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Constant guard

Like vultures over a dead body, criminals ravage post-Katrina New Orleans, but the National Guard and federal agents are making a difference

Constant guard

NEW ORLEANS-In the lobby of the Holiday Inn Superdome in downtown New Orleans, a handful of sunburned tourists in shorts and flip-flops hover over maps of the French Quarter, planning their day. In a sprawling hotel conference room nearby, camouflage-clad Louisiana National Guard troops hover over maps of hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods, planning their day as well.

The troops' agenda doesn't include gumbo or jazz, but it does include helping the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) patrol a city enduring an officer shortage and a crime surge: The NOPD has at least 268 fewer officers than it did before Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005. Meanwhile, the department's first-quarter crime statistics show that violent crime is up 107 percent over the same period last year.

When the city asked for outside help, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco deployed a 300-troop Louisiana National Guard contingent to assist the NOPD. "Task Force Gator" set up operations last June at the Holiday Inn, where guardsmen also live.

The Department of Justice also responded to the city's plea, sending nearly three dozen new agents and attorneys to New Orleans to assist federal agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

The outside help creates a new dynamic in New Orleans, a city long harangued by acute crime and a feeble justice system, and that now battles post-Katrina crime trends as well. But officials are hopeful: They say heavier crackdowns and better community policing are yielding more arrests, and that a new emphasis on federal prosecutions is closing local loopholes that have freed notorious criminals for years.

National Guard Captain Travis Douget works on crackdowns: Douget, 37, oversees day-to-day operations for Task Force Gator. The job is a good fit for the captain, who served as a Baton Rouge police officer for eight years. On a recent patrol in New Orleans East, Douget described the guard's primary mission: patrol miles of lightly populated sections of town where property crime is rampant.

Homeowners who return regularly to work on their homes in devastated New Orleans neighborhoods like Lakeview and the 9th Ward often find a maddening reality: Thieves have raided their homes. The criminals often take anything they can remove: newly installed appliances, air conditioning units, and copper piping are hot items.

Douget told WORLD that some thieves pose as contractors, arriving in trucks at vacant homes in broad daylight. Some even wear orange construction vests. Since genuine contractors are ubiquitous in New Orleans, bystanders often don't recognize that imposters are robbing their neighbors right before their eyes.

Criminals also use vacant homes for another illicit purpose: drug deals. "Cocaine, marijuana-you name it, we see it," says Douget. Violent crime often stems from drug crime, and the troops respond to those calls as well.

The guardsmen on the task force, who have the authority of state troopers, have made over 2,000 arrests since last summer. They also work closely with the NOPD, often providing back-up or a first response until officers arrive.

As Douget talks about the guard's work, a call comes over the radio reporting a street fight on nearby Humanity Avenue. At the scene, two guardsmen and a police officer handcuff two men who have been fighting near an empty house. Another officer tends to the bleeding arm of one of the suspects.

A guardsman approaches Douget's car and salutes before reporting the situation. "We can't find a weapon, but we know he punctured the other guy with something," the guardsman says. "They're both going to jail."

As he drives away, Douget says the troops on the task force have done a good job of patrolling the streets, especially considering most had no prior policing experience. To close that training gap, certified instructors at the guard's Camp Villere in Slidell, La., conduct a police academy for guardsmen who want to join the task force.

The instructors provide the same training offered to civilian law enforcement: basic defense, handling weapons, handcuffing techniques, and approaching and detaining suspects. "We take our time with them and follow through," says Douget. About 80 troops go through the academy at a time, he says. About 60 make it. "We stress that," says the captain. "Just because you sign up for the academy doesn't mean you make it."

Still, Douget says there is never a shortage of the volunteer recruits: "You always have people wanting to get on." A handful of troops liked the work so much they joined police departments in New Orleans and Baton Rouge after their assignments ended.

The NOPD will take all the good recruits it can get. The force recently launched an aggressive recruiting campaign, and the Louisiana House approved $6.6 million for police recruiting and equipment.

In his recent State of the City address, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin noted that the NOPD is on track to graduate six or seven cadet classes this year. That would add some 150 officers to the force. The mayor acknowledged that violent crime, especially murder, is still a serious problem, but called recent spikes in killings "blips."

Those "blips" brought the city's homicide total for the year to 77 by the time Nagin delivered his address on May 30. Seven of those killings happened in the five days leading up to May 30, including an 18-year-old man gunned down midday while riding his bicycle, and a cab driver shot late at night in a suspected robbery. On the same day as Nagin's speech, an Orleans Parish grand jury indicted a man charged with the beating death of his mother at a FEMA trailer on Easter.

FBI special agent Jim Bernazzani says the growing crime rate in New Orleans reflects both new and old problems. For example, Bernazzani points to a new, post-Katrina trend: Long-time drug dealers who fled during the storm are returning but finding their old neighborhoods still uninhabited. The dealers migrate to different areas of the city and corrupt once-safe neighborhoods.

Another post-Katrina trend: A surge of Latin American migrant workers seeking construction jobs has introduced new gangs to the city, like the notoriously violent MS-13. "New Orleans never had this crime element before," Bernazzani told WORLD. The FBI dismantled an Asian drug network that also sprang up in the city shortly after the storm.

But plenty of New Orleans crime woes stem from pre-Katrina problems in the city, which long served as "a revolving door" for many violent criminals, Bernazzani said. Four months before Katrina struck, District Attorney Eddie Jordan said that "a murderer in New Orleans has less than a one in four chance of being convicted of that crime."

Hurricane Katrina compounded the city's already-deficient system by wiping out the police department's crime lab. In the year-and-a-half that followed, thousands of suspects walked free because prosecutors didn't have the physical evidence to convict.

Bernazzani says law-abiding residents are well aware of the city's reputation for releasing violent criminals. Many refuse to help police for fear of retribution, making tips and witnesses hard to come by.

Federal agencies in New Orleans have launched an initiative aimed at prosecuting criminals the city can't or won't convict. Agents target suspects who commit federal crimes, such as illegal firearm possession or dealing crack cocaine, and turn them over to federal courts. U.S. District Attorney Jim Letten, who handles the federal cases, told City Journal: "Our goal is to detain, imprison, prosecute, and incarcerate these violent criminals-to get as many into the federal system as possible."

Bernazzani says that since February federal officials have made 80 arrests for violent crimes, and 75 suspects are still in lockdown. Sixty-five have been indicted, and "we're 20 for 20 on convictions," he says. "Word is getting out that the feds aren't screwing around."

As that word gets out, Captain Douget and his fellow guardsman continue to patrol alongside the NOPD. The guard was scheduled to pull out of New Orleans at the end of this month, but state officials have extended their stay through at least Sept. 30. Douget won't say how long he thinks the guard should stay, but he doesn't worry about running out of duties in the city: "There's plenty of work to do."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.