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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.

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This past winter, residents were reminded of the corruption within the city's police department when seven police officers were indicted on murder charges for a shooting on the Danziger Bridge in the wake of Katrina. The city already has two of its former police officers on death row – both for plotting murders on the job.

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"All the old problems have resurfaced," says Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor. He led many reforms in the 1990s, which helped to cut the murder rate by 60 percent.

Yet for the first time in the city's history a major civic reform movement is taking shape. Residents have been emboldened by the possibility of rebuilding a new kind of New Orleans, but are also concerned about the potential for anarchy in the city, says New Orleans native Fred Smith, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Businessmen, homeowners, and clergy have joined forces not just to take part in marches, but also to keep pressure on city leaders. "The community is ... realizing that if we don't make a change we don't survive as a city," says Greg Rusovich, chairman of the New Orleans Crime Coalition.

A citizen-led push to hire five top homicide prosecutors and raise their pay from $60,000 to $80,000 has helped the Violent Crime Unit to squeeze the city's worst criminals.

A new volunteer jury-watch committee is working to make the judicial system more transparent, and new "witness cards" that offer residents the opportunity to give anonymous tips have increased calls from a few a week to dozens a day.

And public pressure resulted in the resignation of a bond judge, who was known for releasing violent criminals without hearings. Also helpful is the reopening in May of the city's crime lab, which was destroyed in the flood.

The FBI is lending nine extra agents with homicide experience to the NOPD until September, having racked up a series of major arrests. Last month, a new cooperative unit began busting crack houses at midday to shake up the local crime syndicates.

Police Superintendent Riley is also poised to approve much of a new policing plan that focuses on a return to community policing, using technology to pinpoint high-crime areas, and focusing patrols during times of the night when most crimes are committed.

Criminologist Peter Scharf of Texas State University says reforming the NOPD, which he calls a nest of grudges and vendettas, is key to cutting crime.

Despite its rough reputation, Mr. Morial says, the NOPD has come a long way.

Since Katrina, the NOPD has jettisoned policies such as residency requirements for officers and no longer bans lateral hires that bring in higher-ranking officers at higher pay grades. Pay, too, has increased.

Officer Tracie Savalas says a core group of police has leveraged the solidarity brought about by the storm into a mission to protect the city.

Keeping the recovery and crime wave in perspective is essential, she says. "Don't give false hope that we're going to rebuild something that's going to be second only to Heaven, USA. That's not reality."