Outside New Orleans, cities stem crime on their own
The National Guard, called to help the Big Easy this week, isn't needed in other cities with evacuees, police say.
HOUSTON — As hundreds of National Guardsmen roll into New Orleans to help stem the violence in that hurricane- ravaged city, other cities with large populations of evacuees are managing to control crime without the use of the military.
Some, such as Baton Rouge, La., have beefed up police patrols and have seen a slight decline in violent crime. But in Houston, which received the most Gulf Coast refugees, the jury is still out.
On one hand, the city saw a 23 percent increase in murders last year, which police attribute in part to the influx of 150,000 hurricane evacuees. So far this year, overall violent crime is running at a rate higher than any of the past three years.
On the other hand, the Houston Police Department has implemented a number of programs – targeted at neighborhoods where large numbers of evacuees ended up – to stem the rise in violent crime. Does Houston need the National Guard's help? "We haven't gotten to that point yet," says Gabriel Ortiz, a department spokesman.
In New Orleans, which is still struggling to providing basic services, the situation is different. After five teenagers were gunned down last week in the city's deadliest attack in a dozen years, Mayor Ray Nagin asked for the National Guard's help. As the troops arrived Tuesday, police were investigating another homicide – bringing this year's murder total to 54.
"We vow to do whatever it takes in the short and long term to make this a safer city," Mayor Nagin said at a press conference earlier this week.
Crescent City officials are also considering reestablishing a juvenile curfew, starting at 11 p.m. or midnight and lasting until dawn, which would remain in effect through the summer. Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis called on the state to open more schools and Councilman Arnie Fielkow appealed to the city's pro sports teams – the Saints and the Hornets – to help finance night recreation programs.
Here in Houston, much of the focus is also on keeping juveniles busy and safe for the summer. Tutoring programs and recreational activities, job-training courses for teenagers, and extra police patrols in high-crime neighborhoods are all part of the solution, say city officials.
"There are so many things you assume will help towards curtailing youth crime like good summer-school programs and parks activities, but cities have got to have more of a multifaceted approach," says Adrian Garcia, chairman of the Houston city council's public safety and homeland security committee.
One enforcement program, the Unified Neighborhood Enhancement Team, is a mobile command unit that can be set up in a troubled neighborhood. In addition, 150 officers are working overtime to raise police presence and monitor gangs in high-crime areas, such as southwest Houston.
Some of the rise in crime may be attributed to growth of the city's juvenile population over the past decade, says Councilman Garcia. But special attention is being paid to the young people displaced by hurricane Katrina. "We've got to be able to create meaningful jobs for these kids."
Communities In Schools – a national nonprofit group that helps kids succeed in school – has been working closely with evacuee students all year, but it created a specific summer program because many working parents had lost their support networks in the storm, says Melissa Simon, director of development for the group's local chapter. The pilot program, called Houston's Kids, has enrolled close to 500 students in the Alief Independent School District – an area in the southwest with large numbers of Katrina evacuees.
It offers morning classes and afternoon activities. High schoolers, for instance, learn job-training skills, such as how to write a résumé, dress, and handle an interview.
In New Orleans, the situation is more desperate because housing and jobs are still so hard to come by and many schools remain closed. But some believe the National Guard deployment goes too far.
"I think this is a huge overreaction and very likely damaging to New Orleans because it will make it seem like we are having riots or are in Baghdad," says William Quigley, director of the Loyola University Law Clinic in New Orleans. "But if the National Guard will help people feel more safe, then we welcome their help."