In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans has skyrocketed. In 2006, New Orleans was home to 161 murders; 2007 has already seen 18 suspected homicides come under investigation in the city, which is home to just 200,000 people. Those numbers put New Orleans in the top spot for highest murder rate per capita of any city in the United States.
A large percentage of the victim and suspect populations in these cases are teenagers, and approximately two-thirds of the murders go unsolved.
District Attorney Eddie Jordan points to broken community relations as a leading cause of the high crime rate and lack of convictions. Seven New Orleans police officers were indicted last week on murder and attempted murder charges relating to a shooting that occurred during the turmoil immediately following Hurricane Katrina, and a general mistrust of officers by jurors and witnesses due in part to events surrounding the storm permeates the community. Jordan states that this lack of confidence in law enforcement, combined with slow police response and the fact that witnesses fear retaliation on the street, makes for a situation where “by the time the investigative report is presented. . . a good number of witnesses are no longer available or have gotten afraid to testify.”
City officials have recently announced a number of plans to reduce the crime rate in New Orleans, including a campaign to mount more cameras in problem areas, an increase in police foot patrols to rebuild community relations, and higher pay levels for police officers and prosecutors, an effort to attract more and better workers in the fight against crime. The possibility of a curfew has been discussed. Some residents, including those in the neighborhood improvement association in the Broadmoor section of New Orleans, are seeking private funding to implement these ideas.
City Council President Oliver Thomas has also called for the reinstatement of mentoring problems for underprivileged youth, and the creation of neighborhood watch groups to come hand in hand with upgrades to the criminal justice system that will increase law enforcement presence and the speed of trials.
However, according to former prosecutor and public defender Eric E. Malveau, the only lasting solution to the high murder rate is creating more police presence, but creating more socioeconomic opportunities for New Orleans residents in order to combat the strong hold that drug dealing has on the city. Malveau stated “As long as you have a large population that is uneducated and has no job and no hope, what else is there to do but sell drugs? Until you fix that, it’s hard to see the problems getting much better.”
The city’s criminal justice infrastructure has not recovered from the devastation it experienced during Katrina, and may never fully do so. According to New York Times reporters, evidence in hundreds of criminal cases was lost during the flood. This left a number of cases open that there is now little to no hope of closing. Even more devastating was the destruction of the New Orleans Police crime lab, which has yet to be rebuilt. Often, suspects in drug-related arrests have to be released because chemical evidence cannot be tested at other locations before the deadline to bring charges arrives. Last year, over 3,000 suspects, many of them arrested on drug offenses, were released without undergoing full investigation, due to the fact that deadlines expired before adequate evidence and paperwork for the cases was collected and filed by law enforcement.
Federal funds amounting to $5 million for a new crime lab are on the way, along with an additional influx of prosecutors and undercover drug agents in an attempt to curb the city’s overall crime rate. However, until funding for the lab is processed, and work on the lab is completed, it is likely that the revolving door on drug arrests will continue to be a problem, continuing to fuel the high murder rate.