Mardi Gras in the Murder Capital

It's Mardi Gras in the murder capital of the United States. New Orleans' most raucous parties and parades take place this long holiday weekend, which culminates on Fat Tuesday.

Carnival season officially kicked off on January 6th, a day that also closed out a week when more killings took place in New Orleans than in Iraq. New Orleans has seen 22 murders so far this year. New York, with 30 times more residents, has a 2007 murder count of 43.

The steady flow of national news reports that New Orleans has the nation's highest per capita homicide rate could not be more poorly timed. Tourism, responsible for 35 percent of New Orleans' budget and 85,000 jobs, has the power to make or break the city's still faltering recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Tourism, says Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, "is a perception-driven industry. If people think the city is not safe, they're not going to come." The crime wave, Romig says, "is a challenge for us. But it's nothing but good news to tell people that we have more police on the streets."

In fact there's been an all out troop surge in New Orleans.

The New Orleans Police Department is 85 percent re-staffed, while the city's population has been cut in half. Reinforcing local law enforcement are 300 National Guard and 60 state troopers, costing the state $500,000 a week. And the head of the notorious Orleans Parish Prison -- whose guards abandoned thousands of detainees in flooded, locked cells without food or water for days after Katrina hit -- has dispatched corrections officers to help patrol the streets.

Residents are concerned that the amassing of law enforcement, though it may improve the city's public image, will do little to improve public safety unless the local police force roots out corruption, gains community trust and addresses underlying causes of community destabilization.

"Why can't the NOPD solve the crime problem?" asks Robert Smallwood, an information technology consultant and longtime resident of the French Quarter. "Part of it is that they're corrupt to the core. It's common knowledge that they're in on it in terms of the drug trade."

A neighborhood survey by the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission found that only 38 percent of residents think the police department does a good job preventing crime and just 43 percent feel that police are trustworthy.

Smallwood stayed in the city during Katrina and wrote a book about his experience called The Five People You Meet in Hell. "I was one of the so-called 'looters,'" he says. "People were helping one another out, trying to get basics like food and water. The cops were watching. They had already taken all of the cigarettes and good meat."

Ursula Price, an investigator with the criminal defense organization A Fighting Chance, explains: "Police-community relations are a terrible problem in New Orleans. People are legitimately afraid to call the police or cooperate with them. There are documented cases of civilian retaliation against witnesses because cops leaked information."

The police are making a record number of arrests, about 900 a week. They're just not getting the bad guys. According to the watchdog organization Safe Streets Strong Communities, 80 percent of detainees in the parish jail are being held for non-violent offenses, mostly low-level drug and alcohol charges. Two-thirds of the city's murders go unsolved.

Price describes the case of a woman "who called 911 about a domestic violence incident. Instead of trying to help her, they ran her name and ended up arresting her on an outstanding traffic violation."

Advocates like Price don't dispute that the city has no a choice but to spend heavily on law enforcement. "But accountability and standards don't cost anything," she says. "There need to be consequences for officers who break the rules and they need to get out of their cruisers and interact with community members, respectfully, instead of treating everyone like a criminal."

Corlita Mahr who works with a local interfaith organization refers to them as "cops-in-cars" and says: "I only see police on my block when they're there to arrest somebody."

National Guard troops stationed in New Orleans, though most of them don't have civilian training, may be setting a better example. The New Orleans Times Picayune's Paul Purpura recently reported that Guardsmen, who call themselves "Task Force Gator," "sometimes employ an approach used in Iraq" of tossing brightly colored rubber balls emblazoned with military insignias to local children.

On January 11th, 5,000 New Orleanians picketed City Hall demanding that local leaders find answers to the crime crisis. The tipping point for the rally was the killing of a white film maker, Helen Hill, in the Faubourg Marigny district, a hot spot for nightlight that sits adjacent to the French Quarter. Hill was the first white victim in the murder wave. Most of the killings have involved African American youth, slaying one another.

Ultimately, says Ursula Price, the conditions in which New Orleans' children are living is the root of the crime problem. "I'd like to see just one investigation of a murder that looked at what's going on in the lives of the people involved."

The conditions are stark. Six graders are on waiting lists to get into public school. Public housing, though most units were undamaged by the storm, remains boarded up. There is no public mental health care in a city whose residents disproportionately suffer from depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Much of the city's infrastructure remains crippled; many of its streets are still piled with debris, burnt out cars and power lines. Graffiti still covers many abandoned buildings. In some neighborhoods the writing is still on the walls: "You loot. We shoot."

Not counting state and federal funds, law enforcement currently represents one-third of New Orleans' city budget. "We're banking against our children," says Reverend Sekou Osagyefo, "because of the kinds of investments we're making in arresting and incarcerating them, instead of rebuilding their communities."

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