TOPICS > Politics

New Orleans Crime Wave Taxes Louisiana’s Police, National Guard

December 12, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans has a new class of police cadets: 41 men and women started 22 weeks of vigorous training last week. And from day one, some stark advice from the boss, Police Superintendent Warren Riley.

WARREN RILEY, Superintendent, New Orleans Police Department: You will be pushed to your limit in many cases, so you need to be mentally strong and determined, because if you do not really want to do this job, you won’t be here three weeks.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A lot is riding on this diverse group of men and women, people like 49-year-old recruit Terry Baham.

TERRY BAHAM, Police Recruit: I want to bring back my family, my three grandsons, everyone who’s displaced. And the only way I’ll be able to do that is to help make the city safer.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There is no question that crime has returned to New Orleans with a vengeance. This year alone, there have been 149 murders; that’s down 56 from last year. But the murders took place in a city with less than half of the population since the storm.

And what’s especially frightening is that murders, armed robberies and burglaries are taking place in areas where tourists frequent: the French Quarter, uptown, the Garden District. Police say much of the violence is caused by drug dealers who’ve returned to the city since Katrina and are now involved in turf wars.

But Superintendent Riley says the department is also seeing a new form of violence.

WARREN RILEY: Things are beginning to evolve so some of our murders are not so much criminals who are predators, but family members who just can’t deal with it anymore. And they can’t deal with their situation, they can’t deal with five people living in a 10-by-30-foot FEMA trailer anymore, and they can’t deal with being unemployed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Six homicides took place over the Thanksgiving weekend alone, one of them right in the middle of the French Quarter.

WARREN RILEY: We have unique challenges in the city of New Orleans, challenges that you all will have to face. We have a crime issue.

Hundreds leaving the police force

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The police department has lost hundreds of officers since Hurricane Katrina.

WARREN RILEY: We're a little bit shorthanded right now, but we're doing all that we can to get additional recruits here. We hope to start another class in 10 or 11 weeks.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pre-Katrina, there were 1,670 cops. Today, the official number is 1,425, with 100 of those on some kind of administrative or sick leave. The force is also dealing with attrition. Each month, about 17 officers leave.

SGT. DONOVAN LIVACCARI, Fraternal Order of Police: Their wife may have found a job or husband may have found a job elsewhere, and they may be much better off where they are now, and so, you know, you're faced with the decision about keeping your job or keeping your family.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sergeant Donovan Livaccari is the employee representative for the Fraternal Order of Police.

SGT. DONOVAN LIVACCARI: I think that some people are just plain frustrated, and they decide that it's time to look for something else to do. I think some people are just ready to retire.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Livaccari says morale has never been so low. Here at the city's third precinct, police still work out of double-wide trailers with no running water.

Before the Fraternal Order of Police put in these portable toilets, there were no facilities for the more than 60 people who work there each day.

Targeting the high-crime areas

POLICE OFFICER: How you all doing today? We're making some paths through the neighborhood, see how everybody's doing, see if you got any problems or anything.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: With fewer police, New Orleans has become more dependent on the Louisiana National Guard, which the governor ordered into the city in June to patrol less-populated areas; that meant Riley could put more of his officers in high-crime areas, like the city's sixth district, where he sent Captain Bob Bardy in March.

Bardy's job was to clean up the three-and-a-half-square-mile district that is home to everything from million-dollar antebellum homes to high-crime areas, like Zone F, where drugs and guns flowed freely.

CAPTAIN BOB BARDY, New Orleans Police Department: It was open air. It was open-air drug market. It was open-air shootings. It was the same names week after week after week, same families, same brothers, same house.

I mean, it was to the point where we had gotten information that they were preparing to kill a cop. And to further that information, we actually went in the alley where the guns were hidden, and we actually were able to confiscate the guns. And they were assault rifles.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So have you taken all those people off the street now?

CAPTAIN BOB BARDY: Yes, we have.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Community activist Ron Coleman grew up in the sixth district and is a big Bardy supporter.

RON COLEMAN, Community Activist: Crime is down. Crime is down.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How can you tell?

RON COLEMAN: Well, look around you. People are walking and stirring around. People were on the edge, getting their children out of school, going inside, but now people are feeling free to ride around and talking and moving around.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But everyone doesn't feel that way. Karen Akoh is so afraid of crime that she keeps her 15-year-old son inside after dark.

KAREN AKOH, Mother: Normally, by 5:00, 6:00, it starts getting dark, he's inside. He's inside.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even on Friday and Saturday?

KAREN AKOH: Even on Friday and Saturday, he's inside.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And that's it for the night?

KAREN AKOH: And that's it. That's it, unless we're going out together or I have, you know, a few of the kids that I'll take with us. But for the most part, inside.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Uncertainty over crime has kept other local residents, like sisters Gwen and Crystal Smith, from coming home. Since Katrina, they've been sharing an apartment in Dallas.

GWEN SMITH, Former New Orleans Resident: I would need more of a police presence in the area. I understand that not all of them can walk the beat because it's a large city, but now we have half the city size. I would think that, you know, just more police presence to get more of the neighbors involved.

People 'afraid of the police' too

NORRIS HENDERSON, Safe Streets/Strong Communities: My name is Norris Henderson.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Norris Henderson thinks there's too much aggressive police presence. Henderson is a twice-convicted second-degree murderer who has turned street activist and police reformer since his release in 2003.

He says, in high-crime neighborhoods where his organization, Safe Streets/Strong Communities, has taken surveys, people aren't just fearful of crime; they're afraid of the police.

NORRIS HENDERSON: People are fearful that things is going on around them, but they're more fearful that, if I engage the police in it, one, there's no confidentiality there, and they feel for that, if I tell the police something, that somehow that information is going to get back to the person I've told on, will put me in harm's way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Henderson also says police are doing racial profiling of people like Albert Parnell.

ALBERT PARNELL, New Orleans Resident: I mean, no crime have to be committed. You know, you have to do nothing; you just walk up the street.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what do they do?

ALBERT PARNELL: They just stop you, put you on the car, curse you out, knock on your head, whatever they feel like they want to do.

WARREN RILEY: Are we stopping people who are hanging out? Yes. When we have murders and we go into an area, and we have reason to believe that you may be involved in criminal activity, that you may have even been a witness, we're going to stop and we're going to talk to you.

Now, Safe Streets may not be happy about it, but the good-quality citizens in that community are happy about it. This is a job where we'll never ever make everyone happy, but we're going to do our jobs.

The next step for police forces

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The New Orleans Police Department is trying to buy time. It hopes to train and graduate 200 police officers over the next three years. But it also needs the 400 National Guard troops to stay beyond its December 31st deadline.

Guard Commander Colonel Steve Dabadie says his group is especially effective against property crimes.

What do they steal?

COL. STEVE DABADIE, Commander, Task Force Gator: You know, it's -- one of the big things is copper. Copper can be sold for a pretty good price right now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In a recent bust at this deserted high school in the Ninth Ward, the Guard arrested three men who were stealing copper pipes that can be sold for $3.50 a pound on the black market. Clearly, Superintendent Riley wants the Guard to stay.

WARREN RILEY: We're certainly going to encourage the governor to allow them to stay a little bit longer. We're certainly going to try and get them here, to keep them here another six months, if possible.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The superintendent has been successful in getting his police a recent pay raise. He's also launched a major billboard recruiting campaign.

The community's Police Foundation is also trying to help, recently by raising money for the department with the annual Walk the Beat campaign. And the city council may give Superintendent Riley more than $1 million to start a public relations campaign to improve the department's image.

JIM LEHRER: Since Betty Ann completed that report, Governor Kathleen Blanco announced she will order National Guard troops to remain in New Orleans beyond the end of the year. But she warned that neither the state nor the Guard could continue to assist with police and security duties indefinitely.