Even for New Orleans, where residents have pretty much come to accept violent crime as an inevitable part of life, Saturday's news was a shocker: five males, all in their teens, shot to death on a Central City street just before dawn. After two days of investigating, police still had no suspects in the killings and remained tight-lipped about possible motives. A ballistics test will take a week or more to determine whether more than one shooter was involved, according to police. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, after reviewing court records, said one victim, 19, was awaiting a hearing on a marijuana possession charge.
Mayor Ray Nagin, who recently won reelection, said he was drawing "a line in the sand" and asked for state help in patrolling neighborhoods, leaving local police to concentrate on high-crime areas. City officials, meanwhile, said they plan to reinstitute a curfew, banning young people from the streets from 11 p.m. or midnight to dawn. A crime summit is also in the works to discuss other measures to combat the city's gangs. Nagin reportedly asked for 300 guardsmen and 60 state police, but how many will be involved remains to be decided.
In Baton Rouge, Governor Blanco revealed that her office had been working with New Orleans since last week to assist the city's beleaguered police force, many of whom still have no homes. "The situation is urgent and we will accelerate our plans to deploy law enforcement to the city tomorrow [Tuesday]," she said in a statement. "I will not tolerate criminal behavior... Criminals are not welcome in New Orleans or anywhere else in the state."
Saturday's slaughter the worst single incident since March 1995, when five people were murdered in a Ninth Ward home brought the year's homicide tally to 52. After a long lull in violent crime following Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans and its suburbs has been rising as more residents return to the area and the repopulation of flooded neighborhoods continues.
The trend has been especially hard on Central City, the working-class neighborhood sandwiched between New Orleans' downtown core and the historic Garden District. The neighborhood was dark for months after Katrina, but residents began returning in large numbers this spring, some to repair damaged homes and a dangerous few, law enforcement officials say, to stake out territory in the city's gang wars.
"It's an opportunity right now, where you've got a population coming back to a major city, for gangs to develop in certain parts of the city and try to take strongholds of certain areas," Mark Chait, special agent in charge of the New Orleans field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, pointed out in April.
Saturday's killings were a depressing reminder that, despite a population that remains less than half of what it was before Katrina, violent crime is indeed making a comeback in New Orleans. Even police appeared taken aback by the weekend's carnage: the victims three of whom were 19 years old, along with a 16- and 17-year-old were shot multiple times while riding in a Ford Explorer around 4 a.m. The murders rattled neighbors already stressed by the challenges of rebuilding and the onset of another hurricane season.
Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard, said his men were ready to help. "The Guard's been pretty busy, but if the governor decides, the Guard will make it happen. It's a mission they can do. Particularly in Louisiana, our soldiers and airmen have already been in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've been in combat very recently not that New Orleans is a combat zone. But other professional law enforcement may be able to provide help first."