A bystanders identified as the victim’s mother cries at the scene of a murder on the corner of Sixth and Danneel Streets on Jan. 25, 2011.
Of all the challenges facing the city of New Orleans, none is as urgent or as relentlessly grim as the city’s homicide rate. It was measured at 10 times the national average in 2010, long before shootings on Halloween night in the crowded French Quarter revealed to a larger public what was going on in poor neighborhoods around the city every week. There were 51 homicides per 100,000 residents here last year, compared with less than 7 per 100,000 in New York or 23 in similar-size Oakland, Calif.
“From September of last year to February of this year,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieuin a recent speech, after reciting a litany of killings from one city high school, “a student attending John McDonogh was more likely to be killed than a soldier in Afghanistan.”
New Orleans has long been a violent town; in 1994, there were 421 killings here, one of which was a hit ordered by a police officer. With federal intervention, the homicide rate dropped precipitously but began rising again around 2000 and has been fluctuating since Hurricane Katrina. The killers and their victims are overwhelmingly young black men, according to an analysis of homicide cases by outside experts last March, and sponsored by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. As police officials frequently point out to the anger of some families, most victims and offenders had prior contacts with the police, often for violent crimes. Less than a quarter were listed as having a steady job.
The narrower causes are less clear. There are no large organized gangs in town, nor are there major drug wars, though some killings are turf disputes over the drug market, made worse by the drastic reshuffling of the urban poor after Hurricane Katrina and the demolition of public housing projects.
Many killings in New Orleans are a result of conflicts and vendettas among small, loosely organized groups, the analysis concluded, but in nearly half the cases, the experts listed the primary motive as uncertain or unknown. Only about half the homicide cases are cleared.
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