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New Orleanians seek to halt escalating crime wave

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2007


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.

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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."

Initially, slow to react

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."