Crime Wave Surfaces in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Crime has returned to New Orleans with a vengeance. Younger criminals, fighting turf and drug wars, are more violent than before. Police lack equipment to catch them. And arrests often achieve little due to an overtaxed criminal justice system.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is experiencing a serious crime wave and it's threatening to keep businesses, residents, and tourists from returning, exactly what city officials did not want to happen. Just a few months ago, the city was enjoying its lowest crime rate in decades. But now shootings, theft and murder are on the rise, and New Orleans Police Department is struggling to keep up.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

When it comes to crime in New Orleans these days, Pam Dashiell has one word to describe it.

Ms. PAM DASHIELL: It's horrifying. It's really horrifying.

SULLIVAN: Deskill is one of the people who left New Orleans after the storm and has now returned to the Ninth Ward to rebuild her home. She and some of her neighbors were taking a break from a weekly community meeting that takes place in a gutted house on the block.

Ms. DASHIELL: Looting is just rampant and out of control.

Ms. MARNA DAVID: We have all been looted. I've had so many things stolen.

SULLIVAN: Marna David is a local artist trying to rehabilitate her home and the neighborhood of Holy Cross.

Ms. DAVID: Art work, irreplaceable things, you know.

SULLIVAN: This is after you came back and started renovating.

Ms. DAVID: Oh, all of our buildings, we've had shutters, we've had wrought iron work stolen right out - just right out from under us. People have had copper pipes, you know, re-plumb your house...

Ms. DASHIELL: A friend last week...

Ms. DAVID: Yeah.

Ms. DASHIELL: ...had her copper pipes taken.

Ms. DAVID: Yes. I...

Ms. DASHIELL: And two weeks before, it was her shutters.

Ms. DAVID: Yeah.

Ms. DASHIELL: So...

SULLIVAN: Crime has returned to New Orleans with a vengeance. Even though the city has lost half its population, there were just as many murders here last month as there were last July, before the storm. It's gotten so bad the National Guard has taken up night patrols in neighborhoods like this one. But so far, it hasn't helped.

Detective WINSTON HARVIN (Homicide): 4132 to 4133.

Unidentified Male #1: 4000 (unintelligible) on this channel?

SULLIVAN: Winston Harvin and his partner, Eddie Culmonaro(ph), are New Orleans homicide detectives. They spend most of their time in their car, driving from one crime scene to another.

Det. HARVIN: With the murder rate as it is, compared to the population, we obviously have more criminals than hard working individuals in the city.

SULLIVAN: As they drive the often desolate streets of some of the most devastated areas of New Orleans, Detective Harvin says they're facing a new kind of criminal.

Det. HARVIN: We're not talking about 30-year-old men. We're talking about teenagers and young 20-year-old males who are involved in this conflict. And killing someone to them is no greater than us stepping on a cockroach in our house. They don't fear us, they don't fear the justice system. It's just - it's not right from a society standpoint.

SULLIVAN: Much of the problem stems from a sudden flood of drug crime, as dealers battle it out for territory vacated by the storm. Six months after Katrina, this city had its lowest crime rate in decades.

A year after the storm, murders, assaults and shootings have all returned.

(Soundbite of car door opening)

SULLIVAN: Detectives Harvin and Culmonaro arrive at a house in the Algiers neighborhood.

(Soundbite of door slamming)

SULLIVAN: A woman is crying. Her 16-year-old daughter has been shot in the chest by her 17-year-old son.

(Soundbite of woman crying)

Unidentified Woman: He had a gun in the house (unintelligible)

SULLIVAN: As they make their way past the police tape, Sergeant Archie Kaufman(ph) feels them in. The brother has admitted to shooting his sister, and the police have found the weapon.

Sergeant ARCHIE KAUFMAN (NOPD): It's under the mattress. It's a .40 Glock.

Unidentified Male #2: .40 Glock?

Mr. KAUFFMAN: She's hit in the chest. They're working on her with (unintelligible)

Unidentified Male #3: (unintelligible)

Mr. KAUFFMAN: According to Harold and Mike she's still - she was still in the trauma room, or whatever they have for a trauma room.

SULLIVAN: In the past 48 hours, Harvin says the homicide units already had to manage a dead body found floating in the river, a fatal stabbing, a double murder suicide the night before, and what appeared to be human bones someone found in their yard.

Det. HARVIN: Your busy day is determined by the death of another individual.

Unidentified Male #4: Let's hope this one lives. Brother and sister, that's crazy.

Det. HARVIN: Well, it is for us.

Unidentified Male #4: Yeah.

Det. HARVIN: I understand that they said this may have not been the first time he's done this - to her.

Unidentified Male #4: It's unbelievable.

SULLIVAN: Just pass the flashing lights of the patrol cars, more than two dozen people have gathered behind the police tape. Some are pushing strollers. A group of little boys are chasing each other. Detective Harvin says this is not unusual.

Det. HARVIN: You have a scene where it is a murder, you're going to have tens if not hundreds of people outside. And the minute the body leaves, they leave.

Unidentified Male #5: Yeah.

Det. HARVIN: They just disappear.

SULLIVAN: With more violence and criminals on the street, people have been reluctant to step forward and help. Police say that's always been a problem here, but now it seems worse. For one thing, residents fear retribution, but police say there also seems to be more animosity toward officers since the storm.

That makes investigating crimes like this one even harder. And the department as a whole is already at a disadvantage. It's understaffed, with borrowed patrol cars, borrowed weapons, and police divisions scattered throughout the city in trailers.

Mr. JOE DELAREE(ph) (NOPD): There is no bathroom, there is no running water.

SULLIVAN: Joe Delaree a dozen other crime scene investigators have been packed into this one room trailer since the storm.

Mr. DELAREE: We've got one computer that's up that we can actually do our reports on, so we take turns, play musical chairs on the computer, or if you like maybe you'll go over to Kinkos and hang out at Kinkos doing sketches.

SULLIVAN: Delaree's sketches are intricate renditions of crime scenes that prosecutors depend on to make their cases.

You're sitting down drawing these things at Kinkos?

Mr. DELAREE: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Is there any hope in sight that this is a temporary thing? Or is this just...

Mr. DELAREE: Hopefully it's temporary. Because for a metropolitan city of this size, with the crime rate that we have, it would be incredibly asinine not to have a major crime lab.

Unidentified Male #6: What we found this afternoon, the body last night was found on the door steps?

Unidentified Male #7: Yes.

Unidentified Male #6: On Vincent.

Unidentified Male #7: Yes, yes, yes.

SULLIVAN: In another trailer, this one tucked behind the tennis courts in the city's largest park, Sergeant Archie Kaufman dispatches his detectives to handle the cities worse crimes, and what he sees these days disturbs him.

Sgt. KAUFMAN: We're actually seeing significantly more violent homicides. We're seeing a lot of victims with multiple gunshots as opposed to one gunshot and the perpetrator runs off. It's been significantly more volatile.

SULLIVAN: And there is something else.

Mr. KAUFFMAN: In fact were finding a lot of young kids came back from out of town without their parents.

SULLIVAN: Sergeant Kaufman says teens are living couch to couch in friends' houses, and without parental supervision, they're getting sucked into the city's new drug wars as dealers fight it out for the now open territory. He says the criminals who fled to nearby states after the storm have a good reason to come back now.

There is not much the justice system in New Orleans can do to prosecute offenders.

Mr. KAUFMAN: The Texas criminal justice system is pretty tough. And they're finding that if they do something get caught there, they are doing some time and maybe a good bit of time, as opposed to a little bit of time or no time at all in New Orleans right now.

Mr. RAPHAEL GORANETCHE(ph) (President of City Metropolitan Crime Commission): New Orleans is in a very precarious situation right now.

SULLIVAN: Raphael Goranetche is president of the city's Metropolitan Crime Commission. He says residents, businesses and tourists won't come back if the city cant get the crime problem under control. And without them, there is no tax base to pay for policing and prosecuting. Only a couple of criminal courts are operating right now, and the District Attorney's office is short almost 25 prosecutors.

Mr. RAPHAEL GORANETCHE: The most frustrating aspect of this is the fact that there is the revolving door in the criminal justice system. Cases just have not been able to processed through the system.

SULLIVAN: On top of all of that, the police have a manpower shortage. They lost 300 officers immediately after the storm. And every week more keep leaving. There is no complete tally, but almost 25 officers left the force just last month. And the department hasn't hired any new officers since last fall. That means in neighborhoods like New Orleans' Ninth Ward, residents will have to fend for themselves.

Ms. DAVID: Yesterday J.W. and I went out and bought a hand gun.

SULLIVAN: Marna David lingered on the porch outside the Ninth Ward community meeting. She says she and her husband, J.W., believe the police are doing the best they can with what they've got, but she says they got the gun because they no longer believe they can count on them.

Ms. DAVID: I have never, ever and I will be sixty in a minute, and I have never even held one. And we got it not just for personal protection, we got it because of slow police response. If we call in something, it's not so much that something bad will happen but how long it will take the police, if they'll come at all. You know, I don't feel like they will be out here much.

SULLIVAN: Marna David, like a lot of residents, says it's like living on a frontier. City and police officials are hoping law abiding residents will stake their claim before the criminals do.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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