On Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans was on track to finish the year as the deadliest city in America, again. Crime had become atomized here—it was part of the culture, the air, the dark humor of the place. Under normal circumstances, criminologists believe, there are two ways to stop a cycle of gang violence: either dismantle the gangs or disrupt their business. In New Orleans, both happened overnight. Hurricane Katrina sundered what no man could, sending the criminals fleeing in all directions. So now there was a mystery: What would happen next? What would become of the criminal population when stripped of its neighborhood affiliations, its drug suppliers and a well-worn black-market infrastructure? This is a story about what happened to the gangs of New Orleans. But it is also a story about a culture of killing and what it takes to change it.
New Orleans was a disaster site before Katrina. So far that year, 202 people had been murdered. Computer models predicted that about 107 more were going to be killed before the year was out. “We were watching the lid come off,” says Peter Scharf, a University of New Orleans criminologist. At that rate, not only would New Orleans have once again ranked as deadlier than New York City or Los Angeles, but it would also have been so much more violent that it really belonged in another country altogether. By the time Katrina hit, most law-enforcement types in the city had come to an unpleasant conclusion: no amount of arrests would stanch the murder rate. Somewhere along the way, despite the best efforts of techno-cop Chief Richard Pennington in the 1990s, despite tens of thousands of arrests for drug and quality-of-life crimes, violence had become normalized.
“It was chaos,” remembers Jimmy Keen, a lieutenant with the New Orleans police department (N.O.P.D.) and the former commander of the homicide unit. Keen joined the department at age 19 and has stayed for 30 years. He has white hair swept back off his forehead, gimlet eyes and the bone-dry sense of humor adopted by police officers whose intentions have been knocking up against reality for a long time.
Over drinks and cigarettes at the Carousel Bar in the French Quarter recently, Keen explained New Orleans by telling the story of a 15-year-old named “Caveman.” On April 14, 2003, at 10:30 in the morning, high school football player Jonathan (Caveman) Williams was sitting in his gym class. The gymnasium was packed with kids. Without warning, two men with an AK-47 and a handgun walked into the gym, strode up to Caveman and shot and killed him. They fired at least 18 times, blowing off half his face and pockmarking the floor tiles underneath his body. Three girls were injured by stray bullets. Then the men walked out. Police said the attack was probably payback for the murder of another high school student the week before.
Keen’s officers went house to house, searching for the killers. They had 150 witnesses in the gym and a dead child on the floor. It was hard to imagine that the case would be a tough one to crack. And yet, Keen says, the officers’ questions were met with shrugs and stares. “I asked my sergeant, ‘How’s it going?’” remembers Keen. “And he said, ‘I feel like the Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq. The people in the neighborhoods don’t want us here. They don’t speak our language. They won’t talk to us.’“
As I listened to that story, it struck me as self-aggrandizing to compare New Orleans with Iraq. But I would hear the analogy again and again as I talked with people who had spent years fighting and losing the battle against violent crime in New Orleans. The U.S. Attorney talked about the need to win citizens’ hearts and minds. An FBI agent compared the city’s gangs to a jihadist movement: small, loosely organized and hard to track.
Most people who study crime in New Orleans see it in the context of a panorama of failures: the broken school system, an economy that hasn’t adapted to modernity and shamefully easy access to guns. But the factor that may be unique to New Orleans is a justice system that has lost all credibility.
The N.O.P.D. is too often blamed as the sole source of the problem. That’s naive. But there is no denying the department’s atrocious history. In the 1990s, a group of officers was arrested for operating a drug-dealing ring within the department. An N.O.P.D. officer hired a hit man to kill a woman who had reported police brutality. Although the department has improved since then, the transcript of the cop ordering the execution, recorded by an FBI wiretap, is lodged in the collective memory of the city.
And the court system compounds the public’s distrust. Criminal-court judges in New Orleans are significantly less likely than judges elsewhere to send people—even violent felons—to prison, according to a 2005 study by the city’s Metropolitan Crime Commission. Of all the people arrested by the N.O.P.D. during a 12-month period from 2003 to 2004, only 7% were eventually sentenced to prison.
Often, violent-crime charges get dropped by the district attorney’s office. The No. 1 reason, says Rafael Goyeneche, president of the commission, is that witnesses and victims who initially agree to cooperate eventually change their mind. They fear for their lives because they know most criminals arrested in New Orleans end up back on the street. In 2004, Keisha Robinson, 29, was gunned down in broad daylight in front of her house shortly after she had testified before a grand jury investigating her younger brother’s killing. Police can’t be sure why she was attacked, since they never arrested anyone for her murder. But it was perceived by many as a revenge killing. Two months before, Ryan Smith, a key witness in another murder case, was shot dead outside his workplace. Prosecutors, lacking witnesses, back away from all but the most solid cases. And a flaccid judicial system gets weaker still.
In other cases, the problem is the judges. Certain judges tend to set very low or no bail for defendants, especially in drug cases, the commission report concluded. “The vast majority of our judges are good men and women, thank God, who do a tough job. They’re inundated with cases,” says Goyeneche, a former prosecutor. “[But] a small percentage are doing a disservice to the community and putting people at risk. Corruption explains some of it, also burnout and just callousness.”
So people stopped believing in the system. And into the void stepped young men who took matters into their own well-armed hands. Two gangs in particular—the Dooney Boys and 3 ‘n’ G, both associated with poor neighborhoods in the city—were tearing up the streets in a nauseating, perpetual cycle of revenge.
Jorge Johnson, 40, moved to Houston about a month after Katrina, after spending several weeks in a Baton Rouge shelter. A construction worker and painter originally from Honduras, Johnson had lived in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He evacuated in his 2003 blue Dodge Caravan with his girlfriend, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. The boyfriend, Dwight Robertson, was Johnson’s friend as well, so they all stuck together after the storm.
They spent days calling friends to find out where everyone was. One friend suggested that they crash at his apartment in Houston, so they piled back into the Dodge Caravan. Unfortunately, Houston had minimal housing vacancies when Katrina came along, and most of the cheaper apartments were clustered in large complexes in southwest Houston. So as the aid money started rolling out, tens of thousands of evacuees found themselves in the same corner, like it or not.
At first the Catalina apartment complex was nice and quiet, Johnson says. The apartments are bordered by a brick wall with New Orleans-style lamps. But as weeks went by and more evacuees moved in, he started spending more time inside. He and Robertson, who had worked as a cook in the French Quarter, cooked dinner at each other’s apartments and watched TV. Soon almost everyone in Johnson’s building was from New Orleans.
The shootings started near the tennis courts, Johnson remembers. On Nov. 5, a New Orleans evacuee shot a Houston man in the hand. In December, a stray bullet was fired into Johnson’s apartment. It entered through the glass patio door, went through the living room and into the bedroom. Luckily, no one was home. Then on Christmas Eve, a man from New Orleans got into a fight. He was shot in the stomach and killed just after midnight. Police interviewed at least one witness. Twelve hours later, they dropped him back at the apartment building. He was shot in the head before he got inside.
In December, the killings hit a peak in Houston, as evacuees were implicated in 11 murders. As if on cue, B-Stupid Harris resurfaced, according to Houston police, who said he was wanted for questioning in connection with the murder of a New Orleans evacuee—shot to death at a freeway intersection at 4:20 a.m. on Dec. 17 after a fight at a nearby pool hall. Harris’ name would become familiar to the entire Houston police department. “Harris was the axle at the center of our wheel. He kept coming up,” says Sergeant Brian Harris, a homicide investigator with the Houston police.
Violence picked up around the country at the same time. In January, three New Orleans evacuees were accused of killing two men after a fight at a music hall in Oklahoma City. A juvenile evacuee was charged with accessory to murder in Baton Rouge after a man was found shot dead in the street. In general, New Orleans criminals seemed reluctant to break into the drug market in their new towns. Instead, they dealt to their old customers in a new place. Houston, in particular, had long been a distribution point for drugs coming from Central and South America into New Orleans, so it wasn’t hard for dealers to set up shop again. As aid money started rolling in, crime increased. “They were victimizing each other,” says Sergeant Harris. “The new crime was to steal one another’s FEMA money.”
The court system is worse off than it was before the storm. The public defender’s office is down from 42 attorneys to 21. The D.A.’s office has about 6,000 cases and only 65 prosecutors—compared with 3,500 cases and 90 attorneys before the storm. The office is now run out of a former nightclub, where a mirrored disco ball spins silently over the work space. The criminal court has yet to hold a single jury trial since Katrina.
And at least one judge is back to his old habits of freeing suspects arrested for serious crimes. In March, police and DEA agents arrested Brian Expose, 33, for dealing drugs. Police say they found $186,000 in cash; a pair of assault rifles; five other guns, including an automatic weapon with a silencer; and a large stash of ammunition—not to mention 6 oz. of cocaine.
The same day, New Orleans Criminal District Judge Charles Elloie set him free. From 2003 to 2004, Elloie, one of 12 judges, was responsible for 83% of cases in which a suspect was released after a bail reduction, according to a Metropolitan Crime Commission study. Since Katrina, Elloie has issued either no bail or low bail in at least four cases involving assault rifles, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Elloie did not respond to a call from TIME.
The only bright spot of the Expose tale is that the backlash was swift. Under pressure from local media, Elloie issued a bench warrant for Expose’s rearrest—claiming that he hadn’t been told all the details of the case. But federal authorities swooped in with their own warrant and arrested Expose themselves. He has since pleaded not guilty and remains in jail without bail.
Chief Riley is still confident enough to vow that New Orleans should never again rank among the 10 most violent cities in America. So far, the odds are against him. But he suggests another, more creative way to judge the health of his city after Katrina. Come back in a year, he says, and see how many from that original list of 112 are still in jail. Then compare the results with Houston. “My understanding is that Houston keeps these criminals in jail. Let’s see if our system keeps these people in jail. That will be a great test.”
Whatever happens in New Orleans, there are lessons for other places. It will not be the last time that a city is wiped out by a catastrophe, given Americans’ preference for living in dense, coastal areas. Some of these lessons are easy to learn: store criminal records and evidence in a secure location above sea level, for one thing. After a calamity occurs, make sure an officer from the evacuated city helps identify notorious criminals in cities receiving refugees. And make sure FEMA is willing and able to help track dangerous evacuees as they move—a commonsense collaboration that took months to set up after Katrina, owing to privacy concerns.
For the first time in modern history, we now know what criminals will do after a mass exodus: just like everyone else, they will spend a couple of months getting their bearings. They will apply for aid and call people they care about on their cell phones. Then they will find one another and start killing one another again. They will go where the housing and the drug users are. Perhaps most important of all, they will carry with them the petty disputes of the past, along with their assumptions about the consequences.