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"When a community feels like the judicial system has failed, then a second system kicks in," says Jim Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans division, "and killings beget killings beget killings."
Bernazzani rode out the storm in the FBI office, perched on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. The howling, punishing winds stripped off two-thirds of the roof. He spent five days there in all before being helicoptered to safety.
Bernazzani had arrived in New Orleans from Washington four months earlier. He had spent the previous four years helping the FBI set up the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, and when he came to New Orleans, he decided--in a stroke of either brilliance or desperation--to do the exact same thing. "The violence was so ingrained in the youth, you could not arrest your way out of it," he says. But what he could do was try to get everyone--police, FBI agents, prosecutors--to share information. "The missing piece was not intelligence but the integration of intelligence, just like with terrorism," says Bernazzani. The first step was to identify the most violent criminals and "remove them from the equation."
Two weeks before Katrina, Bernazzani and the police completed a list of 112 "baddest bad guys," as he puts it--people believed responsible for a disproportionate amount of the violence in New Orleans. They weren't all wanted, not in the official sense. But the plan was to track them aggressively and develop cases against them so they could be put away for a long time.
That sounds like a pretty obvious strategy. But it's hard to pull off in reality. It requires that the local police departments develop good sources of intelligence and then, the greatest challenge of all, share that intelligence with one another and with the armada of federal agents in the city--from the FBI to the U.S. Attorney's office to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Then they have to build professional, solid cases that will hold up in court. Finally, they must avoid handing the cases to certain local judges who have what Bernazzani calls "a warped sense of social consciousness."
The list of 112 was compiled in a less than scientific manner. Each of the eight police districts sent the names of their most notorious locals to N.O.P.D. headquarters. "It was a start," says Bernazzani. One person on the list was Ivory (B-Stupid) Harris, then 20. He had been arrested at least eight times in the past two years. He had been charged with murder twice, but nothing ever stuck. No one wanted to testify against Harris, police say.
In the midst of the anarchy following Katrina, Bernazzani suddenly remembered the list. Before he was rescued, he went back into the rubble of the FBI building and scrounged through his senior analyst's desk until he found the computer disc. One of the first things he did after he got to dry ground was send the list to FBI headquarters. On Sept. 10, the list went out to every FBI field office in the country with orders to share it with local law enforcement.