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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

New Orleans' Criminal Chaos

Public Safety Policing, Crime Control

IN the aftermath of a weekend bloodbath that left five teenagers shot to death, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has asked Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to send in National Guard troops to assert order in that half-empty city. Perhaps all this will alert Washington to a key truth it has so far ignored, even as it spends billions of federal dollars to rebuild the Big Easy: The largest obstacle to recovery is New Orleans' culture of murder — which is so vicious and pervasive that it numbs the whole city.

At best, the Guard is just a short-term fix. Yes, soldiers can protect neighborhoods from looting, as some residents have complained that they have refurbished their houses and bought new appliances to replace flooded junk only to return from work to find their homes stripped bare.

But soldiers can't fix the real problem. Criminals terrorized New Orleans long before Katrina in large part because, the city's law and order system is broken. No matter how many billions the feds spend to rebuild levees, the majority of New Orleans' upstanding citizens won't return until the city solves its crime problem.

In the past six months, New Orleans has booked 54 killings, ensuring that it leads the nation in per-capita homicides.

Social scientists can ruminate over the "root" causes behind New Orleans' sky-high pre-Katrina homicide rate (which, if it held for New York's population, would mean nearly 5,000 murders a year here). But the most important thing is to stop it.

To do that, Blanco and Nagin must make real changes, not just call up the troops — and the Bush administration should help them, or the billions national taxpayers spend to rebuild will be wasted.

First, Blanco should fix the criminal-justice system.. Consider: Before Katrina, only 7 percent of those arrested for a crime in New Orleans served time, compared with 58 percent in a "normal" city. For homicide arrests, it was only 12 percent incarcerated in New Orleans, vs. 47 percent in a healthy city. Robbery arrests, 18 percent vs 60 percent; drug-distribution arrests, 12 percent vs. 71 percent.

Because New Orleans doesn't keep violent criminals behind bars, witnesses are afraid to testify against dealers, and murder victims' friends and relatives take revenge themselves: Last weekend's mass murder was likely retaliation for an earlier drug-related murder spate.

Blanco can stop this virulent murder cycle by ensuring that her state is tough on crime: For one thing, Louisiana needs tough drug laws (like New York's Rockefeller laws) to keep dealers locked up.

Of course, New Orleans' police department is no picnic, either. While many officers serve heroically, the department is not up to professional standards. Plus, even before the Katrina desertions, it had one-third of New York's police coverage on a population basis. (Pre-Katrina, New Orleans had hired former NYPD Chief of Department Louis Anemone to draw up a reform plan based on New York's model. But the storm cancelled his scheduled seminars for command officers, and the city hasn't restarted the project.) Where do the feds fit in?

New Orleans's tax base is still decimated from Katrina. Operating cash from the feds to help the Big Easy's beleaguered police department would do a world of good in luring evacuated middle-class citizens back so that the city can rebuild that tax base over, say, three years — but only if the funding's tied to accountability and an outside plan like Anemone's, and if Blanco holds an emergency session of the Legislature to fix the judicial system.

No, this isn't a federal mandate: New Orleans needn't take any money if it doesn't want to.

As for the U.S. taxpayers, well, we're already spending billions to rebuild physical infrastructure; to ensure that criminal sociopaths don't ruin that investment, we might spend a few tens of mil¬lions more on helping New Orleans assert safety.

President Bush, mean¬while, could show that New Orleans, a Democratic city, can be rebuilt better than before with conservative values, including basic law and order.