Houston Examines Post-Katrina Spike in Violent Crime

Police in Houston late last year noticed an increase in homicides. At the time, they downplayed the potential role of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Now, the Houston Police Department says hurricane survivors were at least partly responsible for the spike in violence.

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Late last year, police in Houston, Texas noticed an increase in homicides. It came at the same time the city was filling with evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, though police downplayed any connection then. Now, the Houston Police Department says hurricane survivors were at least partly responsible.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

It's a chilly night in Houston. Bobby Davis is hanging out with a friend in the parking lot of the Step N' Go convenience store. He's an imposing guy with gold teeth and a do rag on his head.

Mr. BOBBY DAVIS (Former New Orleans Resident, Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): And it was right from where here that all the water flooded out from the levee (unintelligible) my area (unintelligible) downtown New Orleans.

SHAPIRO: Davis evacuated from New Orleans to the Houston Astrodome five months ago. He's been living in an apartment here ever since. Now he feels like he's outstayed his welcome.

Mr. DAVIS: I look at it like this here. They just, they don't like us, plain and simple, you know. It ain't no beef or nothin', but they just don't like us.

SHAPIRO: He says locals in the neighborhood assume that he and his friends are criminals and they want the evacuees out. Davis would love to oblige.

Mr. DAVIS: I wanna go home. I wanna go home cause it's, I can't get no job. I can't find no, I can't do nothin'. The only thing I do every day is stay inside, every day, all day.

SHAPIRO: Many Katrina evacuees tell the same story of hostile neighborhoods with no job prospects and no sense of home. The other side of the story comes from people who lived and worked in this part of Houston before the evacuees arrived. Moses Williams(ph) is a security guard at the Sharpstown Mall just around the corner from the Step N' Go convenience store.

Mr. MOSES WILLIAMS (Security Guard, Sharpstown Mall): Honestly the attitude of the Katrina evacuees down to (unintelligible) especially in the mall has been unbearable. That their attitude is kind of lumped up with a lot of violence. Shoplifting has been part of (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: He says in December, hardly a day went by without an arrest at the mall.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Ninety-five percent of them are (unintelligible) from Louisiana.

SHAPIRO: Locals report more crime across the board, from shootings to petty theft. Jack Coleman is a cashier at the Shop-N-Carry food store.

Mr. JACK COLEMAN (Cashier, Shop-N-Carry Grocery, Houston, Texas): They been stealing a lot of things.

SHAPIRO: He describes the difference between locals and evacuees as the locals care if you see them stealing, the evacuees don't.

Mr. COLEMAN: Even though we say like, you can't come in the store, they be like, cursing us out and stuff like that, you know what I'm saying. It seems like they don't really care about anything.

SHAPIRO: He also perceives an age element to the problem.

Mr. COLEMAN: What I'm talking about here is, like, kids basically. Kids are like, really like, undisciplined. That's what I would say. But, like, elderly people, they try to act really nice.

SHAPIRO: The police noticed a jump in crime after the evacuees arrived. Homicide spiked in September and the following months. The Houston Police Department says a fifth of those killings involved Katrina evacuees. In some cases, evacuees were both victim and suspect. In others, the crime involved a Houston local. Houston's mayor downplayed the role of the evacuees in these crimes. He said violence was on its way up before the flood and he said anytime a city suddenly gets 100,000 new residents without proportionate growth in the police force, you'll see a spike in crime.

(Soundbite of police radio)

SHAPIRO: Police are now trying to counter the increase in violence with more officers on the street. So, officer Steven Hamala(ph) is working an overtime shift tonight.

Officer STEVEN HAMALA (Houston Police Department): During the daytime you can see our normal residents here compared to the people from the hurricane evacuees. They just stand out. They dress differently. They act differently, different hairstyle, different choice of clothes. It's almost pretty clear-cut.

SHAPIRO: Houston's created neighborhood enforcement team task forces to address the jump in crime. The city has asked FEMA to cover the $6.5 million police overtime bill. FEMA is still considering the request. Officer Hamala says even the most routine police activities go differently when Katrina evacuees are involved.

Officer HAMALA: It could be something as simple as just the attitude of, you know, why are you stopping me? What do you want? I don't know what the reasoning is. I don't if it's just how their experience is with law enforcement there where they come from is that much different than here.

Ms. DOROTHY STOKES(ph) (Former New Orleans Resident, Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): That's means some of the New Orleans people, that's not all of the New Orleans people. The people they had ran into probably are not being proper guests.

SHAPIRO: Dorothy Stokes is a Katrina evacuee and she resents the behavior of a few people who she says are ruining the reputation of all the flood survivors.

Ms. STOKES: All New Orleans peoples not like that, but they livin' a different lifestyle. Houston people is quiet and conservative and they work and go on and do what they have to do to survive. These (unintelligible) here, they think the world owed them something, you know, like my hand is out. I gotta get mine. I mean, I gotta get mine, they gonna take yours. You understand where I'm comin' from?

SHAPIRO: Evacuees arrived in Houston with a stigma. New Orleans has one of the highest murder rates in the country. Evacuee and community activist, Vincent Wilson, says using that statistic to pin the crime surge on Katrina survivors, is unfair.

Mr. VINCENT WILSON (Former New Orleans Resident, Katrina Evacuee, Housing Contractor, Community Activist): Are you saying that the whole 100,000 from New Orleans were all criminal element? That's disrespectful. We're hard workers, taxpaying citizens like everyone else. You know, granted, everyone has dirty laundry, you know, I mean, no one's exempt from that.

SHAPIRO: But law enforcement groups were not surprised to see that Houston had a spike in crime. New Orleans' FBI office sent out a memo just after Katrina hit. It warned cities like Houston to look out for criminals who may have escaped the flooded city. James Bernazzani is the FBI's Special Agent in charge of Louisiana.

Mr. JAMES BERNAZZANI (FBI Special Agent in Charge of Louisiana): You had a culture that was ingrained and it was spiraling down. The storm shattered that culture and what you have instead of a centralized environment for which these criminals operated within, you now had a shattered environment that was spread amongst various parts of the country to include Houston, Texas.

SHAPIRO: For people who study criminals and criminal behavior, the Katrina disaster is an ideal laboratory.

Dr. PETER SCHARF (Executive Director, Center for Society, Law and Justice, University of New Orleans): There's a law in all social sciences. If you want to study something, change it. We've changed this.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Peter Scharf is Executive Director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at the University of New Orleans.

Dr. SCHARF: We took these groups, you know, we looked at the statics, you know, you know, they're living in apartment 4D and dealing with the guys down the block and now you move them 400 miles or 800 miles, what really happens?

SHAPIRO: Scharf says the answer could be that crime drops.

Dr. SCHARF: We should have had about a 110 murders since the hurricane.

SHAPIRO: That's based on New Orleans pre-Katrina murder statistics.

Dr. SCHARF: And Houston's reporting 23 and they were scattering somewhere else. It could have been the opposite of what the conventional wisdom is and, in fact, we've seen the great crime reduction experiment, Hurricane Katrina.

SHAPIRO: Scharf is applying for grant money to figure out what's really going on. He wants to know what happens when different criminal groups intersect, how criminal behavior changes when people are thrown into new cities and perhaps most importantly, what law enforcement officials can do to keep crime rates down after a natural disaster like Katrina.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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