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In Big Easy, slow headway against crime

More murders are being solved and convictions won. But concerned residents wonder if the city can sustain inroads in the face of rampant violence.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2007


In the two years since hurricane Katrina soaked the Big Easy, the murder rate has soared, and street justice has prevailed over the notoriously ineffective halls of justice.

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But there are signs now that this city, famous for its laissez-faire lethargy and laid-back detectives, is gaining some ground against a tide of criminality that residents say threatens to sweep away the promise of recovery. From Coronado Heights to Lakeview, hope is returning that "the battle for New Orleans," as residents call it, is winnable – on the streets and inside the city's corruption-tinged criminal justice system.

Reforms in the squad room and the courtroom have lifted the rate of solved murders here from 16 percent to 42 percent since January. Moreover, a new violent-crime unit has won convictions in 19 of 20 cases since April. It's a dramatic turnaround that may indicate an abrupt awakening to the need to check crime at this particular juncture in city history.

"We're in a brave new world here. It's the wild, wild West, and a circumstance that very, very few cities have ever been through," says Stella Baty Landis, an anticrime activist and owner of Sound Cafe in the Marigny neighborhood. "Right now we have some very positive developments happening, but it's unclear whether we'll be in a position to sustain them."

The picture from the "Sliver on the River" still looks grim. This year the city's murder rate is on track to top 100 for every 100,000 residents, more than 11 times the national average. The latest crime wave mirrors the dark days of the late 1980s' crack epidemic and marks New Orleans as the city with the sharpest spike in violent crimes in the US over the past year. A murder suspect in nearby Houston is five times more likely to get caught and be put on trial than one in New Orleans.

The roots of the crime wave can be linked to both social and institutional breakdowns that worsened after, but were not necessarily created by, the storm, says Jim Bernazzani, FBI Special Agent in Charge for New Orleans.

"This [criminal] segment of society, primarily African-American males, are products of an education system that didn't educate, a state judicial system that failed to mete out consequence for criminal activity, and an economic landscape devoid of meaningful jobs," says Mr. Bernazzani.

A citywide crime summit last year failed to bring about change, giving way to bureaucratic infighting and one-upmanship that has long defined New Orleans politics.

The blame game flared to new heights last month after the dismissal of two cases that had sparked major marches and protests: the shooting of five teenagers last summer and the murder of a popular jazz drummer early this year. In the case of the slain teenagers, District Attorney Eddie Jordan claimed that a key witness had disappeared. The next day, at a press conference, Police Superintendent Warren Riley produced the witness in question.