NEW ORLEANS – Less than a week after New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu touted a string of peaceful and well-managed city events capped by the BCS championship game, he was back at the podium on Friday trying to reassure residents that an upsurge in violence was being dealt with.
"This is a battle for the heart and soul of New Orleans," Landrieu said about an 18-hour wave of violence that saw 17 people shot and six killed, a lockdown and evacuation of an elementary school, and shots fired at police twice.
In all, 12 people have been murdered New Orleans in the first 12 days of the year, and at least two dozen, including a 12-year-old girl, have been wounded in shootings.
The string of violence included a gunman opening fire inside a house on Thursday, shooting five people, three of whom died. Police chased down a trio of suspects, and returned fire, killing one man and wounding a man and a woman. Later that night, police headquarters was evacuated with a pair of hand grenades were found in the trunk of the car, although they were later found to be duds.
The shootings involving police may have been sparked by a new, more aggressive approach by police, said Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who categorized it as "taking the fight to the streets."
"We are going after the criminals with an intensity that has not been seen in the last 18 months," he said.
Serpas pointed out that police responded within minutes to the incident at the school, and other shootings, including Thursday's multiple shooting.
The force has beefed up its homicide department to 30 detectives, and is keeping officers in the city's so-called hotspots, Landrieu said. Response time has gone down lately, the mayor said.
Since Serpas became chief 18 months ago, the department has invested in new computer programs used to decide how police are deployed. That means the 1,300-man force is able to police the city neighborhoods and handle big events, Serpas said.
None of that reassures Janice Landry, a 58-year-old who has lived in New Orleans her life.
"The violence is more than murder," she said. "It's people robbing people, people breaking into houses, people carjacking people. And those things happen to you even if you aren't a criminal or living that kind of life."
Tom Hall, 73, said people in his uptown neighborhood go inside as soon as it gets dark now. He said they don't want to take a chance.
"It may be criminals killing each other," Hall said. "But non-criminals can get caught in the crossfire."
The latest outbreak follows a 14 percent jump in murders in 2011, with 199 during the year. Per capita, New Orleans murder rate was 10 times the national average in 2010, with 51 homicides per 100,000 residents here last year, compared with less than 7 per 100,000 in New York or 23 in similar-size Oakland, Calif.
"No one has ever denied that New Orleans is a violent town — it is," Landrieu said.
While the police fight the violence on the street, the city is also using a long-range plan to fight its "culture of violence," Landrieu said.
Midnight basketball programs are getting underway, and a program called the Cease Fire program, is being set up in Central City to try to stem retaliatory killings there.
"The entire community has to be engaged in this fight," Landrieu said. "You cannot put a police officer on every corner of every street in the city of New Orleans. And even if you did, I'm not sure that would work."