(7 of 10)
In January, Houston police officers held a press conference and promised to introduce the evacuees to "Texas law." They arrested eight New Orleanians suspected in 11 murders in the Houston area. The department spent $6.5 million on overtime.
But when police interviewed the suspects, they suddenly understood why New Orleans was so violent. No matter what police said, they couldn't get the suspects to talk. They had no leverage because no one took their threats seriously. It was a logical response: in New Orleans, 93% of people arrested from 2003 to 2004 never went to prison. "It was a real eye-opening experience," says Sergeant Harris. "People born and raised in Houston seem to have an understanding of consequences, of punishment. You can show them the options, and they start thinking, Wow, maybe I should start cooperating." With New Orleans evacuees, Sergeant Harris says, "there is no baseline. They have no concept of consequence."
It was the first time the Houston police had heard the phrase "60-day homicide." Suspects would say, "This ain't nothing but a 60-day homicide," meaning that if they kept quiet for 60 days, they would walk--just as they had too often in New Orleans. So Houston police started letting evacuees spend a few days in jail before questioning them in depth. While they waited, the suspects talked with other inmates and had court appearances--which did not end with release. Eventually, for some, the reality of Texas law began to sink in. "As they stay here more, they seem to talk more," Sergeant Harris says.
When I spoke to criminologist Blumstein about what happened in Houston after Katrina, he was not surprised to hear that evacuees were killing one another in a different place. "People who kill one another tend to be people who are like one another," he said. But he was intrigued to hear that the Houston police had noticed such a cultural difference. In that difference, he said, is hope. "Maybe there's a lesson here for how the New Orleans system ought to start shaping up."
During the reprieve in New Orleans, the FBI and the N.O.P.D. had the same thought. In December, about 20 local, state and federal law-enforcement leaders from New Orleans met in Quantico, Va., to plan for a post-Katrina criminal ecosystem. In hopes of staying ahead of the returning criminals, they started setting up a website to share pictures and information about gangs. They agreed to try to hit serious criminals with federal charges, thus bypassing the revolving doors of the local court system. And they promised to share what they knew.
They had made such vows before, of course. But according to Bernazzani, Riley and U.S. Attorney Letten, there was a new commitment in the room after Katrina. "It was a bond," says Bernazzani. "There was a recognition that Katrina broke the old crystal. Let's not go back to the old ways." The trauma created trust, something rare and precious in law enforcement.
Although neither mayoral candidate has talked much about crime during the campaign, everyone in New Orleans knows it is almost as important to the recovery as the levees. If crime returns in full force, many people--as well as businesses--simply will not go back. If people do not go back--feeding the tax base and bringing jobs and stability--the crime rate will become even worse.