TOPICS > Politics

New Orleans Battles Rising Crime Rate

January 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Almost every day since the year began, someone has been murdered in New Orleans. Last year, with less than half its original population returned, the city had one of the highest murder rates in the country.

But it was the recent deaths of two artists in a quiet, folksy neighborhood called Marigny-Bywater that drew both local and national attention. Baty Landis knew both victims.

BATY LANDIS, Owner, Sound Cafe: Dinerral Shavers and Helen Hill were working actively to try to heal the city. And it just seems like the cruelest possible target for a murder, someone who has a family — they both had young children — who has made the decision to stay in New Orleans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shavers was shot in the head while driving a car. He was a popular local high school band leader and a musician.

Thirty-five-year-old moviemaker Hill was shot and killed in her living room. Nearby, her husband, Dr. Paul Gailiunas, was hit with three bullets, as he held the couple’s 2-year-old baby in his arms.

Landis and her friends were horrified.

BATY LANDIS: It was a direct assault on everything that I value in this neighborhood, in that, not only were two of my neighbors killed, but two really valuable artists.

And if we can’t keep — if we can’t sustain the culture of New Orleans, everyone pretty much agrees that the city is not sustainable. If we can’t keep that healthy, then nothing else really matters, because that’s what defines New Orleans.

March against violence

Bart Everson
Community Activist
Mayor Nagin, Superintendent Riley, District Attorney Jordan, you have really let us down! You have failed us!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Landis and others organized a march that attracted people from the very walks of life that traditionally divide New Orleans: black and white, rich and poor. But a diverse group of 5,000 marched to City Hall to tell New Orleans' leaders that they have had enough.

BART EVERSON, Community Activist: Mayor Nagin, Superintendent Riley, District Attorney Jordan, you have really let us down! You have failed us!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Organizer Baptist Minister John Raphael, also a former police officer, says there was another reason Helen Hill's murder got so much attention.

JOHN RAPHAEL, Pastor, New Hope Baptist Church: This march actually would not have happened if the woman on North Rampart Street, Helen, had not been murdered. That march would not have happened.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What was it about her murder?

JOHN RAPHAEL: She was white. And she was not on crack; and she was not in a drug gang; and she lived in Marigny. And so the community, of course, responded differently.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Police Superintendent Warren Riley was on the receiving end of the protestors at City Hall.

WARREN RILEY, Superintendent, New Orleans Police Department: I think, first of all, that march was probably long overdue, due to some of the deficiencies within this community.

We've had 168 murders last year. This march came about because people were fed up. What I got out of it was that people were outraged, tired, hurt.

So people obviously, because of their frustration, they had to lash out at people. And they lashed out at the leadership in this city, across the board. And I understand that. And I understand their frustration.

'Ready for something significant'

Peter Scharf
University of New Orleans
You've got to translate real sentiment... into politics and strategy. When Ray Nagin said, "You know, everybody's going to be safe in New Orleans, we will," you know, "reduce homicide, we will make this a thing of the past," he's got to do that.

SAUNDRA REED, Central City Renaissance Alliance: They got it. They got it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Organizer Saundra Reed thinks the city's leaders heard the message.

SAUNDRA REED: They actually got a chance -- they, the officials, the constabulary, all those folks -- got a chance to hear and see what residents and neighbors have been thinking and saying in closed quarters. And they got it in such a way that it was unavoidably clear, even painfully clear, that we were ready for something very, very significant to happen.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the days leading up to the march, Police Superintendent Riley and Mayor Ray Nagin said they would put more police on the streets, create additional drug and alcohol check points, process homicide cases more quickly, install more crime cameras, and support more neighborhood watch groups.

And criminologist Peter Scharf says city fathers had better keep their promises.

PETER SCHARF, University of New Orleans: You've got to translate real sentiment, values, into politics and strategy. When Ray Nagin said, "You know, everybody's going to be safe in New Orleans, we will," you know, "reduce homicide, we will make this a thing of the past," he's got to do that.

A community policing program

Warren Riley
New Orleans Police Superintendent
We have officers on foot every day now in the community... we hope to establish those personal relationships to, help rebuild the confidence, because, right now, a lot of citizens do not have a lot of confidence in the police department.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Riley says one promise he intends to keep is to implement a community policing program.

WARREN RILEY: We have officers on foot every day now in the community. They're knocking on doors; they're meeting and greeting people.

And we hope to establish those personal relationships to, one, help rebuild the confidence, because, right now, a lot of citizens do not have a lot of confidence in the police department. We want them to build that confidence.

And if it has to be a one-on-one basis, if those citizens won't call 911, we want them to call Officer John Brown, who they have gotten to know, and they now believe in, and they have faith in.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The chairman of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Rafael Goyeneche, says that kind of policing will be welcomed in Central City, considered the most dangerous neighborhood in the city.

When the crime commission recently surveyed the area, police got low marks. Only 51 percent of the people responding to the survey felt the department acted professionally; 43 percent felt police were trustworthy; and only 38 percent thought the police department did a good job preventing crime.

RAFAEL GOYENECHE, Metropolitan Crime Commission: What that tells me is the public wants more police. They just want better police officers. They want police officers that they can trust. They want police officers that are respectful and professional to them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the realities post-Katrina are these: The police department has lost more than 400 officers, 208 last year alone.

Riley is pulling every available resource he can, with a budget that is limited by a city with a smaller tax base. And he says there is only so much money to go around.

WARREN RILEY: As bad as Katrina was, I believe we all thought things would get better. And what we're beginning to see is it isn't. And things are not where we would like them to be in the aftermath of Katrina.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the public doesn't want to hear that.

WARREN RILEY: No, the public doesn't want to hear that, but the truth is what it is. But I do understand their frustration. When you're in the leadership in the city and you really know the intricacies, the failures of us getting the support that we're supposed to have, it's frustrating for us, as well. But as leaders, we can't lash out.

Getting everyone involved

Rafael Goyeneche
Metropolitan Crime Commission
People that were more interested in maybe trying to decide, you know, whether they were going to go to the country club... now they want to get involved in court watching. Now they want to learn about, you know, the police department.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Riley says, 18 months after Katrina, the police should not still be working and living in trailers. He says FEMA still cannot give the department a date when his officers will be working from permanent housing.

Pastor Raphael also thinks the police can't be expected to do everything on their own.

JOHN RAPHAEL: It's a hard thing in that I think we do have to work to build this, the right kind of attitude between the police department and the community, but we cannot say that, in the meantime, we're going to accept street justice as the right thing to do while you're trying to get that right in the police department.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And he says a way must be found to address the kind of despair expressed to him by a mother whose son was murdered just days after the march.

JOHN RAPHAEL: And I hear her saying that the police can't stop it, and the city can't stop it, and even the federal government can't stop it. It's not going to stop until they've all killed one another out here on the streets.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Goyeneche says he thinks the public is beginning to step up to the plate.

RAFAEL GOYENECHE: I'm hearing that people that never, ever thought of getting involved in a cause like this are ready to sign up, "Put me to work, tell me where to be, I'll be there."

People that were more interested in maybe trying to decide, you know, whether they were going to go to the country club or, you know, go out to dinner at Brennan's, now they want to get involved in court watching. Now they want to learn about, you know, the police department. So I think that that is a healthy sign for this community.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Within the next six weeks, the courts, the city council, the police, and just about every civic organization in New Orleans is expected to make their ideas public on what can be done, even with limited resources, to make the streets of the city safe once again.