With the capture of two suspects following a Mother’s Day parade shooting, New Orleans has become the second major US city this year – Boston being the first – to endure episodes of large-scale street violence allegedly initiated by brothers, a massive law-enforcement manhunt in response, and the eventual capture of the wanted individuals.
Last Sunday, Mother’s Day, at least two shooters, identified by police as Akein and Shawn Scott, attempted what even hardened criminologists called the unspeakable: a gang hit on a street full of paradegoers, just a few blocks from the French Quarter. Of the 20 people hurt, seven were women and two were children.
The scene shocked even a city long known for a stubbornly high murder rate, with crimes often conducted in brazen fashion – including drive-bys, executions, and daytime killings.
But if residents were stunned by an attack that criminal-justice experts say teetered on domestic terrorism, the long-suffering New Orleans Police Department helped turn the emotional response around by tracking the alleged shooters down and capturing them by the end of the week.
For a city often at odds with its police department over complaints about harassment and excessive force, the manhunt and arrests of the Scott brothers became, for some, a unique moment of unity. It also appears to be an example of the dramatic shift in gang-war policing that the city has made under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, as well as under the supervision of federal marshals dispatched to end corruption in the department.
“In this case, Police Department intelligence is way better than what it used to be with regards to this kind of thing, and part of it is working with the Feds,” says Dee Wood Harper, a criminologist at Loyola University New Orleans.
As with other US cities, notably Atlanta, New Orleans has dramatically shifted its priorities away from low-level shakedowns of street dealers – a popular practice among police but one that can alienate neighborhoods. Instead, it’s building deeper cases against members of the most violent groups, the people posing the greatest threat to their neighbors.
In New Orleans, Mr. Harper says, that means the Police Department is making notably fewer arrests on the whole, but potentially with more impact: Only last week, local and federal officials indicted 15 people for involvement in multiple shootings and killings, including the death last year of a 5-year-old girl.
In the case of the Scott brothers, police say both are members of the Frenchmen and Derbigny gang, which often peddles drugs near the 7th Ward corner where the shooting took place. The men were apparently targeting a man named Leonard Epps who police say is affiliated with the Deslonde Boys in the Lower 9th Ward. Mr. Epps was struck by several bullets on Sunday but is expected to survive.
Police identified Akein Scott, a recent graduate from one of the city’s more prestigious high schools, from a surveillance camera tape. Then they got a Crimestoppers tip that focused the investigation: A source told police that Mr. Scott had told him about how he and his brother attacked the crowd – he in full sight of the camera, his brother from a different angle, out of camera shot.
NOPD special-ops officers and members of the US Marshals Felony Warrant Squad searched more than a dozen homes before finding the men.
“Each house we hit, we feel confident when we do it,” NOPD Detective Brian Elsensohn told reporters. “But each house delivers new info as we go through the interview process in hopes of locating them.”
Akein Scott was picked up Wednesday without incident in New Orleans East. His brother, Shawn, was arrested after a short foot chase on Thursday. Police also charged four others not directly involved with the shooting for harboring fugitives.
According to David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York City who is consulting with the Landrieu administration on gang policing, one reason the city was successful in capturing the Scott brothers is that the city already had a joint local and federal task force in place to respond to such a crime.
“A single incident where 19 people are shot, that’s unprecedented [in New Orleans], and all the rest of it just makes it worse: It’s in public, the parade, the shooting of women and children on Mother’s Day – it’s really unspeakable,” Mr. Kennedy says. “On the other hand, if you look at the basic facts as they’re emerging, this is really no different than most of the other incidents that drive this kind of public violence in core urban areas, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that the city and mayor have been setting up to act on.”
To be sure, questions still abound around whether building broad conspiracy cases against people with a proclivity for street violence will ultimately curb the murder rate.
“At this point, [law enforcement] will do anything, whatever it takes to keep these kinds of guys off the street,” says Harper of Loyola. “It might work. I don’t know, but I hope it works.”
After the arrest of the second brother on Thursday, Mayor Landrieu held a press conference at the scene of the shooting. The law-enforcement operation, he said, showcased the city’s quest to fix its reputation by focusing on gun violence.
"We all came back here to make it clear that the culture of death and violence on the streets of New Orleans is unnatural, it's unacceptable, and the people of New Orleans have had enough," Landrieu said.