N.O. police gropes for ways to deal with a surge in bloodshed
By MARY FOSTER, Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS- Nine people have been slain in New Orleans in the first eight days of the new year, deepening the sense of despair over the slow pace of the city's recovery and leaving police and civic leaders grasping for ways to stop the bloodshed.
The police superintendent is talking of a possible curfew and lamenting his understaffed force. Tourism officials are rushing to reassure visitors with the Mardi Gras season approaching. And at least one politician is only half-jokingly suggesting the city needs a psychiatrist to help it deal with its problems more than 16 months after Hurricane Katrina.
"There's a big difference between being concerned and being scared. Now I'm scared," said Baty Landis, a 34-year-old Tulane University professor and music club owner who is organizing a march later this week to urge officials to do something.
The spasm of violence came despite the presence of about 300 National Guard troops and 60 state troopers who were brought in last June to help patrol the streets because of a surge in killings.
While police say most of the recent slayings have involved drugs in neighborhoods accustomed to violence, some took place in quieter areas. Last week, a filmmaker was shot to death and her physician husband wounded as they walked outside their Faubourg Marigny home with their toddler.
On Monday, Police Superintendent Warren Riley said he has not asked for more troops, and is instead considering ways to stretch his hurricane-depleted force. Those could include increasing foot patrols, reassigning officers to front-line duty, and imposing a citywide curfew, he said.
The police force is down from its pre-Katrina level of 1,700 officers to about 1,400. But that number includes about 100 officers on leave for injuries or illness.
The frenzy of violence comes at a time when mistrust of the police department is running high, according to community leaders. Seven officers were indicted last week on murder or attempted murder charges over a shooting episode on a bridge during the turmoil that followed Katrina.
Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, sent a letter to hotels, restaurants and other member organizations, telling them Mayor Ray Nagin would make an announcement this week with specifics for ending the violence.
Nagin expressed concern over the weekend that the killings might discourage residents from staying in the still-rebuilding city.
"We're going to have periods of time when we feel very comfortable, and we are going to have very tough periods when we are going to feel very uncomfortable," he said.
New Orleans had 161 homicides last year, the lowest total in 60 years. But the population was way down from its pre-Katrina total of 455,000, and is still only at about 200,000.
A curfew would be an unpopular measure in a city that loves its nightlife, especially with Mardi Gras approaching.
"We're very much opposed to a curfew," said Earl Bernhardt, president of the Bourbon Street Alliance, a merchants organization. "For one thing, it would send a terrible message nationwide that would hurt us more than the murder rate. It would look like it was totally unsafe to be on the streets after dark."
City Council President Oliver Thomas - the politician who suggested the need for a municipal therapist - said a curfew alone would not be enough. He said it is going to require reinstating mentoring programs for troubled youngsters, creating neighborhood watch groups, establishing more of a law enforcement presence and holding speedier trials for criminals.
Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather of the neighborhood improvement association in the city's Broadmoor section said her group is working to get private funding for emergency pull boxes, security cameras and more police patrols, including officers on horseback and scooters.
"We need to get mad and furious that drugs are destroying the culture of New Orleans," she said.
To some extent Hurricane Katrina is to blame for the spike in killings, said Dr. Howard Osofsky, chairman of psychiatry at the LSU Health Sciences Center.
"The normal support structures for many parts of the community are gone," Osofsky said. "The churches, the community centers, the families and people in neighborhoods that all have a governing effect on residents are gone in many cases."
In turn, the killings affect the recovery from the storm, he said.
"People are already dealing with the slowness of recovery, the destruction of their lives, the loss of so much," he said. "When you add such a huge measure of violence to all of that, people will wonder if it's worth it to try to come back."
Associated Press Writer Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans also contributed to this story.