By Martin Savidge Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/5/2007 6:47:08 PM ET 2007-01-05T23:47:08

The Big Easy’s murder rate is staggering. In a single, recent 24-hour period six people died, including a 36-year-old mother gunned down in front of her husband and 2-year-old in their own home.

Two hours after I arrived at work Friday morning, two more victims were found dead, bringing the total number to 14 people killed in one week.

Even to a city with a history of violence it’s frightening. Peter Scharf is a noted criminologist with the University of New Orleans. He’s been crunching the numbers. Murder rates are usually calculated by number of killings per 100,000 residents.

“The average in the United States is 6.2 homicides per 100,000 people,” he says. “New York City is right at 6.2, Boston is right about 12, Houston at 13. New Orleans for the whole year is about 73 per 100,000. For the last two quarters, from June 30 through the end of the year, we're at well over 90 per 100,000.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune summed up the situation in this headline across the top of Page 1 Friday morning: “Killings bring the city to its bloodied knees.”

When you start looking for root causes, the more people you talk to, the more reasons you get.

The police point to a highly competitive illegal drug trade targeting many of the workers who have come to help rebuild the city and surrounding area. Then they say that retaliation killings for the initial killings are spiraling out of control. Most frustrating for police is the lack of cooperation from the public.

On Thursday, Assistant Superintendent of Police Steven Nicholas held a news conference virtually begging for help.

“We are beseeching all members of the community to come forward,“ he said. “We have had two or three of these murders when people have actually been present with the victims, they refuse to cooperate.”

At the same news conference, Darlene Cusanza, the executive director of local nonprofit Crimestoppers, was even more blunt.

“Our message is very simple today: Enough is enough,” she said. “And if we don't stop this, then our city doesn't have a future.”

Experts offer other factors for the crime wave, all of them related to Katrina:

  • A police force still undermanned.
  • A criminal courts system still overwhelmed.
  • Storm-ravaged and vacant neighborhoods where criminals can hide.
  • Social services either curtailed or nonexistent.
  • Money for crime-fighting now diverted to the rebuilding effort. 

Political analyst Silas Lee says the crime surge couldn’t have come at a worse time — when many former residents were thinking of returning and those who had come back were wondering if they had made the right decision.

“Crime severely impairs the psychological status of citizens in a community,” says Silas, a sociology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. “It causes a lot of dysfunction in society, it diverts resources, it disrupts the social order, and it creates a sense of paralysis with the citizens where they feel that it's hopeless and they fear for the future of the community as well as for themselves.”

Late Friday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was planning to meet with civic and business leaders. One idea they may consider: a 2-6 a.m. curfew.

That’s likely to trigger some sour notes, especially from the bar and club owners on Bourbon Street. But officials know unless the killings stop, the city itself will be the ultimate victim.

NBC's Martin Savidge will report more on New Orleans' crime wave tonight on “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.”

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