Crime Increases in New Orleans as the City Recovers from Hurricane Katrina

June 26, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: In the days after Katrina, people got used to seeing the National Guard everywhere.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: If you all see anything, just give us a call. Or stop us, whatever.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But now the Guard is back, 300 strong, in an unprecedented effort to help the city’s police department fight a crime wave that has hit New Orleans at a time when less than half of its residents have returned.

Over the weekend, Guard units fanned out deep into neighborhoods where there are few residents, but many reports of looting, at least 1,500 in recent months. Especially hard hit have been contractors like Brad Fuselier.

BRAD FUSELIER, Contractor: When we first started out here, five months ago, six months ago, you didn’t see nobody. And, I mean, all the contractors was telling me about them stealing out the back of your trucks while they was working in the houses.

COL. STEVE DABADIE, Louisiana National Guard: And the force will be the looking at the cop stats every week…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Colonel Steve Dabadie commands the Guard force in New Orleans.

COL. STEVE DABADIE: We want the criminal element to know that we are here, that we’re present, and if they think about stealing or looting, in all likelihood, they’re going to get caught, they’re going to get arrested, and they’re going to go to jail.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it wasn’t just looting that led city fathers to ask Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to call out the Guard; it was what happened in this neighborhood, called Central City, on June 17th.

WDSU-TV CORRESPONDENT: A deadly morning here in the city of New Orleans, as five teenagers are gunned down in what police are calling a gangland-style shooting.

TRYMAINE LEE, TIMES-PICAYUNE: … been the scene of a lot of serious shootings. You’ve had some serious…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Times-Picayune crime reporter Trymaine Lee said residents were horrified by the especially brutal killings.

TRYMAINE LEE: It was just such a bloody episode, it was the bloodiest episode we’ve had in New Orleans in over 10 years. And five at one time, I think, was pretty shocking.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mayor Ray Nagin and City Council President Oliver Thomas immediately called a news conference.

OLIVER THOMAS, New Orleans City Council President: If we don’t have wind knocking us down, we have people, murderers shooting us down, and that is unacceptable.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Governor Blanco was quick to respond with Guards and 60 state troopers.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), Louisiana: Let me be clear: Louisiana will not tolerate thugs, gangsters and criminals destroying the gains that are under way.


The epidemic of criminals returning


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Once the city with the highest murder rate in the country, in the early days post-Katrina, New Orleans had been on a honeymoon from crime. City officials hoped the flood waters had also washed away drug dealers and gangs for good.

But in recent months, violent crime has doubled; there have been 55 murders so far this year, giving the city one of the nation's highest murder rates per capita.

This has placed New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley in the middle of a storm of his own, trying to defend his department against criticism that his officers are unable to protect even a smaller city from criminals.

WARREN RILEY, Superintendent, New Orleans Police Department: We brought the National Guard in not because anything was out of control; we brought them in as a sound strategy to focus on those desolate areas, where very few people are living, to protect those citizens, to also to be our eyes and ears, and to be a deterrent to people who go in and loot.

OLIVER THOMAS: How you doing today?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Orleans Council President Oliver Thomas said the city had no choice but to call out the Guard.

OLIVER THOMAS: What wouldn't you do to save lives? Is there certain places you wouldn't go? Is there resources you wouldn't call upon? Are there things you wouldn't do to save a child's life?

Well, let me say this: If I could have deputized King Kong and Godzilla to walk around this city so that children could be safe, I'd do it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The number of New Orleans police is at its lowest in years: 1,376. Before Katrina, the force was at about 1,700.

After the storm, some officers were fired for desertion; others were let go on corruption charges; and more than 100 are still on sick leave. Criminologist Peter Scharf says the city's police problem is more than a numbers game.

PETER SCHARF, University of New Orleans: It's the perfect storm. You have a disabled criminal justice system because of the flood. You're also in fiscal crisis colliding with an epidemic of returning criminals.

And that's the scary part of it. It's your testing both the strength of the epidemic of the people coming back and also a compromised system whose ability to respond to this epidemic is uncertain.

TONY MITCHELL, New Orleans Police Officer: This area right here where we're at right now is our hot spot.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Orleans police officer Tony Mitchell is glad to see the Guard in town, because it gives uniformed officers like himself more time to patrol violent crime areas like Central City, where the five teenagers were murdered.

TONY MITCHELL: There are a large number of drug dealers who are right there in that area. Most of the killings are in retaliation and also trying to re-establish a business that they had before the storm.

Refocusing police efforts


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most of the 60 state police called in are patrolling the French Quarter, where the tourist business is improving daily. Police have also imposed a curfew on anyone under the age of 17, and some youngsters who live in high crime areas complain they're being unfairly targeted by police.

Kendell (ph) and Jeffrey Vannor are brothers who live in Central City and say they were friends of the five boys who were murdered.

JEFFREY VANNOR, New Orleans Resident: We haven't been doing nothing, but they have been harassing us. I got arrested twice. Well, this made the third time yesterday that I've been arrested in front of my house. You know, I know they're doing their job, but I'm getting arrested too many times.


JEFFREY VANNOR: For nothing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Neighborhood activist Xochitl Bervera says the National Guard will not bring any change to a police department with a long-standing reputation for corruption and letting criminals get away.

XOCHITL BERVERA, Safe Streets, Strong Communities: We have, here in New Orleans, 85 percent of arrests are made for misdemeanors, are non-violent offenses; 67 percent of convictions are for simple drug possession; 5 percent of the convictions are for violent crimes.

So if you look at our statistics, what you see is a New Orleans Police Department that is focused very much on harassing the larger community, on pulling people in on minor offenses, and meanwhile the serious violent crime has gone unaddressed.

Poverty and crime persist


WARREN RILEY: According to the best of my ability...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Superintendent Riley says part of the problem is a criminal justice system that didn't function well before Katrina, and still hasn't improved since the storm.

WARREN RILEY: We're working very diligently to get this criminal justice system to the level that puts that fear in our criminal element that they know there's serious consequences to be suffered, and not to the point where you get arrested and may have to go to jail a year from -- go to court a year from now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The constant popping of gunfire on the firing range at the shooters club in Metairie is symptomatic of what club owner Michael Mayer says is going on with sales: They're up. Mayer says his customers have lost faith in the police department and are arming themselves.

MICHAEL MAYER, Gun Shop Owner: You get on the phone, and you call them, and more than likely they're not going to come anytime soon. So, if they need help for some reason, help's not around the corner, help may take minutes or possibly half an hour to come to you, so they have to actually find the means to protect themselves.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He says many of the first-time gun owners at his shooters club in Metairie are women who attend firearm safety courses like this one.

FIREARM SAFETY INSTRUCTOR: ... but if you're under attack, if someone is threatening your life, you want them to stop. That's your mind set. The best way to do that is to create as much trauma as you can to get them to stop the aggression.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even before Katrina, New Orleans was a city with massive problems, problems reporter Lee says are still there.

TRYMAINE LEE: There are so many different dynamics at work in this city, going from the police department understaffed, the poverty we have, the educational system, the health care system.

You have the kids who aren't in school, again, they're walking the streets. And you're still dealing with the issues that Katrina didn't change are is the poverty. There will be violence, because there will always be that battle for money, to eat and survive, and things have been made much more worse, that much worse since Katrina.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But over this first weekend, with the National Guard out in force, police officials said they were pleased: no murders, no major crimes. As one spokesman put it, "This is absolutely what we need."