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Baghdad on the Bayou
To recover from Katrina, New Orleans must defeat the criminals who terrorize its streets.
You dont 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 crimealready a grave problem long before the stormpervades 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 citys 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 werent there, says U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who handles federal cases for Louisianas eastern district. But after roughly ten weeks of peace, murdersmany drug-related and acquaintance-basedstarted to appear in the headlines again. Then, as the citys 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 residentsalready 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 murdersa 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 Orleanss murder rate scaled even highermore 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 indexesfrom assault to armed robberyhave moved in a similar direction.
The rocketing crime rate suggests that New Orleanss bad guys are coming back to the city in disproportionate numbers. That shouldnt 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 Houstons 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 declinemore middle-class hemorrhaging, more disorder, fewer livable neighborhoodsand instantly fast-forwarded it to urban nightmare.
First, New Orleanss legacy drug dealersas James Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the citys FBI office, classifies those who were dealing before Katrina, almost invariably single-parented young black maleslearned 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 cant profit from such low prices eliminate competition through violence.
Many dealers and other criminals havent returned to their old blighted neighborhoods, since four-fifths of New Orleanss public housing remains closed and some of the citys poorest tracts are still flood-ruined. Instead, theyve spread out to neighborhoods that were already struggling before the stormCentral 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 professionalsand 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, its 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 areas young people are criminals, he believes, but its enough. To have this come back after the most terrible natural disaster . . . says Mims, his voice trailing off.
Its 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, theres no comparison with before Katrina.
Wealthier areas of the city, never impervious to crime, havent been immune to its post-Katrina escalation. All along the river, in well-off neighborhoods that didnt flood, were seeing a spike in crime, says Bernazzani.
Intensifying the citys crime woes further, family relationships that were tenuous pre-Katrinain underclass neighborhoods, mothers and grandmothers raised children alone, with few exceptionsare now completely broken. David Bell, chief justice of New Orleanss juvenile court, tells me that 20 percent of the kids who appear before him todayfor the most part, 15 or youngerare 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 dont watch out for them. Others, separated from their families in Katrinas chaotic aftermath, never reconnected with them. Theyve 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 Yorks 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 ones 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 Im 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 merelymerely!thou shalt not kill, illustrating how a crime-ravaged communitys 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 citys 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 Freys murder in her neighborhood, Natale says, Ive changed my lifestyle. I dont 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, survivedand 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. Its been a rough year.
Katrinas protracted aftermath would challenge the nations best police and prosecutorial forces. But the fact that New Orleans hasnt had a functional criminal-justice system for years has made its post-hurricane crime predicament graver still.
No one would deny the citys 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 DAs office released news showing that the citys criminal-justice system wasnt 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 didnt 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 doesnt immediately replace its wrecked lab so that it can keep hard-core criminals off the streets?
Mayor Ray Nagins failure to replace the lab, even after 18 months had elapsed, didnt 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 Jordanwho is elected, not appointed by the mayorfound 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 Orleanss 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.
Its 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 Orleanss crime-fighting staffing levels, while modest compared with New Yorks (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 cant 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 citys mayor, DA, and judges must recognize that tolerating nonviolent offenses leads directly to violent crimes. Because they dont 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 todays shocking rates424 in 1994, or about 80 per 100,000 residentshired outsider Richard Pennington as police superintendent. Pennington cut corruption and implemented statistics-based policing and other crime-fighting innovations, slashing the citys 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 didnt sustain its gains. When Pennington ran for mayor in 2002, moreover, he lost to Nagin.
Good policing and prosecution cost moneyand after Katrina, New Orleanss regular annual revenues are down 23 percent. So its reasonable for the city to ask the feds and the state for operating cash for its police and prosecutors 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. Whats more, since Louisiana is running a surplus, Governor Kathleen Blanco could send the city one-time funds to upgrade the justice systems 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 citys dysfunctional criminal-justice system isnt 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 wont control its predominantly underclass criminals, I have received lectures on how the real problem is anything but failure to enforce the law. I just dont understand, Im told, how bad schools, bad parenting, a lack of inner-city jobs, or some combination of the three must be fixed first. New Orleanss moneyed, mostly white, elitewhich could have played a vital role in changing the political debate about crime, just as such citizens did in New Yorkoften 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 didnt 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 dont support the measures necessary to combat it. Just look at Jordans pre-Katrina report, which concluded that New Orleans often suffered from both jury and judge nullificationthat is, ignoring the lawespecially 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 wouldnt 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 deadshot on the street multiple times, allegedly by a teenage acquaintance, Clarence Johnson. Johnsons 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 Johnsons 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 theyve had, or their children have had, bad personal experiences with these cops. Flawed arrests and dropped prosecutions, too, mean that many witnesses wont cooperate, since they know, as Mims says, that violent thugs will be back on the streets before sundown. And everybodyfrom white society folk who hire off-duty cops to patrol their streets to poor black kids who carry guns while walking theirsknows that the only real security in New Orleans is private, not public.
Since Katrina, things have gotten so bad that New Orleanss 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, including nearly three dozen new agents and attorneys, 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, and Firearms 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 committedcarrying an illegal weapon, say, or peddling a rock of cocaine. Letten, the U.S. attorney, secures indictments and prosecutes the defendants. Our goal is to detain, imprison, prosecute, convict, and incarcerate these violent criminals, he says, to get as many individuals into the federal system as possible.
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 theyre the same people who commit violent crimes. In just two weeks worth of cases, feds caught one man with an illegal loaded gun and charged him in the federal system, one day after a local court had given him a suspended sentence for crack possession. They caught another suspect on a gun charge whod been convicted of robbery less than five years ago. And they have charged Clarence Johnsons mother with illegal weapons possession. (Garden-variety murder isnt a federal crime.)
The feds emphasize that theyre not trying to take over in New Orleans, and theyre hesitant to criticize local officials. Theyre also working within Jordans system, funding a small team of assistant DAs who screen the huge backlog of pre-Katrina cases and look, too, at difficult cases since the storm. And the FBI has deployed nine agents, all former homicide detectives, to work in New Orleans alongside the NOPD on its backlog of unsolved murders.
To combat unbridled property crime, meanwhile, Governor Blanco deployed a 300-troop Louisiana National Guard contingent, Task Force Gator, last June to patrol lightly populated neighborhoods; Mayor Nagin and the police department had requested the help. These are crimes of opportunity, says Gators commander, Major Dirk Erickson, pointing out an abandoned school where guardsmen recently caught looters stripping copper from insulated pipes. The guards task is vast: Erickson notes that his troops must patrol hundreds of miles of road in neighborhoods often less than half populated. Since June, Ericksons soldiers, acting as deputized state troopers, have made nearly 2,000 arrests, many of them of looters. And while the force usually patrols and arrests without violent incident, in early March the guardsmen encountered a bicyclist transporting a hacksaw at 1 am in a looter-plagued area of the Ninth Ward. The man brandished a knife, threw glass at the troops when they attempted to question him, and then ran. When they pursued him into a flood-ruined house, he pointed what looked like a rifle (later determined to be a BB gun) at the troops, one of whom opened fire and killed him.
Feds and state alike are doing something more than just helping out a strapped city: theyre 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 theyre bringing with them a hardiness and resourcefulness that New Orleans hasnt 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 wont live with violent crime any more, no matter how politically difficultand politically incorrectit is to change things. Citizens anger about crime reached fever pitch in January, after two high-profile murders: Dinerral Shavers, the snare drummer of the Hot-8 Brass Band featured in Spike Lees documentary When the Levees Broke, lost his life in a drive-by shooting (the killer was aiming at the musicians teenage son); and independent filmmaker Helen Hill was shot in her home, as she and her husband shielded their toddler from the unknown assailant. After the two murders, 4,000 citizensnot members of special-interest groups, but real citizens who took time off from work and schoolmarched on City Hall to protest both crime and the impotence of Nagin and Jordan. A measure of their anger: they did not allow Nagin, who attended, to speak.
Individuals and groups are launching freelance anticrime proposals, insisting that the city government act on them. Ruthie Frierson is a prominent New Orleans citizen (her husband was once crowned Rex, the king of Mardi Gras) now wading into politics. In February, the group that she originally founded after Katrina to reformsuccessfullyLouisianas patronage-ridden levee boards joined ten other organizations to unveil a War on Career and Violent Criminals. The campaigns proposalsthey include increasing DA resources devoted to violent crime and repeat offenders, starting a nonprofit effort to record prosecutors successes and failures, and improving coordination between police and prosecutorswouldnt be revolutionary in functional cities. But in New Orleans, acknowledging that the city needs an effective criminal-justice system before it can solve its other problems is revolutionary.
The Marignys Natale has started a website to fight not just crime but elected officials who refuse to address it. First on her list to achieve: the resignation of [DA] Eddie Jordan. Natale represents another necessary evolution for New Orleans. When she speaks of drug dealers, she says that the decision to sell is an individual choice, rather than excusing criminals because of their poverty and bad educations. And Cantrell, who returned to the flooded Broadmoor neighborhood with her neighbors to rebuild long before the government started giving out grants, is mobilizing citizens patrol groups to walk block by block and deter property crimes.
Responding to the intense pressure, Nagin and Jordan are making modest attempts to improve policing and prosecution. New Orleanss police superintendent, Warren Riley, said in March that prosecutors and cops would try to cooperate with each other, and he has launched new undercover operations and checkpoints to net drug dealers, weapons, and wanted criminals. The city is also installing more crime cameras, so that it doesnt have to rely on witness testimony. 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, as though it were the request of some newly powerful special-interest group. Although Nagin narrowly won reelection last spring, slow political evolution away from business-as-usual may be occurring. In the same election, voters elected two new city council members, Shelley Midura and James Carter, who have begun to insist on some accountability on crime, calling Riley and Jordan to a special session in February to grill them publicly about the citys failure to police and prosecute its criminals. The session exposed to television viewers the troubling fact that Riley and Jordan were so uncooperative that they wouldnt even look at each other. Long-standing tension between the two departments had reached the nadir this winter, when Jordan, indicting seven cops for two shooting deaths in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, referred to police officers as rabid dogs.
Because New Orleans never gave its citizens the freedom from fear that is the foundation of any healthy city, it has long failed to make progress on other serious troubles: bad schools, dysfunctional underclass behavior, and few job opportunities. There is no village, says Mims of the proposition that it takes a village to fix the inner city. The village is afraid. Old people are afraid of young kids. 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 Louisianas wetlands, which protect the city from hurricanes, will balk.
But with its cheap office space, beautiful architecture, real culture, good universities, and location thats 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, Natale says. But we saw what New Orleans could be like in the months after the storm.