Orleans. For one, some preachers have agreed to abandon their longtime practices of helping young crime suspects make bail and pulling strings so they get off, says Scott. Everyone agreed, he says, that it sends the wrong message.
The sense of "let the good times roll," the city slogan, and "live and let live" so permeate New Orleans that it has seemed as normal here as beignets and chicory coffee. But as New Orleans searches for a path out of the crime quagmire, that attitude toward vice may have to be adjusted.
"This ['live and let live' ethos] is part of the charm of the city, but it can also work against the city and against law and order," says Mr. Harper, the Loyola criminologist.
For the embattled residents who have decided to make a stand, "Enough!" has become the battle cry. A quickly organized march on City Hall last week took on unprecedented proportions, as perhaps 5,000 residents gathered to protest the crime wave, the perpetrators, and elected officials. Protesters could be seen wearing signs that said "robbed at gunpoint" or "carjacked," while others, like Lazy Six musician Glen David Andrews, railed at the microphone against brash thugs.
"We have to acknowledge what's happening before we can get it fixed," says Krista May, a Central City homeowner.