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Baghdad on the Bayou


Baghdad on the Bayou

RealClearPolitics May 26, 2007
Urban PolicyCrime

To recover from Katrina, New Orleans must defeat the criminals who terrorize its streets.

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 currently 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, one that residents and their elected leaders thought would continue indefinitely. 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 ten weeks of peace, murders—many drug-related and acquaintance-based—started to appear in the headlines again. Then, as the city’s population began returning in greater numbers last spring, violent crime roared back “with a vengeance,” as Letten puts it. The highly publicized shooting death in March 2006 of 28-year-old Michael Frey at the hands of a street robber in the Faubourg Marigny, a funky neighborhood on the outskirts of the French Quarter, seemed to trigger in many New Orleans residents the realization that things were now back to “normal.”

The numbers tell the grim story. In 2004, the year before Katrina, New Orleans suffered 265 murders, yielding a murder rate of 56 per 100,000 residents—already four and a half times higher than 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 Dinkins-era violent-crime crisis 17 years ago. Other violent-crime indexes—from assault to armed robbery—have moved in a similar direction.

The rocketing crime rate suggests that New Orleans’s 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, such as shuttered schools. Some of the lawbreakers may have hustled back, too, because they were having a hard time adjusting to functional cities like Houston, which initially took in more than 200,000 storm evacuees. Unlike New Orleans, which has long failed at crime fighting, Houston actually arrests, charges, convicts, and imprisons its criminals (see “Houston’s Noble Experiment,” Spring 2006).

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 instantly fast-forwarded it to urban nightmare.

First, New Orleans’s “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, still a major drug hub despite its better policing and justice system, Big Easy dealers met new suppliers and have now “flooded New Orleans with drugs,” says Bernazzani. Thanks to the increased quantity on the street, the price of a kilo of cocaine has declined nearly 20 percent since Katrina. Dealers who can’t profit from such low prices eliminate competition through violence.

Many dealers and other criminals haven’t returned to their old blighted neighborhoods, since four-fifths of New Orleans’s 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—Central City, a sprawling, low-rise area to the east of elegant St. Charles Avenue, for instance, as well as ample pockets of Uptown, where residents of dilapidated housing have long lived in proximity to university students and professionals—and made those places much more dangerous. A study earlier this year found that 31 percent of Central City residents feel safe today, compared with 45 percent before Katrina; 85 percent said that “people being murdered” was a concern.

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.” Mims, who lost his father in a Central City murder nearly two decades ago and was shot himself at 19, notes that most of his neighbors are hardworking. “Maybe 10 to 15 percent” of the area’s young people are criminals, he believes, but it’s enough. “To have this come back after the most terrible natural disaster . . . ” says Mims, his voice trailing off.

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. David Kent, a former deputy chief of police who retired from the New Orleans Police Department in 1982 and who lives in the Mid-City neighborhood, says that “salvage artists” regularly cut and remove brass and copper pipes. “People are trying to build their homes and their lives, and they find that their pipes are stolen,” laments Latoya Cantrell, who is rebuilding her home alongside her neighbors in the flooded Broadmoor area. Quality-of-life infractions are endemic, too. When I walked through the Marigny, a neighborhood that Katrina left unflooded, a couple asked if I had any pills to share; residents all over the city complain of blatant drug use and open-air drug sales. Of quality-of-life crimes, says Cantrell, “there’s no comparison” with before Katrina.

Wealthier areas of the city, never impervious to crime, haven’t been immune to its post-Katrina escalation. All along the river, in well-off neighborhoods that didn’t flood, “we’re seeing a spike in crime,” says Bernazzani.

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’s 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.” Some of these children have left mothers or grandmothers behind in Houston and other locales and returned to stay with relatives, who often don’t watch out for them. Others, separated from their families in Katrina’s chaotic aftermath, never reconnected with them. “They’ve returned home, looking for their only parent,” Bell observes. Many of the kids whom Bell sees have been arrested for nonviolent crimes such as drug possession or sale, but as New York’s policing experience has shown, such crimes tend to lead to more serious offenses.

You can drive through the vast, now-empty C. J. Peete housing project in Central City, and if you look just at the sealed windows and doors, you would think that no one’s been there since the hurricane. But unsupervised teens stroll in the courtyards. In one, an SUV idles while its occupants likely complete a drug deal, according to the narcotics officer with whom I’m riding. Just blocks away, as the project opens onto a main thoroughfare, black-and-white signs reading enough! enough! enough! festoon telephone poles, decrying the frequent violence in the area. Before Katrina, the signs had read merely—merely!—thou shalt not kill, illustrating how a crime-ravaged community’s sense of impotent desperation has worsened.

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.

The psychological consequences for law-abiding New Orleanians of all this chaos and criminality have been profound. In the Marigny, resident Nora Natale expresses a common sentiment: New Orleans may have the same number of criminals that it did two years ago, but since there are fewer potential victims to target, things are much worse. Since Frey’s murder in her neighborhood, Natale says, “I’ve changed my lifestyle. I don’t take morning walks.” Last summer, she called 911 to report a shooting in front of her house during an attempted robbery; the victim, a neighbor, survived—and moved. Another acquaintance was run over by an attempted-robbery getaway car (she survived, too). Natale is candid about the corrosive toll: “I take a lot of little vacations” away from the city, she says. “It’s been a rough year.”

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 criminal-justice 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. Blame the continued absence of a crime lab. But what kind of a city doesn’t immediately replace its wrecked lab so that it can keep hard-core criminals off the streets?

Mayor Ray Nagin’s failure to replace the lab, even after 18 months had elapsed, didn’t come from nowhere. New Orleans was pathetically lax about its criminal-justice system before the storm, as its weak murder-conviction and sentencing rates show. Four months before Katrina, district attorney Eddie Jordan—who is elected, not appointed by the mayor—found that “a murderer in New Orleans has a less than one in four chance of being convicted of that crime.” While Jordan wins no prizes for his performance, the problems long predate his taking office in 2003. An independent 2002 study by the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission found that New Orleans’s felony conviction rate (as a percentage of arrests) was the second-lowest of the 11 cities studied; just 12 percent of those arrested in a given year were eventually convicted and imprisoned. For the other 88 percent, the report concluded, “the criminal-justice system was little more than a revolving door back to the street.”

Police and prosecutors blame each other for these disastrous results: prosecutors say that the police prepare poor reports, often based on unreliable witness testimony, while the cops retort that prosecutors throw out perfectly good cases.

It’s obvious what New Orleans should do, and should have done long before Katrina. The city needs to train its police and prosecutors better, pay them more, and manage them more professionally, in order to boost low morale and end high turnover. Before Katrina, New Orleans’s crime-fighting staffing levels, while modest compared with New York’s (even relative to population), were comparable with those of other southern cities with lower murder rates, such as Atlanta and Houston. Since the storm, the police force has shrunk more than 10 percent, despite new recruits; the rate of attrition is double what it was before Katrina.

The city also must allocate its policing resources more effectively. The NOPD should have a massive street-crimes unit to do undercover drug buys and bust serial robbers, for example. 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, as New York does. 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.

In the mid-1990s, New Orleans got a tiny taste of what good policing can do. Then-mayor Marc Morial, confronting murder numbers that rival today’s shocking rates—424 in 1994, or about 80 per 100,000 residents—hired outsider Richard Pennington as police superintendent. Pennington cut corruption and implemented statistics-based policing and other crime-fighting innovations, slashing the city’s murder rate by nearly two-thirds by the end of the decade. But absent legal, prosecutorial, and sentencing reforms, New Orleans never lowered crime to a level that any other city would consider acceptable, and it didn’t sustain its gains. When Pennington ran for mayor in 2002, moreover, he lost to Nagin.

Good policing and prosecution cost money—and after Katrina, New Orleans’s 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. What’s more, since Louisiana is running a surplus, Governor Kathleen Blanco could send the city one-time funds to upgrade the justice system’s equipment. 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. Violent crime will drive middle-class taxpayers out, or keep them out, before higher taxes will.

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 anything but failure to enforce the law. I just don’t understand, I’m told, how bad schools, bad parenting, a lack of inner-city jobs, or some combination of the three must be fixed first. New Orleans’s moneyed, mostly white, elite—which could have played a vital role in changing the political debate about crime, just as such citizens did in New York—often voices this “root causes” theory. As one longtime resident bluntly noted, “the white elite 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, mostly black, often complain about crime, but they don’t support the measures necessary to combat it. Just look at 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” (italics mine). In 2004, juries found nearly 60 percent of narcotics defendants not guilty, and that was after the DA had thrown out thousands of cases. “Some trial observers have suggested that . . . nullification . . . is based on distrust of the police. . . . Others think it may be due to judges and juries being unwilling to impose what they see as draconian sentences for drug use and petty dealing,” the DA concluded. Before Katrina, prosecutors chose to treat marijuana possession, being found with “crack pipe residue,” and prostitution as misdemeanors, because jurors wouldn’t convict in such cases.

Citizens also directly thwart the law in some neighborhoods. Central City native Mims notes that the mothers and grandmothers of suspects arrested for nonviolent crimes often beg neighborhood ministers to persuade prosecutors to release their sons and grandsons. Underclass mothers are often perfectly aware that their kids are involved in crime, and even encourage it, says Mims.

One post-Katrina case illustrates the point. In early February, 17-year-old Robert Dawson boarded a bus in Dallas and made the ten-hour trek to New Orleans with his mother, happy, according to news reports, to be returning to Central City after nearly a year and a half. Four hours after Dawson came home, he was dead—shot on the street multiple times, allegedly by a teenage acquaintance, Clarence Johnson. Johnson’s mother had reportedly given him the gun that she kept in her housing-project apartment, and urged him to seek revenge on Dawson, with whom he had already gotten into a fight. After the murder, police found a family photo proudly displayed in Johnson’s home: a snapshot of the boy, posing with a fistful of cash in one hand, a pistol in the other.

Lousy policing contributes to the general contempt for the criminal-justice system. The NOPD does have some heroic officers; but many are poorly managed and poorly trained, have poor morale, and do their jobs poorly. The result is yet more jurors unwilling to convict, since they’ve had, or their children have had, bad personal experiences with these cops. Flawed arrests and dropped prosecutions, too, mean that many witnesses won’t cooperate, since they know, as Mims says, that violent thugs “will be back on the streets before sundown.” And everybody—from white society folk who hire off-duty cops to patrol their streets to poor black kids who carry guns while walking theirs—knows that the only real security in New Orleans is private, not public.

This piece originally appeared in RealClearPolitics