Lisa Z. works at a hotel in the French Quarter. At midnight on July 6, she was walking home from work, headed to the Faubourg Marigny, when a trio of thugs knocked her to the ground, robbed her at gunpoint and left her lying in the street scared and hurting. “I was in the 1100 block of Royal Street. Three large guys came around the corner. These guys saw me and instantly started to look around. I realized right away that I was not in a good place. I wanted to cross the street where there was more light. I was headed into the street when they ran at me.”
When Hurricane Katrina cut through New Orleans like a buzz saw, it left the city’s economy in shambles and scattered its criminal element.
The storm made the months immediately after Katrina a pretty good year for crime in New Orleans, meaning there wasn’t much of it. The criminals were out of town – mostly in Houston.
Turns out it was a good thing the crooks were on hiatus because in addition to wrecking the city, Katrina had also slashed open the guts of the New Orleans Police Department.
NOPD headquarters sank under the putrid floodwaters. For weeks, cops slept in chairs and on the hard floors of their district stations. The police brass lived and worked at an outdoor camp set up under the valet parking overhang at Harrah’s Casino and ate at open-air mess tents set up by FEMA. At least 200 officers fled, abandoning their posts and their fellow cops.
Within weeks, Police Superintendent Eddie Compass resigned and the mayor promoted Assistant Superintendent Warren Riley to the top spot.
In the three years since the storm, government dollars, private investors and resilient residents have patched the economy, and the city, back together.
Many of those who left have come back, though not all of them are welcome.
Criminals, lured by the influx of money and job seekers, by the prospect of so many construction workers – many of whom don’t speak English, can’t complain to the cops and who get paid in cash – and by the revival of the tourist trade, as well as a general longing for home, have come back – in force.
According to FBI crime statistics, New Orleans was the nation’s murder capital in 2006 and ’07, and so far, despite the cagey way the Police Department keeps its own stats, ’08 is shaping up to be yet another banner year for killing in the Big Easy.
Thom Kahler and his wife have lived in the French Quarter since 1999. Kahler is a retired newspaper reporter and editor, and now a reluctant crime activist. He writes daily about crime in the French Quarter on his blog,NOcrimeline.com.
Kahler started his blog in March 2007 as a way to let his neighbors know what was really going on in their neighborhood, something police officials weren’t doing, he says.
For a while, the Police Department cooperated with Kahler. Recently, though, the relationship between the crime blogger and the city’s top cop has soured. Police Superintendent Warren Riley has accused the former newspaperman of lacing his crime reports with unfair criticism of him and the department. Kahler counters that Riley isn’t protecting the citizens of New Orleans.
“The real problem with the crime scene is that people don’t know what is really happening,” Kahler says. “Riley has been fudging the stats wildly. The big issue now is the downgrading of crimes: armed robberies in a dwelling to aggravated burglary, attempted murder to aggravated battery, etc.”
NOPD’s own crime stats don’t help much, given the Police Department’s emphasis on reporting “per capita” numbers, meaning the number of crimes per 100,000 residents, instead of raw numbers, which the department has only recently begun to report. Complicating the statistics further are footnotes claiming the city’s population has grown by some 40,000 people since last year, a claim disputed by many researchers, including the U.S. Census Bureau.
Depending on what numbers the Police Department has released and what numbers it’s held back or are “unavailable,” you almost have to be a math whiz with a slide rule to figure out what’s really going on.
Enter Thom Kahler’s crime blog.
“At the point I started NOcrimeline.com, we had a rash of armed robberies in the [French] Quarter,” Kahler says, “people just being knocked in the head right and left and robbed. Not just robberies, but they were vicious. Elderly people, they took them down and beat them. Other people that were frail, knocked them down and beat them. It wasn’t just about the money.”
In a post on his crime blog earlier this year, Kahler wrote that he had received a copy of an e-mail from a “major player” in the city’s hotel industry. The e-mail was to City Councilman James Carter, whose district includes the French Quarter and who chairs the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. In the e-mail, the hotel executive warns the councilman that the high crime rate is already causing the hotel occupancy rate to drop.
“Crime has gotten so bad in the French Quarter,” Kahler wrote, “there’s a danger tourists will start to think twice before vacationing in New Orleans.”
Life on the Street
Clyde and Barbara (not their real names) are in their 70s and have lived in the French Quarter for years. In 2007, they were robbed twice within two months. The first time was on Bourbon Street. Walking home from a friend’s house, the elderly couple found themselves face to face with two armed bandits, one a man and the other a woman.
“Both had guns,” Barbara says. “Both waved them at us, pointed them at us. My husband slipped and fell. The guy stood over him with the gun pointed directly at his head.”
The robbers, both of whom wore handkerchiefs over their faces and knit caps pulled down low across their foreheads, stole the couple’s wallets and Clyde’s cell phone.
Two months later, Clyde and Barbara were attacked again. This time in their own driveway. Barbara had just stepped inside the house. Clyde was still outside, unloading the car, when Barbara heard him yell for help. When she ran outside, she saw Clyde on the ground with a man on top of him. The man held a knife to Clyde’s throat. Barbara shouted at the man to go away.
“I used words I didn’t even know I knew,” she says.
The robber grabbed Clyde’s wallet and fled.
Barbara says she and Clyde don’t walk in the French Quarter at night anymore. “We take a lot more cabs now.”
Armed robbers look for victims they can get the “ups” on, street slang for getting an advantage over someone. Experts say street predators tend to target people who aren’t paying attention to their surroundings or are distracted in some way.
“They don’t like people who look hyper-alert because it’s hard to sneak up on them.
It’s hard to get the ups on them,” says Richard Wright, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and co-author of the book Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture.
Flashing cash, flaunting jewelry, stumbling away from a bar, looking afraid – such actions are like blood in the water to a street armed robber.
“I liken them to sharks,” says Matthew Lee, a sociologist, at Louisiana State University. “They’re out milling around the city waiting to come across a good opportunity.”
According to Kahler’s research, based on numbers he managed to shake loose from sources at the NOPD, armed robberies in the French Quarter were up 34 percent for the first half of 2008 over the same period last year.
Citywide, armed robberies were up 46 percent in the first quarter of this year, and overall violent crime was up 20 percent, according to NOPD’s own statistics.
In October, NOPD touted a dramatic 33 percent drop in overall violent crime for the third quarter of the year, but the pronouncement didn’t tell the entire tale.
According to the Police Department’s own statistics, year-to-date numbers showed murders were down just four percent and armed robberies had dropped only three percent.
For the year, armed robberies in the French Quarter were up slightly over last year.
“The people in the [French] Quarter, they’re very concerned about armed robberies,” Kahler says. “That’s what they care about the most, and it’s a very real fear.”
Lisa Z., robbed on her way home from work, now knows that fear well.
Lisa Z, armed robbery victim
“One guy basically clothes-lined me, then semi-choked me, threw me on the sidewalk and jammed a chrome, snub-nosed .38 revolver against my cheekbone,” remembers Lisa Z.
“The second guy stood on my cheek and jaw to hold my head still. I couldn’t see the third. I think he was the lookout. The guy with the gun in my face asked where my money was and I said that it was in my backpack. The guy with his boot on my face started to pull [on the backpack].”
One strap came loose. The other didn’t.
“The guy pulling on the bag must have thought I was holding it because he kicked me.”
The crooks eventually figured out how to break the second strap on Lisa’s backpack.
“The gunman then asked if I had anything else and I said that I didn’t. He grabbed my cigarettes out of my pocket and then took out my cell phone. All three then casually started to walk away. I sat up and the guy pointed the gun at me and told me, ‘Bitch, lay back down or I’ll have to shoot you in the face.’”
The crooks made off with $28, a prepaid cell phone, old receipts, shopping lists, some lip gloss, an eyeliner pencil and an umbrella.
“I am paranoid walking around the city, even in daylight. That is a horrible feeling. I have no car, so walking is how I get around. I need to go to the store, come and go from work and so on. I still do, of course, only now there’s a difference.”
Lisa continues, “I used to walk at a slow pace, peeking into courtyards, looking at the houses, the gardens, basically enjoying the city. Now, I find myself walking only when I need to, just from point A to point B, not looking at the little things that I love about New Orleans, but instead studying anyone and everyone in my sight.”
In New Orleans, as in many big cities, there has been a huge disconnect between police and prosecutors.
According to a report last February by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, only half of the violent felony arrests NOPD made in 2007 were accepted for prosecution. Extrapolating the numbers from the first three quarters of 2007 to the final quarter of the year, an analysis of the 2007 crime stats shows that only about 26 percent of the violent crimes the DA’s office prosecuted – and a mere 14 percent of violent crime arrests NOPD made – ended up in a conviction.
So what is it going to take to make the French Quarter and the city safe?
“I think the new DA, Leon Cannizzaro, is going to tackle the crime problem like a junkyard dog – devouring the violent criminals,” Kahler says. “He fully recognizes the problem and seems to have a plan to tackle it forcefully.”
But there’s a bigger change needed.
“The biggest need is Police Department reform, like in the early 1990s … a shakeup in command,” Kahler says. “Riley is probably a good man but he’s in over his head. You can see that whenever he confronts a crisis. There are a couple of cops in the department now who might make a good chief: Marvin Defillo for one, Jeff Winn, one of the heroes of Katrina. But the department needs to go outside of itself, and a good choice would be Ronnie Serpas, the NOPD’s first chief of operations when the department was shaken up in the 1990s, and who is now police chief in Nashville.”
How does Superintendent Warren Riley respond to Kahler’s charges and the concerns of French Quarter residents? How does he plan to stop the epidemic of violence sweeping the city’s biggest tourist draw? No one knows.
I repeatedly tried to set up an interview with someone from the NOPD, but police officials refused to cooperate.
Meanwhile, the fear continues.
While researching this article, I interviewed Kahler at a French Quarter landmark, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop at the corner of Bourbon and St. Philip streets. We wrapped up our interview about eight on a Friday night. Two hours later and just two blocks away, a couple was robbed by a man wielding a shotgun at the corner of Bourbon and Governor Nicholls streets.
Ten minutes later, two blocks on the other side of Lafitte’s, a man with a pistol robbed another couple at the corner of Dauphine and Dumaine streets.
More victims; more stories to tell.
Chuck Hustmyre is a retired federal agent and an award-winning freelance writer. He is the author of the true crime books An Act of Kindness and Killer with a Badge and the novel House of the Rising Sun.