Crime Returns to the Big Easy

  • Share
  • Read Later

Police accompany President Bush on a visit to New Orleans earlier this month; they now face a growing crime problem

The New Orleans funeral procession that took place this past Sunday might have been a symbol of recovery, a sign that the strange, haunted habits that make New Orleans so special had returned. This particular joyful, mournful parade through town was held for a man who had died in September, back when the city was too broken for its traditional rituals. But instead it turned into a symbol of a very different, dark side of New Orleans. As the procession danced and swayed through Central City, an 18-year-old man got out of his car and sprayed the crowd with bullets, police say, shooting two men and killing one before being shot in the leg by a police officer.

The dead man, Christopher Smith, 19, had survived Hurricane Katrina—evacuating to Dallas before the storm hit—but he could not, apparently, survive the new old New Orleans. It was the second murder of the day, coming after a man was robbed and then shot in the Faubourg Marigny, a nightlife neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter.

After a precious pause following Katrina, New Orleans appears to have returned to its 2004 murder rate, according to TIME's estimate. In 2004, the last full year before the hurricane, there were 56 murders for every 100,000 people, according to the FBI. That was about eight times the murder rate in New York City. Today, there are far fewer people in New Orleans, and so fewer dead bodies in absolute numbers. But in February, seven people were murdered. The tally this month, at four murders so far, looks headed in a similar direction. At this rate, 54 people will be murdered in New Orleans this year for every 100,000 people in the city. The New Orleans Police Department claims the murder rate is actually lower than this, largely because the department relies upon a an estimated population of 190,000 for the city. TIME is using a population estimate of 155,000 released on March 15 by RAND, a nonprofit research organization that has been asked to do regular estimates by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

The truth is, no one knows the exact population in New Orleans right now. But the police department does not dispute the total number of murders upon which the TIME analysis was based. And the increase in bloodshed is an ominous milestone for a city desperate to rebuild and make itself stronger than it was before. "Are we back to the good old days?" wonders Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans. "Are all the things that made New Orleans embarrassing before the storm coming back?"

As recently as January, there were no reported shootings at all in New Orleans. At that time, it appeared the city's murderers had regrouped in Houston, as that city's murder rate shot up 50% in January, compared with the same month the year before. Of 23 Katrina-related homicides in Houston, police linked at least nine to two gangs from New Orleans. Then, as federal subsidies ran out, more housing became available again in New Orleans and the Houston police arrested scores of Katrina evacuees in relentless sweeps, the balance shifted again.This month, Houston police reported with relief that killings are back down to pre-Katrina levels. Last month, in New Orleans, there were 12 shootings, and this month, there have been at least 15.

New Orleans' new Police Superintendent, Warren Riley, has noted that the city has a rare opportunity to reinvent its criminal-justice system. During his four months on the job, Riley has received praise for firing at least 86 officers and working to better track gangs and repeat offenders. On Monday, Riley enjoyed a moment of satisfaction after police arrested Ivory Harris, New Orleans' most-wanted murder suspect, in the neighboring town of Kenner. Harris had been bouncing back and forth between Houston and New Orleans since the storm, wreaking havoc in both cities, police say. Eight days earlier, police had arrested one of the city's other wanted men: Jerome Hampton, 23, whom Houston police have charged with killing another evacuee. Hampton was nabbed in New Orleans after an officer saw him standing on a roadway median firing a gun into the air, according to police.

In recent weeks, several members of a South American gangs have also been arrested in the area—something that was unusual before Katrina, police say. With fewer police, a decimated court system and a history of entrenched malfeasance, the city is extremely vulnerable. "The discussion I've been having with people is, "Could you end up worse off?" says Scharf, who worries not just about the absence of police but about the disruption in the lives of criminals and potential criminals themselves, the loss of family, homes, schools and other scaffolding that helped contain the mayhem.

Lives are at stake, and so is the recovery of New Orleans. If crime soars, residents will not return. If they don't return, bringing money, momentum and stability with them, crime will continue to increase. "I think [the homicide rate] will become the major issue over the next few months," says Scharf. "I hope I'm wrong."