New Orleans pushes a defensive message

Recent violence not widespread, officials report

August 04, 2006|By ANN M. SIMMONS | ANN M. SIMMONS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- Determined to temper fears that New Orleans is not safe in the aftermath of six deadly shootings last week, tourism industry representatives, city officials and police are pushing a defensive message: The city's crime problem is not spiraling out of control, and the violence in recent weeks is contained to certain neighborhoods and certain types of people.

"This is going on among the criminal element," said Bambi Hall, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Police Department. "They're having these street wars among themselves, and they're spilling over into other areas because they've also spilt over into other areas since Katrina."

The hurricane displaced more than half of New Orleans' population of 450,000 when it battered the city last August. About half that number have trickled back in recent months, and many have been forced to relocate to neighborhoods that escaped flooding.

Police are investigating the motives behind the killings that occurred in a 24-hour span over the weekend, but Hall said many of the recent violent crimes were typically "about drugs."

Hall underscored that the violence was generally contained to a certain "criminal element" - thugs who are "leading a lifestyle that lends itself to violence and their ultimate demise."

The killings represented the latest multiple-victim deaths since June, when five teens were gunned down in a sport utility vehicle in a neighborhood known for rampant drug activity.

That incident led Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to dispatch 300 members of the National Guard and 60 state police to New Orleans to help patrol sparsely populated areas, allowing the Police Department to reassign more officers to the city's crime hotspots. Blanco said over the weekend that the Guard and state police would remain in New Orleans past their previously announced September withdrawal date.

City officials said this month that the number of murders had dropped by at least half since the National Guard was deployed and that there had been a significant rise in arrests. But there have been 78 homicides in the city so far this year, and while that is below the 134 murders that occurred in the same period last year, civic activists point to the fact that the city has far fewer residents.

Tourism officials expressed regret that crime in New Orleans was drawing news media coverage at a time when they believe the city's tourism industry is making a promising comeback.

"Unfortunately, this happens in every city in America," said Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It only makes national news [here] because New Orleans is under a microscope right now."

Schulz said the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau had begun informing its clients, including convention organizers and tour operators, that the violence was not widespread.

"New Orleans is still a safe and walkable city, and our tourist corridor is still safe," she said, noting that her organization has been sending out electronic news flashes to keep business planners and convention decision-makers up-to-date on police advisories.

She said that although it was unlikely that tourists would fall victim to the type of drug- and gang-related crime that has marred New Orleans in recent months, she urged visitors to take common sense measures such as walking in groups and avoiding sparsely populated neighborhoods.

Pakistani tourist Samera Nawaz, who was taking pictures Monday near New Orleans' downtown Riverwalk, said that while she was concerned about reports of crime, it had not prevented her from visiting her parents, who live in the city.

"We're worried, but we still want people to visit," said Nawaz, 22, who expressed surprise at how quiet and empty the city appeared to be, compared with the last time she visited, about a year ago.

Whitney Perrette, 23, and Clay Florane, 27, who were in town for the day from Bogalusa, La., said news of the escalating crime was unnerving and they feared it would further tarnish the city's image. But they said they were aware it was confined to certain neighborhoods and were encouraged by the greater presence of law enforcement.

"I don't think crime against tourists is as bad," Perrette said.

At a presentation last week outlining the city's progress during the 50 days since his new administration took power, Mayor Ray Nagin said New Orleans was becoming cleaner, safer and economically more vibrant.

Schulz said that summer was typically a slow period for tourism but that convention business was "back up and running."

More than 25,000 conventioneers from the Louisiana Restaurant Association and the American Psychological Association were expected in New Orleans this month, Schulz said

"Our motto is, seeing is believing," she said. "And when people come here and see for themselves that the tourism corridor is alive and well, and ready to welcome visitors, they are often surprised."

Ann M. Simmons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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