Law and Order

by Jeremy Alford

Crime is taking a bite out of Louisiana as another legislative session and statewide elections draw closer, and an angry electorate wants answers.

Blue and red lights bouncing off the street. Yellow police tape flapping in the wind. Shell casings marked off as evidence. Your local television newscast is already showing the images that will be used in campaign commercials for the upcoming fall races.

The 2006 crime statistics that have been slowly ' and begrudgingly ' rolled out by law enforcement across Louisiana have bolstered growing resentment among communities statewide. There are overall or partial increases in violent crimes practically across the board, and almost all of Louisiana's major metropolitan areas have already recorded homicides for 2007.

Angry mobs of voters are forming from New Orleans to Shreveport, holding town hall meetings and creating watchdog groups. At the same time, lawmakers are preparing for a regular session that kicks off in April, followed quickly by the fall elections. It's a collision course that promises tough-on-crime bills and pie-in-the sky solutions from the stump. Jim Kitchens, founder of the Orlando-based Kitchens Group, has conducted extensive polling on the matter in Louisiana and around the nation. While crime isn't emerging as a serious issue outside state lines, Kitchens is reporting a spike in Louisiana. The state managed to sail through the 1990s without it becoming a central public concern, but the climate is rapidly changing. "This is a fundamental political issue and always has been," Kitchens says. "Public safety is kind of No. 1, and this year in Louisiana, it could be big."

According to nationwide figures recently released by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the first six months of 2006 saw a 3.7 percent jump in violent crime, including a 9.7 percent increase in robbery, a 1.4 percent increase in murder and a 1.2 percent increase in aggravated assault. Domestic violent crime is up for the second year in a row.

The same report also shows large leaps in Louisiana.

Lafayette's problem is that the police department can't seem to figure out whether crime is on the rise. The FBI's preliminary report showed a 45 percent increase in violent crime here, more than 10 times the national average, while robbery figures supposedly doubled and rapes and aggravated assaults had major leaps as well. Lafayette Interim Police Chief Jim Craft said the figures were the result of a computer glitch but also predicted an increase in crime for the region of three to 10 percent for 2006.

The New Year started out deadly in New Orleans, with eight homicides over a 10-day period. It's the continuation of a disturbing Crescent City trend in 2006. If the city's population is 220,000, as cited by University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf, then last year's 161 murders equates to approximately 73 homicides per 100,000 people. That's more than five times the national average. Thousands of outraged New Orleans residents marched on City Hall last Thursday to demand answers and a plan to curb the violence from Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley.

Baton Rouge, with twice the population of Lafayette, saw a 12 percent increase in violent crimes last year, according to the report, with homicides coming in at 72, up from 50 in 2005. Shreveport's 30 murders in 2006 are a historic low for the city, but the FBI stats reveal notable increases in motor vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults.

The few silver linings haven't been enough for voters plagued by images of serial killers in the state and bloodshed in hurricane-stricken areas. "Even if crime isn't on the increase, there is obviously a crime problem," Kitchens says. "The news is reporting more crime, and that spike is creating concern."

Based on the results of last year's Louisiana Survey, conducted by Louisiana State University, there was a 17-point increase in the percentage of residents citing concern over issues related to crime and public safety. Additionally, the percentage of Louisianans that believe the state has become less safe over the past year increased by 19 points. The overall concern about crime in some areas has equaled or surpassed 2003, when south Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee was still at large.

"There is good news and bad news in this result," says Dr. Kirby Goidel, who oversaw the LSU study. "A return to other concerns is a reflection of a more stable political and economic environment, but it also means that other pressing concerns may lessen the sense of urgency needed to successfully rebuild the affected areas."

The unconventional studies detailed in Freakonomics, written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, might be used as a foundation for action. While reviewing why crime dropped in the 1990s, the duo credited stiffer prison sentences and more police on the street. With the state Legislature's penchant for mandatory minimums, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco's ongoing quest for police pay raises, this theory could come home to roost in Louisiana.

Kitchens says that approach might balloon prison populations and put the state budget on a bit of a tilt, but it's among the many solutions voters will be asking for in coming months. "Anytime the public has a perception that the crime rate is growing, they are going to look to politicians to solve the problem," he says. "Now we just have to see if they come up with anything."