Troublemakers drift back to New Orleans, bring crime

Struggling police force faces rising tide of drug dealing, homicides

March 30, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS --The wail of police sirens is back, and gunfire once again punctuates the night. As drug dealers move into flood-damaged houses, alarmed residents say that in the past few weeks, they have begun to sense a return to the bad old days before Hurricane Katrina, when crime was an omnipresent straitjacket on life in this city.

In a city that once led the nation in homicides per capita, crime has long been a leading indicator of its health and prospects - an unavoidable part of the equation for a walk around the block or a trip to the grocery store.

That diminished greatly after the storm, when hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated. But there are signs that New Orleans' past might be returning, with a new twist.

Police officials say the post-Katrina landscape of abandoned houses, stretching block after block, is being incorporated into a revived drug trade, with the empty dwellings offering an unexpected convenience to dealers returning from Houston and Atlanta.

Residents concur, pointing to this boarded-up house or that abandoned-looking shed as a place where they have seen young men congregating.

"It's coming back," said Capt. Timmy Bayard, the New Orleans police officer in charge of narcotics investigations. "It's not as plentiful as it was," but "we're starting to grab some people."

His men, searching abandoned houses in the Eighth Ward, have found drug stashes. There are popping sounds of gunfire at night in the Central City and St. Roch neighborhoods flanking downtown - not as often as before, but enough to induce unease.

"Less, yeah, but it's started back up," said the Rev. A.P. Williby, who owns a house in Central City. "Shooting and killing - that's what we had before. It ain't going nowhere."

Two shootings, one of them fatal, occurred in January and earlier this month.

Parasol's, a classic old-line bar in the Irish Channel neighborhood, was held up at midnight recently. And a young man who had already handed over his wallet was killed in the Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood of popular bars and restaurants. On Web forums, there are reports of robberies and break-ins.

In Houston, which saw a sharp spike in killings after Hurricane Katrina, police officials say they have noticed a decline since the beginning of the year. Homicides were up 24 percent in 2005, but Houston police officials say they would have been down 2 percent, absent cases in which either the suspect or the victim was a storm evacuee.

Last fall, there were "multiple" hurricane-related killings in Houston nearly every weekend, said Sgt. Brian Harris of the Houston police, but the violence has significantly eased, he said.

New Orleans again appears to be drawing the people who practiced crime on its streets before the storm.

A local murder suspect wanted in Houston, for example, drifted back here and was arrested in Kenner, a New Orleans suburb, this month.

In the past, even when there were lulls in crime, many residents felt as if they were living in a city under siege. Perception became part of the reality, fueling an exodus of whites and blacks to the suburbs or out of state.

But crime is nowhere near its prestorm levels. With the city's population reduced by at least three-fifths, statistics indicate that crime is down 60 percent to 70 percent overall, the department said.

There have been 16 killings this year, compared with more than 60 for the same period last year, which means quieter days for the police. That still works out to an annualized rate of 32 killings per 100,000 people, ahead of Cleveland and Chicago.

A gnawing sense of vulnerability, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, is returning. On any block, it might have no more concrete basis than the sight of idle young men hanging out, but it is real nonetheless.

"They're beginning to surface again," said Alfred Barrow, a newspaper deliverer, painting his porch on an empty-looking block at 3rd and Magnolia in Center City.

The anxiety is not helped by the police department's struggle to return to normal. At about 1,400 officers, the department is not far from its strength of just under 1,600 officers before Hurricane Katrina.

But the department is operating out of trailers, much of its data-gathering capability is impaired because of storm damage, and about 80 percent of its officers lost their homes in the storm.

There is evidence that the nonworking poor - the population most implicated in crime, as victims and perpetrators - might be returning in higher percentages, for now, than middle-class residents washed out by the storm. A population map prepared for the city appears to suggest as much.

"It looks like the worst have come back," said Andrew Jackson, a homeowner on Villere Street in the Eighth Ward.

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