New Orleans' Overall Crime Rate Has Fallen. Why Are People So Frustrated? Despite other gains, New Orleans' murder rate, which hit a 40-year low last year, is on the rise again and remains nearly quadruple that of other cities its size. Residents say police need to do more.
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New Orleans' Overall Crime Rate Has Fallen. Why Are People So Frustrated?

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New Orleans' Overall Crime Rate Has Fallen. Why Are People So Frustrated?

New Orleans' Overall Crime Rate Has Fallen. Why Are People So Frustrated?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ten years ago, in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters forced a mass evacuation of the city, upheaval and displacement that led to a surge in violent crime as people returned. Well, now, despite years of declining violence, New Orleans residents still say they haven't seen enough progress, and they're frustrated. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports. And a word of warning that there's language in this piece that some may find troubling.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: A smell of blood hangs in the air where 17-year-old Gerald Morgan was shot, as firefighters begin flushing down the sidewalk around the front door of a home. Police say at least two gunmen jumped out of a car, opened fire, ran near a two-story house and kept shooting, also hitting a 4-year-old boy inside. The teenager died at the hospital. The boy was listed in stable condition. A young woman, who only identified herself as Morgan's sister, was distraught.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My little brother was too good of an [expletive] child for him to be dead, too good of a child for my auntie house to be looking how it look, with all the [expletive] bullet holes in there, too good a family around here for my little cousin to be shot in his elbow.

CORLEY: Police have not offered a theory of the cause of last month's shooting in New Orleans East. But in her grief and anger, Morgan's sister promised to become a hitwoman to get justice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm so hurt deep down inside. I was not expecting for my brother to be dead. We ain't getting no justice.

CORLEY: According to a new NPR-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 64 percent - a majority of people who live in New Orleans - say that 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, there has been little to no progress in controlling crime. And less than half of the city's residents say they trust the police to do what's right for their community. Among African-Americans, even fewer do. Standing near the crime scene, sisters Tanelle Hearst and Francine Spears say the police must do more to keep young people alive in New Orleans.

TANELLE HEARST: If they need to hire more officers, hire more officers. If they need to spend more time on the street, spend more time on the street.

FRANCINE SPEARS: Stop - stop...

HEARST: But stop patrolling and making sure police is in the French Quarter. We don't need New Orleans police to protect the tourists. We need New Orleans police to protect us.

SPEARS: To protect us.

CORLEY: Despite those concerns, statistics show crime is down in New Orleans, and murder dropped for three straight years, starting in 2011. In 2014, the city's murder tally - at 150 - was the lowest it had been in more than 40 years. Police Superintendent Michael Harrison likes to think the decline came in part because of a program in New Orleans that pairs tough enforcement with social services like job training. It targets young men between 18 and 24. Even with that effort, New Orleans still has a murder rate that's almost four times the average for a city its size - and much higher than big cities like Chicago, New York and LA. By early July, murders hit triple digits, two months earlier than in recent years. Superintendent Harrison says that's not due to a rise in gang crime.

SUPERINTENDENT MICHAEL HARRISON: The increase is coming from domestic violence-related homicides, arguments between people that have turned fatal and robberies that have turned fatal.

CORLEY: Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Louisiana State University, says the shrinking New Orleans Police Department is a problem. About a third of the officers have left since 2010. Scharf says that may be due to officer dissatisfaction with federal consent decrees and their mandated reforms that grew out of probes of officers committing crimes during Hurricane Katrina. Scharf says one of the unintended consequences of the reforms is what he calls de-policing.

PETER SCHARF: Police sit in their cars and wait for something to happen. And with the manpower loss, in addition to the surveillance for the consent decree and the other groups, has resulted in a very cautious police department.

CORLEY: Superintendent Harrison disagrees. He says despite this year's spike in murders, the city's latest crime stats - showing a drop in overall crime - are proof there's no de-policing. He says the department is giving pay raises to retain officers and is training new recruits. Even so, the NPR-Kaiser poll shows there's been a decline across the board in the share of New Orleans residents who believe their neighborhood has enough police. In 2010, more than half - 58 percent - thought so. This year, that number is far less - at 44 percent. Meg Lousteau is the head of a neighborhood advocacy group in the historic French Quarter, the heart of the city's tourism industry. She says several crimes in the district in recent years have left residents and property owners shaken.

MEG LOUSTEAU: There was a shooting about a year-and-a-half ago, and a young nursing student was killed. There was a rash of violent attacks about a year ago that caused people to just really panic.

CORLEY: Especially business owners and city officials counting on tourism dollars. So New Orleans turned to the state police to help patrol the French Quarter. There have been privately-funded patrols, too, and there will soon be a vote on a sales tax to pay for more protection. Last month, there was another gunfight not far from the Quarter in New Orleans City Hall that astonished many in the city. It was a weekday, during the lunch hour, when several people with guns started shooting at each other. One had an AK-47 assault rifle.

DEBRA HUNTER: When they went to shoot them, everybody took a dive.

CORLEY: Debra Hunter was inside her house when the shooting began. Later, sitting outside near her front stoop with her daughter and grandchildren, she pointed to a car riddled with bullets.

HUNTER: Yeah, that's my car.

CORLEY: There's a bullet hole on the back of the car, on the door and your windshield.

HUNTER: Windshield - so my car all messed up. Might as well just stay laying on the floor because you get up, you might get shot.

CORLEY: No one died in that incident, and police Superintendent Harrison says arrests were quickly made. Harrison and others here say one of the biggest obstacles for New Orleans as it tries to combat crime is the city's culture of violence - a culture heightened, perhaps, by the trauma that came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the havoc it caused. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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