Five teenagers being gunned down in the streets (at 4am) is horrible, we all agree. However, one grisly incident by itself doesn't necessitate a call for 300 National Guard and 60 state police, does it? No, one incident by itself should not force the Mayor and the Governor to effectively announce to the world that a half-populated, tourist city has become dangerous and lawless ten months after a hurricane.
But that's exactly what happened this week. A single crime incident spurred a massive call to action. I daresay that if five teenagers had been murdered over the span of one or two weeks, we wouldn't be seeing the familiar camouflaged Humvees running about town. We wouldn't have made national news about our crime problem just prior to the most important convention this city will host since the storm. (More about that later.)
Y'all know where I'm going with this, right? The only way a single murder incident could have spurred such a massive call to action is if it revealed a problem that was already there; if it made a truth that was previously deniable, utterly undeniable. And that truth those dead teenagers revealed is this: violent crime has increased drastically since March, and New Orleanians are feeling less and less safe. On a per capita basis, is crime worse than it was prior to the storm? I don't know. But the perception is that crime is worse than it was in March, and worse than it should be now, and that the police department has been unable to curtail its rise.
A month ago, New Orleans participated in the so-called "most important mayoral election" in the history of the city. Crime was hardly an issue, though. The main issues were things like Mitch's last name and Nagin's flooded cars. When the issue of crime came up, Nagin asserted that despite "little upticks" the city was basically on the right track, and that Chief Warren Riley was the right man for the job. Mitch Landrieu disagreed (albeit limply), and asserted that crime had increased significantly and that a new search for police chief would be appropriate.
Clearly, Landrieu assessed the situation more accurately. Crime was indeed rising significantly at the time. Yet, Nagin characterized the rise as "little upticks"-- nothing to really worry about-- and Chief Riley blamed politicians for exaggerating the reality of the situation to their political benefit.
All of which brings us to our local paper: the highly influential, award-winning Times Picayune. Here's what our Pulitzer Prize-winning Paper said in its editorial yesterday:
The signs have been obvious for months that violence was ticking steadily upward. The mass slaying of five teenagers on a Central City street corner before dawn Saturday was horrifying confirmation of just how bad things have gotten.
Even with a shrunken population, murder is becoming commonplace.
The Police Department seems ill-equipped today to deal with the combination of drug-related violence and pervasive looting of homes that are empty or under renovation.
So, the rise in crime has been "obvious for months"? Well then. Surely this "obvious" reality should have factored into New Orleans' most-important election, right? Surely, if a mayor declares, in May, that "[on a per capita basis] the murder rate is down almost 50 percent", surely a diligent paper would examine such a specious claim. Right? Surely a non-complaisant paper would ask Nagin to explain why he was so confident in Riley's crime-fighting gameplan. Right? When a candidate downplays an obvious reality, shouldn't a quality paper like the T-P aggressively follow-up, especially during an important election?
I think New Orleanians should want to know: How, exactly, did New Orleans go from "little upticks" in crime to needing 300 National Guardsmen? How exactly did police force levels that were deemed sufficient in May become totally inadequate by June? How can an area surrounding the District 6 police headquarters suddenly become "the Triangle of Death"? How did we go from the mayor saying murder is down 50 percent (per capita) in May, to it being a national news story in June?
Again: according to our Paper (which has been exemplary in so many ways since Katrina) the strengthening of "Hurricane Crime" was "obvious for months". Yet, in their endorsement for the most important mayoral election in the city's history (pettily issued on a Wednesday), the Times-Picayune didn't even mention the "obvious" issue of rising crime-- even though it was one of the few areas where the candidates had significant differences. Landrieu was alarmed about rising crime, Nagin wasn't. Nagin was set on keeping Riley, Landrieu wasn't.
The mayor and his chief deserve to be asked some tough questions about their recent statements concerning crime in the city. The Times Picayune did not do that during the all-important mayoral campaign, and they only compound their error by failing to do so a month later.
Moldy City has more on this. Also, read his comment here if you haven't done so yet.
Update: Front page T-P crime story explains the FBI's view of the situation:
A recent FBI intelligence dossier blames the recent resurgence of crime in the city on a turf war among rival gangs that controlled the narcotics trade before Hurricane Katrina and have moved back into the city. Jim Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans field office, said the May report, which summarizes intelligence from law enforcement agencies across the metro area, shows that nine family or neighborhood-based drug organizations have returned to New Orleans and most have taken up residence in and around Central City.
"The vast majority of the violence is being driven by street drug trade," Bernazzani said.
Aggravating matters is the influx of residents who have returned to the city since the school year ended, many of whom do not yet have jobs and are living in flooded-out houses because of the lack of suitable housing.
Update #2: Evacuee points me to this relevant post.