Baghdad on the bayou

Nicole Gelinas:

You don’t have to go to Baghdad to see what happens when government loses its monopoly on force; just visit New Orleans. More than a year and a half after Katrina hit in late August 2005, violent crime—already a grave problem long before the storm—pervades the city, endangering its recovery by driving some good people away and keeping others from returning. In recent months, the federal and state governments, confronting a murder rate that currently exceeds that of any first-world city, have brought law-and-order forces to the Big Easy to try to wrest its streets back from criminals. But any long-term solution to the city’s crime woes must be local. Unless New Orleans itself can find the moral and political will to control the violence, it will only be trying to rebuild the dying city that it was before Katrina.

When New Orleans began slowly to come back to life after Katrina, it enjoyed a respite from violent crime, one that residents and their elected leaders thought would continue indefinitely. New Orleanians had a “sense of euphoria about the city being a new city, that the violent crimes just weren’t there,” says U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who handles federal cases for Louisiana’s eastern district. But after roughly ten weeks of peace, murders—many drug-related and acquaintance-based—started to appear in the headlines again. Then, as the city’s population began returning in greater numbers last spring, violent crime roared back “with a vengeance,” as Letten puts it. The highly publicized shooting death in March 2006 of 28-year-old Michael Frey at the hands of a street robber in the Faubourg Marigny, a funky neighborhood on the outskirts of the French Quarter, seemed to trigger in many New Orleans residents the realization that things were now back to “normal.”

The numbers tell the grim story. In 2004, the year before Katrina, New Orleans suffered 265 murders, yielding a murder rate of 56 per 100,000 residents—already four and a half times higher than the average for similar-size cities. In 2006, the year after Katrina, the flood-ravaged, much smaller city logged 162 murders—a rate of at least 77 per 100,000 people, even assuming the most generous quarter-by-quarter repopulation figures available. (New Orleans has recovered less than half its pre-Katrina population of about 470,000.) In the first 64 days of 2007, New Orleans’s murder rate scaled even higher—more than 87 per 100,000 residents. Such a rate in New York City would mean nearly 7,000 murders a year, well over the 2,262 it experienced at the height of its Dinkins-era violent-crime crisis 17 years ago. Other violent-crime indexes—from assault to armed robbery—have moved in a similar direction.

The rocketing crime rate suggests that New Orleans’s bad guys are coming back to the city in disproportionate numbers. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The hoodlums, mostly members of an entrenched underclass, are impulsive and mobile, while working- and middle-class New Orleanians face big roadblocks to returning, such as shuttered schools. Some of the lawbreakers may have hustled back, too, because they were having a hard time adjusting to functional cities like Houston, which initially took in more than 200,000 storm evacuees. Unlike New Orleans, which has long failed at crime fighting, Houston actually arrests, charges, convicts, and imprisons its criminals (see “Houston’s Noble Experiment,” Spring 2006).

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There is much more. The rule of law is at best a sometimes thing in New Orleans now. It was before the storm too. While the storm caused a brief export of the criminals they quickly found in places like Houston that effective law enforcement created a hostile environment for their type of activity so they retreated to what has become a sanctuary city for bad guys. New Orleans resembles Mexico more than Houston these days.

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