New Orleanians seek to halt escalating crime wave
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.