New Orleans Police See Signs of Increased Crime

An increase in drug busts and murders has people in New Orleans worried about the return of crime to the city. Police admit they're concerned that, while old criminals are gone, there may be new ones who see an opportunity to penetrate a drug market abandoned after Hurricane Katrina.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Two weeks after Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin famously pointed out that the hurricane had a silver lining.

Mr. RAY NAGIN (Mayor, New Orleans): As far as security is concerned, this city, for the first time that anyone can probably imagine, is drug free and violence free.

MONTAGNE: In fact, the winter months were remarkably crime free in the Crescent City; but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports from New Orleans, the lull may be ending.

MARTIN KASTE, reporting:

This is Frenchman Street in the near Maronie(ph), a neighborhood just outside the French Quarter that specializes in sort of a grungy bar scene. It was always considered a little sketchy to come here late at night, at least before the storms. After the storms, it had something of a renaissance when people would come and go late at night without concern for their personal safety. But now, seven months after Katrina, that sense of safety seems to be slipping away again.

Mr. ARCH ABRAMS(ph) (New Orleans Resident): A friend of mine got shot to death the other day.

KASTE: Arch Abrams points out the corner where a mugging turned into murder last Sunday. That was just one of the weekend's three murders, a rash of killings that would have hardly been noticed in the old days, but now, in the so-called New New Orleans, it gives residents chills.

Ms. PENNY (Waitress, New Orleans): It's getting a little bit creepier, like maybe I should be more on guard late at night when I come home from work.

KASTE: Penny works as a waitress in a Bourbon Street strip club. She doesn't want her last name used because she's afraid of drug dealers, especially certain ones, she says, have made heroin easier to come by.

Ms. PENNY: I don't know, a lot more of the dancers that I worked with at a club this spring, they weren't as loaded as they are now.

KASTE: In the luxury hotel that served as a police department's temporary headquarters, Superintendent Warren Riley plays down the growing fears.

Mr. WARREN RILEY (Superintendent, Police Department, New Orleans): We do not believe that it's a trend line. I think we had a bad weekend.

KASTE: Riley links the recent killings to the fact that certain criminal elements came home for Mardi Gras, and then stayed on, but there's also worry about new criminals moving it. The FBI special agent in charge in Orleans is Jim Bernazanni.

Mr. JIM BERNAZANNI (FBI Special Agent, New Orleans): Before Katrina, the criminal element was so entrenched the outside organizations and gangs were not successful in establishing a presence. Post-Katrina, we are concerned that there may be some non-traditional organized crime groups that may think that the infrastructure is fractured and try to establish a presence.

KASTE: Bernazanni points to the recent bust of an alleged Asian drug gang, which he says was trying to set up shop in flood-devastated east New Orleans. Still, the police department is primarily focused on keeping the old guard of criminals from settling back into their old habits. The police are constantly tracking the whereabouts of 117 of the worst of them. The head of the department's brand new Intelligence Unit, Jimmy Scott, says getting this information is easier now because returning residents have become less tolerant of crime.

Mr. JIMMY SCOTT (Head of Police Intelligence Unit, New Orleans): They might not have called the police before, but they'll call the police right now for the slightest inclination that someone is dealing drugs out there because they're back, they don't want it like it was before, they want action.

KASTE: Scott admits that there's been an up tick in homicides and drug arrests, but he insists that, overall, violent crime is holding steady at historically low levels. Rafael Goyeneche heads the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local private watchdog group. He says the city's residents are telling his organization that violent crime is getting worse.

Mr. RAFAEL GOYENECHE (Head, Metropolitan Crime Commission, New Orleans): Not anywhere near what it was pre-Katrina, but I think crime is increasing to the point that it is noticeable by the people that reside here, and I base that on my observations, and I base that on the calls that we receive in this organization from citizens expressing concern.

KASTE: Plain numbers confirm that this is no longer the violence-free city that Mayor Nagin looked forward to after the storm. There have been 15 murders since January. If the murders continue at this pace for the rest of the year, the city's annual homicide rate will be three times worse than Miami's and 10 times worse than that of New York. New Orleans is safer than it used to be, but is still a lot more dangerous than most American cities.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

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