New Orleans crime rate down in ’08

Published 11:12 pm Friday, January 2, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — This city, branded the nation’s most violent, saw 31 fewer murders in 2008 than the previous year — a sign, to the police chief, of progress and reform.

But some are not reassured.

‘‘It does not feel safer,’’ said activist and bookshop owner Baty Landis, who helped organize an anti-violence march on City Hall in January 2007. ‘‘It sure feels scary out there.’’

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Violent crime has overshadowed the city’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina. After the march, spawned by a rash of murders in the final days of 2006 and first of 2007, Mayor Ray Nagin pledged to be ‘‘totally and solely focused on making sure murders become a thing of the past in our city.’’

The police have been given millions for needs such as new equipment and better salaries to bolster recruiting after Katrina thinned their ranks. And the criminal justice system has been targeted as a top priority for rebuilding and reform since the 2005 storm devastated it and laid bare serious deficiencies.

Still this fall, some neighborhoods approved special taxes to pay for private patrols. National Guard troops, a constant presence since a rash of violence 2 1/2 years ago, still patrol neighborhoods.

And City Council members have given voice to some residents’ fears that things aren’t getting better.

Police Superintendent Warren Riley said the department currently has about 1,500 officers, including those sick or injured, 290 more than two years ago. He said the department is bolstering police presence in 11 so-called ‘‘hot spots,’’ more quickly clearing major drug and homicide cases and improving its standing in the community. It’s a safer city than it was a year and two ago, he said.

He said citizens have been more willing to come forward, and progress has been made within the court system and in the district attorney’s office, particularly over the last 14 months.

That followed the resignation of former DA Eddie Jordan, criticized over his office’s handling of high-profile murder cases and a multimillion dollar discrimination judgment that favored dozens of workers Jordan fired after he took office.

‘‘Have we reduced crime to the level that we can say it is absolutely a turnaround? No,’’ Riley said. ‘‘But have we made reasonable progress? Yes.’’

Still, there’s been plenty of criticism.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, questions how wisely resources are being deployed, arguing too much time is still being spent arresting nonviolent municipal and traffic offenders. Riley defends the focus on traffic enforcement, saying stops have yielded ‘‘major arrests.’’

A study published by CQ Press and released in late November ranked New Orleans as the most violent U.S. city in 2007, based on crime data reported to the FBI in six categories, including homicides. Riley disputed the study, saying there’s ‘‘nothing scientific about it.’’

While Goyeneche is glad fewer murders were recorded in 2008 — 179, compared with 210 in ’07 — he said it’s not yet clear why it happened.

Regardless of the reasons, he said, violent crime remains ‘‘unacceptably high.’’

‘‘We need to redouble our efforts to do everything in our power … to reduce crime,’’ he said, noting that responsibility falls on citizens, public officials and other parts of the criminal justice community, not just the police.

The Rev. John Raphael Jr. agrees. The former police officer who works with young people in crime-plagued neighborhoods believes churches, in particular, are positioned to reach out to those without hope or expectations of a life beyond the streets, to show them life has value.

For Raphael, who recently fasted and prayed for three days near a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s not too much to ask for zero killings.

‘‘I’m really asking God,’’ he said Wednesday, before ending his fast. ‘‘This is something God can do. God can use people.’’

Riley said his goals for 2009 — which has already seen its first murders — include having 1,600 officers by year’s end; improving how officers respond to residents; and focusing greater attention on tourist areas. The city’s economy relies heavily on tourism.

After firing some officers and suspending others, he said he also wants to ensure the safeguards are in place to keep officers ‘‘on the straight and narrow.’’

‘‘The criticism you hear is not what I hear,’’ he said. ‘‘People stop me, they thank me and are very cordial and proud of what’s happening in this city.’’