(2 of 10)
As I listened to that story, it struck me as self-aggrandizing to compare New Orleans with Iraq. But I would hear the analogy again and again as I talked with people who had spent years fighting and losing the battle against violent crime in New Orleans. The U.S. Attorney talked about the need to win citizens' hearts and minds. An FBI agent compared the city's gangs to a jihadist movement: small, loosely organized and hard to track.
Most people who study crime in New Orleans see it in the context of a panorama of failures: the broken school system, an economy that hasn't adapted to modernity and shamefully easy access to guns. But the factor that may be unique to New Orleans is a justice system that has lost all credibility.
The N.O.P.D. is too often blamed as the sole source of the problem. That's naive. But there is no denying the department's atrocious history. In the 1990s, a group of officers was arrested for operating a drug-dealing ring within the department. An N.O.P.D. officer hired a hit man to kill a woman who had reported police brutality. Although the department has improved since then, the transcript of the cop ordering the execution, recorded by an FBI wiretap, is lodged in the collective memory of the city.
And the court system compounds the public's distrust. Criminal-court judges in New Orleans are significantly less likely than judges elsewhere to send people--even violent felons--to prison, according to a 2005 study by the city's Metropolitan Crime Commission. Of all the people arrested by the N.O.P.D. during a 12-month period from 2003 to 2004, only 7% were eventually sentenced to prison.
Often, violent-crime charges get dropped by the district attorney's office. The No. 1 reason, says Rafael Goyeneche, president of the commission, is that witnesses and victims who initially agree to cooperate eventually change their mind. They fear for their lives because they know most criminals arrested in New Orleans end up back on the street. In 2004, Keisha Robinson, 29, was gunned down in broad daylight in front of her house shortly after she had testified before a grand jury investigating her younger brother's killing. Police can't be sure why she was attacked, since they never arrested anyone for her murder. But it was perceived by many as a revenge killing. Two months before, Ryan Smith, a key witness in another murder case, was shot dead outside his workplace. Prosecutors, lacking witnesses, back away from all but the most solid cases. And a flaccid judicial system gets weaker still.
In other cases, the problem is the judges. Certain judges tend to set very low or no bail for defendants, especially in drug cases, the commission report concluded. "The vast majority of our judges are good men and women, thank God, who do a tough job. They're inundated with cases," says Goyeneche, a former prosecutor. "[But] a small percentage are doing a disservice to the community and putting people at risk. Corruption explains some of it, also burnout and just callousness."
So people stopped believing in the system. And into the void stepped young men who took matters into their own well-armed hands. Two gangs in particular--the Dooney Boys and 3 'n' G, both associated with poor neighborhoods in the city--were tearing up the streets in a nauseating, perpetual cycle of revenge.