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Katrina Watch: Law and Disorder

The vibrant spirit of the Big Easy is slowly coming back. But a disturbing element of the city is also returning: violent crime.

During the first three months of 2006, there were 17 murders in New Orleans. That number almost doubled to 33 in the spring. But the most startling act of violence occurred in early June, when five New Orleans teenagers in an SUV were shot and killed. A 19-year-old man has been arrested for the killings, which police speculate were drug related.

In response to looting in deserted neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, Mayor Ray Nagin called in 300 National Guard troops and 60 state police officers to supplement his depleted and overwhelmed police force. This freed up local police to occupy areas where violent crimes have been taking place.

Peter Scharf, executive director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at the University of New Orleans, attributes the increase in violent crime to the fact that so many people are living in marginal and congested housing with no sense of community. He believes that the displacement, absence of jobs and lack of investment in social services have created an environment prone to violence. In addition, drug dealers with no place to live are staking out territories spared by Katrina, neighborhoods that had previously experienced a minimal level of criminal activity.

It’s a situation many New Orleans residents find unsettling. “This used to be a safe area, but now people are coming across the bridge and from other areas, so I don’t go out at night anymore,” says 53-year-old Taahirah Nadir, who lives in the Algiers neighborhood. The Nadirs own two day-care centers in the city and blame the resurgence of crime on a widespread lack of self-motivation. “We come from a people who had the will and no way,” says her husband Sharif, who grew up in New Orleans’s infamous Magnolia Projects. “This generation has a way, but no will.”

Still, Police Department Superintendent Warren Riley is hopeful. He expects the National Guard to remain until near the end of the year and plans to add another 60 officers to the local force by that time. “We do know we have a challenge ahead of us,” he says. “But many areas are thriving.”