Gulf Watch: Law and disorder post-Katrina

As if New Orleans didn't have enough problems to contend with, deadly violence is on the rise in the city, which has long suffered from a high crime rate.

Three killings on New Year's Eve brought the city's murder total for 2006 to 161 people, the Times-Picayune reports. Depending on which population estimate is used, that puts the city's murder rate at somewhere between 60 to 81 murders per 100,000 residents-about seven to 10 times the national rate.

That compares to the city's rate of 56 per 100,000 in 2004, when 264 homicides were reported, and a rate of 58 in 2003, which saw 274 killings. There were 211 murders reported in 2005, but the rate for that year is impossible to calculate because of the post-storm exodus.

Particularly alarming to crime experts is the fact that the city's murder rate appears to be climbing sharply, with 105 of the 161 killings coming in the last half of the year. In 2005, the highest murder rate for any city was in Compton, Calif., at 67 killings per 100,000 residents.

It's not easy to glean information on New Orleans' homicide rate from the police department's crime stats Web site, though. There the department breaks down the stats by quarter and compares them to the previous year's quarter, which makes it appear as if there's actually been a dramatic drop in crime since they're considering raw numbers rather than rates by population, which has dropped precipitously since the storm.

The top priority in Mayor Ray Nagin's 2007 budget is public safety enhancement. But he also acknowledges that the city faces serious challenges in this area, with police force attrition doubled and recruitment down. While the force currently stands at 1,425, down from 1,668 before Katrina, current trends suggest there will be fewer than 1,000 officers on the streets within two or three years.

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Speaking of New Orleans police, a Louisiana grand jury last week indicted seven of them on a host of murder and attempted-murder charges for the shooting of six people-two of whom died, and one of whom survived but lost an arm-in the notorious Danziger Bridge incident that took place six days after Katrina struck the city, the Times-Picayune reports.

Four cops-Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, officer Anthony Villavaso and officer Robert Faulcon-were charged with the first-degree murder of 19-year-old James Brissette. Faulcon was also charged with the first-degree murder of Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally retarded man who was shot five times in the back.

The grand jury also cleared of any wrongdoing Ronald Madison's brother Lance Madison, who was arrested following the incident for allegedly sparking the melee by shooting at police. The 50-year-old Madison-a longtime FedEx employee with no criminal record-and his younger brother were seeking refuge at another brother's dental office when the incident occurred. This is how Lance Madison described the incident to the newspaper:

As the Madisons were walking toward the Danziger Bridge ... six teenagers in white T-shirts and jeans approached them and started shooting. As the Madisons ran up the bridge, away from the gunfire, a group of police in civilian clothes appeared on the scene, Madison testified. They also began shooting, and Ronald Madison was left dead with five gunshot wounds to the back and two to the upper arm, according to the coroner's autopsy report.

At this point, it's next to impossible for an outside observer to know exactly what happened that day on Danziger Bridge. Certainly the police officers were contending with almost unimaginable chaos and stress in the storm's wake.

But it is possible to say that what happened during the accused men's booking on Tuesday-when a group of other officers surrounded them and chanted "heroes"-was wrong. If New Orleans is serious about addressing the lawlessness plaguing its streets, allowing its police to cheer accused killers is hardly the way to do it.