Murder Rate Rebounding in New Orleans

Jane Anderson misses the old days — the days right after Hurricane Katrina when National Guardsmen with rifles roamed the street outside the New Orleans shop where she works. The days when there weren't many people around and crime was down sharply.

"I know it's still pretty safe," Anderson says. "But it doesn't feel that way. We're hearing about more things happening, more murders, more bad guys returning."

Murder is making a comeback in New Orleans.

The city had 30 murders this year through April. That is less than half of the 81 recorded during the first four months of 2005. But New Orleans' population these days is less than half of what it was before Katrina.

Also, while there were only 17 murders in January through March of this year, there were an alarming 13 slayings in April. That is the most for any month since the Aug. 29 storm, though still well below the monthly average of 22 in 2003 and 2004.

And May has gotten off to a violent start with three slayings, including a shooting that followed an argument in a Bourbon Street bar early Tuesday.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley insisted at a news conference last week that murders and other violent crimes per person — that is, crime figures that take the reduced population into account — are down from a year ago. But that was based on January-through-March figures that do not count April's bloodshed.

"We are not seeing a return to the old days," Riley said. "This city is still the safest it has ever been."

Law enforcement officers acknowledge rising numbers of murders and shootings, and attribute them largely to turf wars among criminals returning to the city.

"Since April began we've had the return of individuals who have a legacy of violent crimes," said Jim Bernazzani, the FBI agent in charge of New Orleans. "Prior to storm they were residing in areas that are now uninhabitable. So they are returning to the 20 percent of the city that did not flood and they are running into violent criminals whose turf it is."

The post-Katrina murder stories are haunting echoes of pre-Katrina New Orleans.

In February, Jermaine Wise was shot to death in a parked car on Mardi Gras. On March 19, a man got out of a car during a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral procession and opened fire, killing Christopher Smith. That same day, a shotgun-wielding robber killed Michael Frey as he handed over his wallet in the Fauborg Marigny, a neighborhood near the French Quarter.

"I don't think things have changed at all," said Dr. Micelle Haydel, an emergency room doctor at Charity Hospital, where most trauma victims in the city are taken. "We're still getting the shooting and stabbing victims. It's still happening, and it will get worse as people return."

In neighboring Jefferson Parish, the murder rate is way up. The population has fallen from about 450,000 before Katrina to around 370,000, according to the parish president's office. But there were 22 murders though April, compared with 28 during all of last year.

"Crime is down 23 percent overall," Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee said. "But we have almost as many murders now as we had all of last year and the year isn't even half over. I really believe it's drugs and turf from people moving in."

New Orleans had a fearsome pre-Katrina reputation for violence in the streets around its housing projects and in other poor sections of town. Drugs were said to be at the center of most of the killings.

In 2004, New Orleans had 264 murders, or 56 per 100,000 people, according to the FBI. That compares with seven per 100,000 in New York and a national average of 5.5 per 100,000.

In the weeks after Katrina, the military and various law agencies patrolled New Orleans and much of the city of nearly a half-million people was emptied out. Police reported just nine homicides in the fourth quarter last year — the three months after Katrina — compared with 64 for the last three months of 2004.

For many residents, the new, lower homicide toll and the reassurances from law enforcement provide little comfort.

Louis Gurvich, who owns a company that provides businesses and homeowners with security guards and private patrols, said business is thriving.

"There is no crime in parts of the city because there are no people there. And there is less crime everywhere. We used to have five or six murders a weekend," he said. "But if a crime happens near you or if you hear about crime, your perception is that it's getting bad quickly."