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

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.

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.

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"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.

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.

"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."

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