In Post-Storm New Orleans, Murder Is a Fact of Life In New Orleans, violent crime is back in full force: The city's murder rate averages out to roughly a killing every other day. Meanwhile, the city's police still work without some basic tools of the job, under conditions unfathomable in any other major U.S. city.
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In Post-Storm New Orleans, Murder Is a Fact of Life

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In Post-Storm New Orleans, Murder Is a Fact of Life

In Post-Storm New Orleans, Murder Is a Fact of Life

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In New Orleans, violent crime is back in full force. There have already been close to 140 homicides in the city this year. That's much higher than the city's per capita murder rate before Katrina. And the law enforcement agencies that deal with violent crime are not yet functioning at full capacity.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: There are lots of cities in America where the National Night Out Against Crime passes unnoticed. Not New Orleans. Here, the murder rate average is out to roughly a killing every other day. So the National Night Out Against Crime a few weeks ago was like a burst of desperate energy all over the city. There were more than a dozen block parties. The mayor was scheduled to visit six of them. The chief of police made the rounds and so did the district attorney. While some New Orleans residents want him to resign over what they call a dismal record, he handed out glossy brochures touting the convictions he's won in court.

(Soundbite of people talking)

At Dillard University's party, New Orleans police officer Ed Perkins chatted with neighborhood residents, sweat pouring down his face. He's been an officer with the NOPD for 26 years. He tried to put the best spin on a crime problem that's been getting steadily worse.

Mr. ED PERKINS (Police Officer, New Orleans Police Department): So basically, this being our city, we're not going to let crime or any other hardship run us out of here. This was home before I became a police officer, and this is going to be home after I leave the police department.

SHAPIRO: But the fact is, many police officers are working under conditions that would be unfathomable in any other major American city.

Mr. PERKINS: Unfortunate that we still have a lot of district spaces, what we'd call here, that's operating out of trailers. That's one of the most unfortunate things. Still having to use Portalets. You know, I mean, the city on a whole is in dire need of help.

SHAPIRO: Two years after Katrina, the New Orleans Police Department still does not have a fully functioning crime lab. Officers are still using port-o-potties. And for some officers, even a fax machine is a far-off dream.

This is one of the things that infuriates James Bernazzani. He's the FBI special agent in charge of New Orleans office.

Mr. JAMES BERNAZZANI (Special Agent, FBI New Orleans): I was in this building, the FBI building, when it was destroyed. We rebuilt this building in eight months, and we're whole. The money is somewhere to rebuild NOPD headquarters. It's choked up somewhere. Damn it. Unchoke it. Get the thing done. The quality of professional life at NOPD is difficult enough without having to work in trailers.

SHAPIRO: Bernazzani does not blame the police department's leadership. He believes it's a purely bureaucratic money issue. And Bernazzani says the city needs a good law enforcement system almost as much as it needs anything else.

Mr. BERNAZZANI: Years ago, if I went after your girlfriend, you and I might have a schoolyard fight or something like that. That'll be it. It'll be over. Nowadays, these kids will shoot each other.

SHAPIRO: And the violence is not strictly limited to particular neighborhoods or times of day. That's something New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf knows well.

Dr. PETER SCHARF (Criminologist, University of New Orleans): Why do you want to talk about murder? Come on…

SHAPIRO: Scharf was eating a Sausage McMuffin at this McDonald's back in March, when a man waiting in line at the drive-through was shot in his car.

Dr. SCHARF: It's also the banality that it wasn't a big (bleep) deal, you know, that somebody got shot. The Sausage McMuffin is a little tangy, I guess.

SHAPIRO: Scharf says murder has become just one more thread in the fabric of daily life in New Orleans.

Dr. SCHARF: You know, schoolchildren walk around the crime scenes, and they walk around the body bags, you know.

SHAPIRO: Inside the building, nobody seems to know or much care that somebody was shot outside the window just a few months ago. Scharf says this is the new reality.

Dr. SCHARF: We used to think we had a Green Zone, like in Baghdad, you know, where you are safe, but the reality is that there is - probably, there is no Green Zone. You're not safe here.

SHAPIRO: That's been true in New Orleans since long before Katrina. But now, the city is trying to get people to return. Criminologist Scharf says murder could be the city's stumbling block.

Dr. SCHARF: If you don't fix the murder problem, none of the other systems are going to click in because you're not going to get the investment, you're not going to get the tourism, you're - the restaurants, the great restaurants in the city, in the Quarter and elsewhere, are not going to be able to stay in business.

SHAPIRO: Measuring the violence in New Orleans is a tricky business.

James Kean is a 30-year veteran of the New Orleans police force who retired last year as homicide commander. He says the city's raw number of murders is close to what it was before the storm. But much of the city's population has not returned, so the per capita rate is much higher.

Mr. JAMES KEAN (Retired Police Officer): So this isn't something that just happened overnight. It has been happening since the early '90s and is just escalating a little bit slowly but surely.

SHAPIRO: The theory is that the city's criminals have returned in greater numbers than the other citizens. The law-abiding citizens who have returned are trying not to let the bad guys win.

Ms. BATY LANDIS (Co-founder and Co-director, Silence Is Violence): I'm Baty Landis. I'm the cofounder and co-director of the Silence Is Violence, a campaign for peace in New Orleans.

SHAPIRO: When you ask Landis how long she's lived in New Orleans, she'll tell you the exact year her family arrived - 1759. She started Silence Is Violence after two of her friends were murdered. On this night, local teenagers have gathered for a poetry slam at the coffee house Landis owns.

Unidentified Woman: You don't have to murder someone or use a gun. You don't have to smoke weed with your friends just to say you had some fun. We are smart, young people, the creative ones.

SHAPIRO: Even having seen two of her friends shot, Landis decides to take an optimistic view of the situation.

Ms. LANDIS: The good news is that citizens have looked around and recognized, you know, we have to save the city. It's up to us. And if the city does, in fact, survive, then we'll be able to look back and feel very proud of what we accomplished.

SHAPIRO: Landis no longer assumes that the city will survive. But like tens of thousands of other people in New Orleans, she has decided not to give up on it yet.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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