Shhh ... New Orleans witnesses spate of murders
There are two things you need to really understand about New Orleans before you can talk about any issue there: 1) It is much smaller than you think and 2) Everything is about politics.
So when I tell you the murder rate is rising, but the chief of police doesn't think it's that bad, you can understand why people in New Orleans are starting to worry.
New Orleans has always been a high-crime city, but there was a big drop-off in the number of murders committed in the initial months after Hurricane Katrina. The flood that wiped-out large areas of this city also was credited with dispersing New Orleans' criminals.
But the effect appears to be temporary. So far this year, thirty-two people have been murdered in New Orleans; thirteen last month alone. In this city of 180,000 people, the result is murder rate comparable to some of the most crime-ridden areas of the country.
Last week, I sat down with Warren Riley, the new chief of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). He tried to explain how crime is not that bad in New Orleans.
The actual murder rate, he says, is lower than it was before Katrina wiped-out the population. He also tried to explain that the official estimate of the population -- 180,000 people -- is wrong.
Why? Because that figure doesn't count all the people who drive into New Orleans every day to work. It only counts the people who actually sleep in New Orleans when all those workers go home.
So the NOPD has decided to add a new mathematical twist to make its murder rate look better than it is. They add the daytime population to the nighttime population, then divide by two. That gives a much bigger population figure, and lo and behold, 32 murders in four months doesn't look as bad.
Despite trying to put a positive spin on the numbers, police officers admit there are indications that violent Latino drug gangs are following the heavily Hispanic labor force into the city. This is setting up the potential for turf wars with the mostly African-American gangs that dominated this city pre-Katrina.
The police force is short around 200 officers, and Chief Riley is asking the state for 50 or 60 troopers to help patrol the city's abandoned areas. Also, many police stations are still unusable, and the jail, courts and even patrol cars are in disrepair.
Chief Riley hopes to have his force back to around 1,600 officers in the next two years. Even so, he says he may need a force twice that strength to really control crime in New Orleans.