New Orleans Crime Wave Continues After Katrina

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," August 28, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

KIMBERLY GUILFOYLE, GUEST HOST: After the looting stopped, crime in New Orleans hit record lows when the hurricane emptied the city. But one year later, a storm of crime has once again hit the city.

For a look at what law enforcement is doing to restore order, we are joined by New Orleans's Police Assistant Superintendent Steven Nicholas and Jack Stephens, sheriff of St. Bernard Perish.

Mr. Nicholas, I'll start with you. How dangerous is New Orleans right now?

STEVEN NICHOLAS, N.O. POLICE ASST. SUPERINTENDENT: Well, I think New Orleans is a lot safer today than it was before the storm. Statistics will bear that out.

I think a lot of what you can see, there was an upsurge, a wave in crime, is based on that false sense of perception that everyone had in that last quarter of 2005 when we had virtually no one living in the city. Crime is down over 50 percent in all categories. The murder rates are down. I just think going from zero to this point may in fact be considered an upsurge, but it certainly is nowhere where it was pre-Katrina.

GUILFOYLE: All right. Well let's get reaction now, let's go to Mr. Stephens. What do you make of this situation?

SHERIFF JACK STEPHENS, SAINT BERNARD PERISH: Well, I mean, it is a very dynamic situation. Obviously a lot of attention is given to the violent crime that occurs in this area. One thing is for sure: The storm has blurred jurisdictional boundaries. You are seeing a crime impact in other surrounding parishes, that formal part of the metropolitan area, and it's a direct relationship to the migration of criminals to suburban areas. There are dramatic increases in murder rates in surrounding parishes.

Fortunately, in St. Bernard Parish we haven't had a murder since the storm. But we are seeing different trends, for example, in our drug arrests, where before the storm we were handling primarily prescription abuse case. Now we are handling a much larger percentage of heroin and crack cases. So it presents a potential for a much higher degree of violence.

GUILFOYLE: Mr. Stephens, you have been a vocal critic, in terms of the recovery process, more should have been done in the beginning. I'm sure you feel the same way now, that more can be done. What do you think we need to do to make a difference?

STEPHENS: Well, I mean, certainly it takes a coordinated effort by all departments of federal, state and local government. We have been dealing primarily with the Department of Justice, who actually has been very, very good for the law enforcement agencies in this metropolitan area. But the problem is, with respect to the cleanup itself, it's excruciatingly slow. And we saw, in a sense, that there's some desperation and people making alternative decisions about their future.

With respect to how the crime issue portends for the future for us, we are concerned now that doing a god job and making sure that this area is safe is important for luring business back to this region. And we all understand this, that the success and prosperity of the city of New Orleans is directly related to the success and prosperity of the entire New Orleans region.

So we all have an investment in making sure that the city succeeds and making sure that the crime rate doesn't rise to a level that discourages people from locating here.

GUILFOYLE: Yes, that's a great point.

Mr. Nicholas, what about the people that say I love New Orleans but I just don't feel right now that it's in my best interest to go there until they get the law and order straightened out.

NICHOLAS: Well, I'll just echo what I said earlier. The people that are here, we go to community meetings every night. The people that are here are happy we're on the job. They're happy that the new perspective from the department is there. They feel it. They understand the professionalism. They understand that crime is down regardless what you say or other members of the media say and we show the facts and we show the numbers.

Look, this department is still a majority. Hundreds of these officers are still homeless, still living in trailers. We are down 200 members from before the storm. And we lost 26 officers last month. There's a problem. Their families live in other areas. The only time they get to see them is on the weekends or on their days off, but they are doing all they can. Crime is down. The murder rate is down. It has been trending down. We can't get per capita numbers because no one can tell us how many people are here after the storm. They can't tell us accurately how many people are here today.

GUILFOYLE: All right. Well, strong message of hope and prosperity it looks like for New Orleans. We hope the best with both of you with what you are working on.

Steven Nicholas and Jack Stephens, thank you so much for joining me tonight.

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