STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Some members of the National Guard are veterans of a different situation: they are still patrolling New Orleans. And last week they encountered a man who pointed what looked like a rifle. Only after Guardsmen shot and killed the man did they find his weapon was a BB gun. The man holding it was Terry Burton, whose family says he was mentally ill. That incident was a reminder of two things about New Orleans: crime has nearly everyone on edge, and Guard units are among those fighting it.
NPR's Greg Allen reports from New Orleans.
GREG ALLEN: Lieutenant Colonel Pete Schneider has been with the Louisiana National Guard for 22 years. He's sent Guard members to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. For this deployment he drives not a Humvee, but a black Chevy Suburban.
Lieutenant Colonel PETE SCHNEIDER (Louisiana National Guard): Somebody used the term we're occupying New Orleans. You know, that's not... We're not occupying New Orleans.
ALLEN: The 300 National Guard members currently in New Orleans are here at the request of the mayor and the city's police chief. Governor Kathleen Blank had dispatched the soldiers last June when the city saw a surge in violent crime, a problem that spiked again in January, drawing national headlines. Guard troops here like assignment - eating out on a per diem and sleeping at a New Orleans hotel clearly beats the accommodations in Afghanistan or Iraq. And Schneider says in these still-desolate New Orleans neighborhoods, Guard units feel welcome.
Lt. Col. SCHNEIDER: You know the only resentment that I've heard so far was after the last incident, which really brought reality of what's happening. And even after last week there's still a great concern that we're here, and there's a great concern - if we leave what will happen. Because even the chief said he's not ready yet for us to leave.
ALLEN: The Guard troops get their mission from New Orleans police commanders, patrolling big areas where law enforcement resources are thin: Lakeview, New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward. On Flood Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, Guard Members were already on the scene.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Unidentified Man (National Guard): How you doing today?
ALLEN: A Guard unit responded to a call from a police dispatcher about a possible attempted suicide. Resident David Ellis says as it turned out, his nephew may just have taken too many sleeping pills. Ellis has been back in this still mostly-abandoned neighborhood for four months, and has slept in his car while he tries to get his house livable again.
Mr. DAVID ELLIS (Resident, Lower Ninth Ward): I mean, it's peaceful because ain't too many people here, you know? But you've still got, you know, the ones doing the crime, you know?
ALLEN: Ellis says he's glad to see National Guard and police in the neighborhood, especially to chase off thieves who snatch whatever they can from abandoned houses.
Mr. ELLIS: They're stealing what's going to sell the quickest, you know, like copper, aluminum - number one.
ALLEN: Have you seen houses stripped in this neighborhood, or...?
Mr. ELLIS: Oh, man, look around, baby. All of them are stripped, to tell you the truth.
ALLEN: One of the main jobs for the National Guard in these neighborhoods is patrolling for unscrupulous contractors and scavengers. That's what National Guard troops thought Terry Burton was last week. They saw him riding a bike and carrying a hacksaw. When they approached him he fled to a vacant house. They followed him, and that's where the confrontation happened and Burton was killed.
Joseph Foucade is a private from Shreveport who is now on his second deployment to New Orleans. He likes the job and believes the Guard makes a big difference in these marginal neighborhoods. But he concedes it takes a toll on your nerves.
Private JOSEPH FOUCADE (Louisiana National Guard): Any time you come in confrontation with somebody, you never know what they've got on them or what they're doing. So your nerves is what you've got; it's what keeps you running. It's not so much fear as it is being concerned for your safety. Every time you come in contact with somebody you've got to have that concern for your safety.
ALLEN: Along with trespassing and property theft, truancy is a big problem. Guard units make the rounds looking for kids who should be in school. Foucade says because they're military, in many cases the Guard gets treated even better than the city police. In a desolate neighborhood like the Lower Ninth Ward, it's not unusual for residents to wave them down and offer them a cold drink.
Pvt. FOUCADE: Most of the people that want us here, like us being here. And the people that don't want us here, that's the ones causing the problems.
ALLEN: National Guard troops will be in New Orleans until at least the end of June. Then city and state officials will have to decide whether they still need the military, or whether police can take over patrolling streets, that in many neighborhoods, still feel like no-man's land.
Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.