In Post-Storm New Orleans, Murder Is a Fact of Life

There are many parts of New Orleans that have not fully rebounded from Hurricane Katrina. Violent crime, however, is back in full force: The city's murder rate averages out to roughly a killing every other day.

So when cities across America marked the National Night Out Against Crime a few weeks ago, residents across New Orleans embraced the event in a burst of desperate energy.

More than a dozen block parties were held across the city; Mayor Ray Nagin was scheduled to visit six of them. The chief of police made the rounds, as did Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan. Although some New Orleans residents want Jordan to resign over what they call a dismal record, he handed out glossy brochures touting the convictions he has won in court.

At Dillard University's party, New Orleans police officer Ed Perkins chatted with neighborhood residents, sweat pouring down his face. Perkins has been an officer with the NOPD for 26 years. He tried to put the best spin on a crime problem that has been getting steadily worse.

"We're not going to let crime or any other hardship run us out of here," Perkins said. "This was home before I became a police officer, and this is going to be home after I leave the police department."

Police Lack Basic Support Systems

But the fact is, two years after Katrina, many police officers are still working under conditions that would be unfathomable in any other major American city.

The Police Department still does not have a fully functioning crime lab. Officers are still working out of trailers and using portable toilet stalls; for some officers, even a fax machine is a far-off dream.

This is one of the things that infuriates James Bernazanni, the FBI special agent in charge of New Orleans.

"I was in this building, the FBI building, when it was destroyed," Bernazanni says. "We rebuilt this building in eight months, and we're whole. The money is somewhere to rebuild NOPD headquarters. It's choked up somewhere — damn it! Unchoke it."

Bernazanni does not blame the police department's leadership. He believes it's purely a bureaucratic money issue. And Bernazanni says the city needs a good law-enforcement system almost as much as it needs anything else.

'You're Not Safe Here'

"Years ago," Bernazanni says, "if I went after your girlfriend, you and I might have a schoolyard fight or something, and that was it, it'd be over. Nowadays, these kids will shoot each other."

The violence is not strictly limited to particular neighborhoods or times of day. That's something New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf knows well. He was eating a sausage McMuffin at a McDonalds back in March, when a man waiting in line at the drive-through was shot in his car.

Scharf says murder has become just one more thread in the fabric of daily life in New Orleans. "You know, schoolchildren walk around the crime scenes, and they walk around the body bags."

Inside the McDonalds, nobody seems to know, or care much, that somebody was shot just outside the window a few months ago. Scharf calls this the new reality.

"We used to think we had a green zone, like in Baghdad, where you were safe," Scharf says, "but the reality is that probably there is no green zone. You're not safe here."

That's been true in New Orleans since before Katrina. But now the city is trying to get people to return. Scharf says murder could be the city's stumbling block.

"If you don't fix the murder problem, none of the other systems are going to click in," Scharf predicts. "Because you're not going to get the investment, you're not going to get the tourism, the great restaurants in the city, in the [French] Quarter and elsewhere, are not going to be able to stay in business."

Measuring the violence in New Orleans is a tricky business. James Kean is a 30-year veteran of the New Orleans police force who retired last year as homicide commander. He says the city's raw number of murders is close to what it was before the storm. But much of the city's population hasn't returned, so the per capita rate is much higher.

"This isn't something that just happened overnight," Kean says. "It has been happening since the early '90s and is just escalating, slowly but surely."

Citizens Fighting Back

The theory is that the city's criminals have returned in greater numbers than other citizens. But the law-abiding citizens who have returned are trying not to let the bad guys win.

Baty Landis is co-founder and co-director of the community group "Silence Is Violence." When you ask how long she has lived in New Orleans, she'll tell you the exact year her family arrived: 1759.

Landis started Silence Is Violence after two of her friends were murdered. On this night, local teenagers have gathered for a poetry slam at the coffee house Landis owns.

One teenager shouts into the microphone, "You don't have to murder someone or use a gun. You don't have to smoke weed with your friends just to say you had some fun. We are smart, young people, the creator's ones."

Even having seen two of her friends shot, Landis decides to take an optimistic view of the situation.

"The good news is that citizens have looked around and recognized we have to save the city. It's up to us," Landis says. "And if the city does, in fact, survive, then we'll be able to look back and feel very proud of what we accomplished."

Landis no longer assumes that the city will survive. But like tens of thousands of other people in New Orleans, she has decided not to give up on it yet.

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