The task is, by most accounts, a huge one. Mayor Ray Nagin already has his hands full trying to rebuild a city, and earlier efforts by previous mayors to curb crime have run headlong into concerns that a muscular response would ruin Bourbon Street businesses and drive away tourists and their dollars. Moreover, the police force is having trouble retaining officers, losing them at the rate of 17 per month, according to the New Orleans Police Department. And relations have been strained of late between the police and the district attorney's office, which need to work together to win convictions, especially now that seven officers have each been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two people in the chaotic days after Katrina hit the city.
In 2003 and 2004, the conviction rate for murder and attempted murder was at best 12 percent, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission. By comparison, the national conviction rate for murder and attempted murder is 80 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"People who are most affected by the crime have no confidence in the system," says Dee Harper, a criminologist at Loyola University here. "People don't come forward. We can't impanel juries that will convict anybody, especially if the only witness is a police officer. The system is really, really, seriously broken."
Against these challenges, city leaders have been slow to react. As late as December, Police Chief Warren Riley tried to put a positive spin on the crime picture, noting the number of murders last year was among the lowest in city history. But that's only because half as many people live here now. Murders per capita – which criminologists say is the more credible assessment – put New Orleans on course to become once again the "US Murder Capital."