Sgt. Miro Brekalo talks with residents in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood, as other officers walk their beat. Their goal isn't only to stop crime; it's also to connect with citizens who are often reluctant to report crimes.
Sgt. Miro Brekalo talks with residents in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood, as other officers walk their beat. Their goal isn't only to stop crime; it's also to connect with citizens who are often reluctant to report crimes. Debbie Elliott/NPR
New Orleans now has the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Most of the killings are concentrated in the city's poorest neighborhoods — places like Central City, just a few blocks north of the stately mansions that line St. Charles Avenue.
The city's mayor is launching a new program aimed at cracking what he describes as a deeply rooted culture of violence. But victims complain that a failed criminal justice system has left the streets to vigilante justice, with innocent residents caught in the crossfire.
A Wounded Neighborhood
On a recent morning in Central City, James Robinson is out for his usual stroll when he notices that the corner benches, where he often takes a rest, are missing.
"They tore the benches down, huh?" he asks neighbor Theresa Elloie. She says it's a blessing that the police cleared the benches out; they had become a hotbed for drug deals.
Robinson, 73, says the crime here is worse than he can remember.
"Every time you look up, it's a killing," he says. "It wasn't no killing up this way too much — not around here. But it's happening here now. Sit on the porch, you gettin' shot."
Theresa Elloie is fighting to keep open her Sportsman's Corner bar, where two murders were recently committed outside. Her father opened the bar in the 1960s.
Theresa Elloie is fighting to keep open her Sportsman's Corner bar, where two murders were recently committed outside. Her father opened the bar in the 1960s. Debbie Elliott/NPR
Robinson is referring to a May shooting, when gunmen opened fire at a child's birthday party. Their bullets killed a 5-year-old girl at the party and a young mother who had been driving nearby.
Robinson has lost hope that the bloodletting will end. But Elloie is fighting to keep the corner bar her father opened in the 1960s.
The neighborhood is so dangerous that she takes her 7-year-old grandson to City Park to ride his bike, and she keeps a close watch on the bar.
Out front on a recent morning, she points out the problem.
"See, little guy right here, looking for drugs — as we speak," Elloie says, shaking her head.
There have been two recent murders outside her bar, so Elloie is trying to get corporate support to install surveillance cameras along the street. She says the neighbors are afraid to report crimes, but video evidence can help catch criminals.
Elloie says the killings are becoming more predictable.
"It's like, you shoot my friend today; I'm gonna shoot your friend tomorrow," she says. "You shoot my brother; I'm gonna shoot your mama. It's a cycle that just is not stopping."
A 'Cultural Problem' Of Violence
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu plops a 5-inch-thick notebook on his desk. It contains details on each of the city's 199 murders last year.
In 2012, there have already been nearly 90 killings.
"This is a deeply seated cultural problem," Landrieu says. "Some people have learned how to settle their differences that otherwise used to be settled though nasty words, or a fistfight, by the use of a gun that results in an immediate death."
Landrieu recently launched a new initiative called "NOLA for Life." It combines stepped-up law enforcement with intervention programs that have been used in other cities — for instance, the Cease Fire model that attempts to cool retaliation killings.
The mayor is also turning to the U.S. Justice Department for help, using task forces of federal agents to target high-crime areas like Central City.
"The first thing is, stop the shooting," he says. "The second thing is, make sure you spend a lot of money on prevention."
Landrieu is not the first mayor of New Orleans to tout a new approach to quell the city's violence. And that has some residents weary.
"Every time it's a real violent situation here, another plan comes out," says Tamara Jackson, a victims' advocate. "We've been getting a number of plans, forever and a day — and it's just not working."
Third District Commander John Thomas urges residents the Gentilly neighborhood to help fight crime and drug violence.
Third District Commander John Thomas urges residents the Gentilly neighborhood to help fight crime and drug violence. Debbie Elliott/NPR
Jackson's father was murdered in 2000. Now she's the director of Silence Is Violence, a group that helps crime victims navigate the criminal justice system. She says the system is so broken that victims are hesitant to cooperate with authorities.
"Many of our political figures and police officers are in the news themselves. That stigmatizes a community," Jackson says. She says people are often reluctant to cooperate because they see that city officials and police officers are often in trouble.
"We try to encourage folks," she says. "We still have to do what's right, in spite of living in a corrupt city."
The Justice Department has found a long-standing pattern of corruption and unconstitutional behavior by the New Orleans Police Department. The result of that culture, Jackson says, is a vigilante justice system on the streets.
"Folks feel like, 'It's easier for me and my family to look for the perpetrator, to figure out what has happened, and get our own justice, and we'll be at peace,' " Jackson says. "But that's not the answer, either."
To help repair residents' broken trust, New Orleans police officers are spending more time walking their beats — not to hunt for criminals, but to connect with the neighbors.
In the city's Gentilly area, 3rd District Cmdr. John Thomas is out walking on a recent Friday evening. He introduces himself to two women on the front porch of a duplex and encourages them to call the anonymous Crimestoppers line if they see any trouble.
"Truth of the matter is, we can't do it by ourselves, as law enforcement," Thomas tells them. "We need y'all. But we don't want to put y'all in harm's way, either."
Ms. Earline, who prefers not to give her last name, tells the commander she's tried to get police to respond.
"I've reported it to the city," she says. "From this corner to the next corner, about 8 or 9 o'clock at night? It's drug headquarters."
"OK," Thomas says. "Well, I know it now."
Giving Youths Options, And Responsibility
Along with the added police patrols, the city is putting more resources into youth recreation programs, like the pool and playground in Central City where Jerome Temple works. He's better known as DJ Jubilee, a popular hip-hop artist. But he dedicates his days to coaching vulnerable 13- and 14-year-olds in basketball.
Temple agrees that the system has failed, but he thinks the only way to stop the violence is to hold kids accountable.
"I'm tired of 'em putting the blame on everybody except the people who are doing the crime," he says.
Temple says that everyone knows the police have failed and that single-parent homes are a problem. "But it's you out there making that decision," he says. "How many kids don't know a gun is wrong? How many kids don't know selling drugs is wrong?"
Jerome Temple works with New Orleans youth who are vulnerable to street crime. He says the only way to stop the violence is to hold kids accountable for bad choices. "How many kids don't know a gun is wrong?" he asks.
Jerome Temple works with New Orleans youth who are vulnerable to street crime. He says the only way to stop the violence is to hold kids accountable for bad choices. "How many kids don't know a gun is wrong?" he asks. Debbie Elliott/NPR
Temple, 46, grew up in a violent housing project, but he says the climate is even harsher for kids coming up today.
"Everybody gets a gun," he says. "Everybody wants to shoot."
He traces the trend to the late '80s, when crack hit the scene and loosely structured gangs started forming to protect their turf. If one group gets busted, he says, another, usually younger, group is waiting in the wings. It's a rite of passage of sorts, Temple says.
"I have seen kids ... gradually waiting on their turn to make that billboard," he says, "gradually waiting their turn to be on the Most Wanted list."
The challenge for New Orleans is how to break that deadly cycle.