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Dallas Morning News


New Orleans Still Drowning in Crime

May 13, 2007

By Nicole Gelinas

You don't have to go to Baghdad to see what happens when government loses its monopoly on force; just visit New Orleans.

More than a year and a half after Katrina hit in late August 2005, violent crime—already a grave problem long before the storm—pervades the city, endangering its recovery by driving some good people away and keeping others from returning.

In recent months, the federal and state governments, confronting a murder rate that exceeds that of any first-world city, have brought law-and-order forces to the Big Easy to try to wrest its streets back from criminals. But any long-term solution to the city's crime woes must be local. Unless New Orleans itself can find the moral and political will to control the violence, it will only be trying to rebuild the dying city that it was before Katrina.When New Orleans began slowly to come back to life after Katrina, it enjoyed a respite from violent crime. New Orleanians had a "sense of euphoria about the city being a new city, that the violent crimes just weren't there," says U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who handles federal cases for Louisiana's eastern district.

But after roughly 10 weeks of peace, murders—many drug-related and acquaintance-based—started to appear in the headlines again. Then, as the population began returning in greater numbers last spring, violent crime roared back "with a vengeance," as Mr. Letten puts it.

The numbers tell a grim story. In 2004, the year before Katrina, New Orleans suffered 265 murders, yielding a murder rate of 56 per 100,000 residents—already 4.5 times the average for similar-size cities. In 2006, the year after Katrina, the flood-ravaged, much smaller city logged 162 murders—a rate of at least 77 per 100,000 people, even assuming the most generous quarter-by-quarter repopulation figures available. (New Orleans has recovered less than half its pre-Katrina population of about 470,000.)

In the first 64 days of 2007, New Orleans's murder rate scaled even higher—more than 87 per 100,000 residents. Such a rate in New York City would mean nearly 7,000 murders a year, well over the 2,262 it experienced at the height of its violent-crime crisis 17 years ago.

Other violent-crime indexes—from assault to armed robbery—have moved in a similar direction.

All this suggests that New Orleans' bad guys are coming back to the city in disproportionate numbers. That shouldn't come as a surprise. The hoodlums, mostly members of an entrenched underclass, are impulsive and mobile, while working- and middle-class New Orleanians face big roadblocks to returning.

Relentless crime was the main reason New Orleans had lost 22 percent of its pre-1960 peak population (mostly middle-class young people, black and white) long before Katrina. But the hurricane took a slow process of decline—more middle-class hemorrhaging, more disorder, fewer livable neighborhoods—and fast-forwarded it to urban nightmare.

First, New Orleans' "legacy drug dealers"—as James Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the city's FBI office, classifies those who were dealing before Katrina, almost invariably single-parented young black males—learned a lot during their months away. In Houston, Big Easy dealers met new suppliers and have now "flooded New Orleans with drugs," Mr. Bernazzani says.

Many dealers and other criminals haven't returned to their old blighted neighborhoods, since four-fifths of New Orleans' public housing remains closed and some of the city's poorest tracts are still flood-ruined. Instead, they've spread out to neighborhoods that were already struggling before the storm, as well as ample pockets of Uptown, and made those places much more dangerous.

Some returning criminals take advantage of abandoned housing on half-occupied streets; others crowd with relatives in legal housing. "You have families living doubled up, people who have serious problems," says Al Mims Jr., a Central City native who came back to New Orleans a week after Katrina. "Before Katrina," he explains, "you had [drug] rivals who stayed miles apart. Now, it's like having Wal-Mart and Kmart across the street from each other."

It's not just the violence; New Orleanians also face a dispiriting crush of property theft as they struggle to rebuild. In recovering neighborhoods, criminals wait for a returning resident to install new appliances into his damaged home, and then steal them when he returns to his temporary housing at night.

Quality-of-life infractions are endemic, too. Residents all over the city complain of blatant drug use and open-air drug sales.

Intensifying the city's crime woes further, family relationships that were tenuous pre-Katrina—in underclass neighborhoods, mothers and grandmothers raised children alone, with few exceptions—are now completely broken.

David Bell, chief justice of New Orleans' juvenile court, tells me that 20 percent of the kids who appear before him today—for the most part, 15 or younger—are utterly without parental supervision; he calls this a "tragic story no one is telling."

New Orleans has yet another Katrina-related crime problem: It has become a kind of frontier town. Contractors and laborers have come from all over America to work on the city's damaged property (and from south of the border: One joke in town is that FEMA means "Find Every Mexican Available"). Often without their families, some buy entertainment on the streets, including drugs and sex.

Katrina's protracted aftermath would challenge the nation's best police and prosecutorial forces. But the fact that New Orleans hasn't had a functional criminal justice system for years has made its post-hurricane crime predicament graver still.

No one would deny the city's acute challenges since the storm. Floodwaters heavily damaged court and police buildings; hundreds of police officers and prosecutors lost their homes; the Police Department lost its crime lab.

But earlier this year, the DA's office released news showing that the city's criminal justice system wasn't just strained, but shattered. In 2006 and early 2007, 3,581 suspects, some charged with murders and armed robberies, walked free from jail or from bond, in many cases because the prosecutor didn't have the physical evidence to indict them within the 60 days mandated by the state constitution.

Mayor Ray Nagin's failure to replace the crime lab didn't come from nowhere. New Orleans was pathetically lax about its criminal justice system before the storm.

Four months before Katrina, District Attorney Eddie Jordan found that "a murderer in New Orleans has a less than one in four chance of being convicted of that crime." While Mr. Jordan wins no prizes, the problems long predate his taking office in 2003. An independent 2002 study by the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission found that "the criminal justice system was little more than a revolving door back to the street."

New Orleans needs to train its police and prosecutors better, pay them more and manage them more professionally to boost low morale and end high turnover. The city also must allocate its policing resources more effectively.

Further, the city can't just temporarily ramp up its policing resources whenever it detects a "violent crime wave," as it has done for decades; rather, it must treat crime as a chronic condition. And New Orleans needs to prosecute those individuals it does arrest and pressure judges to imprison the ones convicted.

Most important, the city's mayor, DA and judges must recognize that tolerating nonviolent offenses leads directly to violent crimes. Because they don't feel any incentive from the authorities to stop their disorderly behavior, too many juveniles graduate from loitering to drug use to drug sales to carrying weapons to armed robbery ... to murder.

Good policing and prosecution cost money—and after Katrina, New Orleans' regular annual revenues are down 23 percent. So it's reasonable for the city to ask the feds and the state for operating cash for its police and prosecutor's forces over the next few years, in order to give its tax base a chance to recover from the biggest weather-related disaster in U.S. history.

Over the long term, though, New Orleans, always a low-tax city relative to its income, must get used to taxing more and spending more to maintain a professional crime-fighting force.

But fixing the city's dysfunctional criminal justice system isn't just a matter of tactics and resources, because the mess reflects a deeper cultural problem.

For over a decade, when I have pointed out to well-off New Orleanians that the city suffers high crime because it won't control its predominantly underclass criminals, I have received lectures on how the real problem is that bad schools, bad parenting, a lack of inner-city jobs or some combination of the three must be fixed first. New Orleans' moneyed, mostly white elite, as one longtime resident bluntly noted, "is cowed by political correctness."

Anger about crime in New York didn't just come from elites; worried working-class and middle-class voters turned out for Rudy Giuliani in droves. In New Orleans, such citizens often complain about crime, but they don't support the measures necessary to combat it. Just look at Mr. Jordan's pre-Katrina report, which concluded that New Orleans often suffered from "both jury and judge nullification"—that is, ignoring the law¡especially in cases against small-time drug dealers and users, "regardless of the evidence."

Citizens also directly thwart the law in some neighborhoods. Underclass mothers are often perfectly aware that their kids are involved in crime, and even encourage it, says Central City native Mr. Mims.

In early February, 17-year-old Robert Dawson boarded a bus in Dallas and made the 10-hour trek to New Orleans with his mother, happy, according to news reports, to be returning to Central City. Four hours after he arrived home, young Robert was shot dead, allegedly by a teenage acquaintance, Clarence Johnson.

Clarence's mother had reportedly given him a gun and urged him to seek revenge on Robert. After the murder, police found a family photo proudly displayed in the Johnson home: a snapshot of Clarence, posing with a fistful of cash in one hand, a pistol in the other.

Since Katrina, things have gotten so bad that New Orleans' only effective criminal justice presence has come from outside the city. Early this year, the Department of Justice gave federal agencies in New Orleans extra resources to get criminals off the streets by bypassing the local justice system altogether. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have embedded agents with NOPD officers in some crime-ridden neighborhoods, and they take suspects into immediate custody if it looks as if a federal crime has been committed—carrying an illegal weapon, say, or peddling a rock of cocaine.

The federal government is doing on a modest scale what successful cops and prosecutors have done in New York and other cities for years now: taking people with illegal weapons or illegal drugs off the streets, because they're the same people who commit violent crimes. To combat unbridled property crime, meanwhile, Gov. Kathleen Blanco deployed a 300-troop Louisiana National Guard contingent last June to patrol lightly populated neighborhoods.

Feds and state alike are doing something more than just helping out a strapped city: They're reconditioning criminals, as well as victims and terrified residents, to understand that a functional government metes out predictable consequences for criminal acts.

New Orleanians knew that their city was troubled before Katrina. But today many know that the city will die unless it changes.

Many law-abiding citizens are coming home, and they're bringing with them a hardiness and resourcefulness that New Orleans hasn't seen in decades, with tens of thousands of individuals rebuilding their homes by hand.

Some of these brave souls have become political activists, insisting that they simply won't live with violent crime anymore, no matter how politically difficult—and politically incorrect—it is to change things. After two high-profile January murders, 4,000 residents—upstanding citizens who took time off from work and school—marched on City Hall to protest both crime and the impotence of the mayor, Mr. Nagin, and DA, Mr. Jordan. A measure of their anger: they did not allow Mr. Nagin, who attended, to speak.

Responding to the intense pressure, Mr. Nagin and Mr. Jordan are making modest attempts to improve policing and prosecution.

But New Orleans has seen such responses to a "crime wave" before. The key to sustained change is strong leadership, not treating citizens' safety—the basic responsibility of government—s though it were the request of some newly powerful special-interest group.

So long as New Orleans remains a terrifying city, potential investors and residents will stay away, and the national taxpayers who must spend billions of dollars to replenish Louisiana's wetlands, which protect the city from hurricanes, will balk.

But with its cheap office space, beautiful architecture, real culture, good universities and a location that's a reasonable flight from both coasts, New Orleans could thrive.

And Katrina did the city one great favor: In the weeks of calm just after the hurricane, many citizens saw a different city.

"We accepted before Katrina that to live in New Orleans was to live in crime and poverty," resident Nora Natale says. "But we saw what New Orleans could be like in the months after the storm."

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