Tuesday, February 20, 2007

In New Orleans, the murder count has soared and anger grown at local leaders unable to stop the violence

Jeff Franks:

Annual Mardi Gras celebrations unfolded without incident this weekend, but fear of the rampant blood-spilling and its threat to the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina are constant topics of conversation.

The homicide total for a still-young 2007 climbed to 27 on Saturday with the dead of a man shot at a nightclub on Friday.

He was one of nine people shot in separate incidents in a seven-hour span on Thursday and Friday, and the third of them to die.

Local leaders, worried crime may scare away tourists who are the life-blood of the economy, stressed that the shootings did not take place at Mardi Gras events and assured visitors violent crime is largely restricted to "hot spots," or impoverished neighborhoods where visitors seldom go.

"The truth is that crime traditionally has gone down during Mardi Gras," Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy said.

New Orleans has had one of the United States' highest per-capita murder rates for years, but the current violence has added to insecurities in a city worried about its future.

Only about 200,000 of the pre-Katrina population of 480,000 is back and much of the city is still damaged and abandoned. Recent news stories have said a growing number of those who returned are leaving because they are fed up with the slow recovery and the crime.

"If they don't get crime under control, if they can't convince people it's safe to be here, it doesn't matter how much money they get from the federal government, nobody's going to stay," Tulane University criminal justice instructor Ronnie Jones said.

Before Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, there was little public pressure to do something about the number of murders, which peaked in 1994 with 425 killings.

But Katrina hit hard the poor neighborhoods where the murders usually occurred, and brought the criminals closer to wealthier, often mostly white, areas, Jones said.

Several thousand people marched on city hall last month to demand that Mayor Ray Nagin and other officials take action.

The basic complaint was that too many criminals are arrested and then returned to the streets due to poor police work and lax prosecutors and judges.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune found that 3,000 arrested suspects were released in 2006 because prosecutors failed to indict them within the required 60 days. In January 2007, 580 were released for the same reason, the newspaper said.

That compared to 187 in the eight months of 2005 before Katrina brought the criminal justice system almost to a halt, the paper said.

Police blame inept prosecutors for the revolving door; prosecutors say their hands are bound by poor police work. Both say a big problem is that Katrina destroyed New Orleans' police lab, forcing them to borrow facilities to process evidence.

Even before Katrina, a local study found that in 2003-2004 only 12 percent of those arrested for murder went to prison.

The situation is so bad that federal agencies including the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration are helping the local police. The U.S. Attorney's office has stepped into cases previously left to local courts and prosecuting them in the less lenient federal courts.

The larger problem is that New Orleans has too many social problems - drugs, poverty, broken families, poor education - all present before Katrina.

A recent murder encapsulated the difficulties. After a 17-year-old was beaten up, his mother gave him a gun and told him to get revenge, and he killed the boy he fought with.

When police went to his home to investigate, they found the mother with cocaine and a family photo on display of the son with a gun in one hand and a fistful of cash in the other.

Mother faces federal charge in gun case

New Orleans mother gave son gun to take revenge after fight, police say

Man arrested in shooting of New Orleans brothers

Sister is arrested in N.O. shooting

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