June 20, 2007 — -- With the upcoming two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — and the sweeping flood waters she brought with her — New Orleans continues to roil in waves of violent crime on a daily basis.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on crime in post-Katrina New Orleans. Two panels addressed the committee, all of whom were absent with the exception of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.
The first panel included Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. and Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
"In 2006, over 160 murders occurred around the city of New Orleans, bringing the city the ominous distinction of being the city with the most murders per capita in the United States," Landrieu said, adding, "It's been heartbreaking every moment and heartbreaking for the families, and it has spread fear in our community."
Landrieu told the story of Helen Hill, who was one victim in what became New Orleans' deadly first week of 2007.
"On the morning of January 4, a home intruder shot and killed Helen Hill, a local filmmaker, and severely wounded her husband Paul," Landrieu said. "Paul is a physician who had come to the city to establish a medical clinic in the heart of the city, to treat the city's poor."
"When the police arrived around 5:30 a.m., they found Paul kneeling by the front door and bleeding profusely from three gunshot wounds and clutching his 2-year-old son," Landrieu said.
Landrieu explained the significance the killing had on the city as "profound."
A map of New Orleans was displayed to the committee, with numerous dots pinpointing open murder cases, solved murder cases and just one dot representing the one solved murder — out of 91 so far this year — that was successfully prosecuted.
Landrieu said she hoped Wednesday's hearing would be an opportunity for witnesses to talk about how best to use the federal government's resources.
Displaying a picture of the group of FEMA trailers that serves as the New Orleans police department's temporary headquarters, Landrieu said, "We're lucky just to have these trailers attached to the ground. God help us if another hurricane comes. Because NOPD still lacks central evidence storage which was, in large part, destroyed by the storm — we're putting our evidence into the back of an 18-wheel trailer."
Vitter said the most important thing the federal government can do is to leverage support for New Orleans' law enforcement departments.
"This problem ultimately will not be solved because of federal resources alone or because of federal personnel," Vitter said. "This problem is a local crime problem, which, at its core, is only going to be solved by proper action and discipline and organization on the ground, particularly within the New Orleans police department and the New Orleans district attorney's office."
The second panel included U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Louisiana, Jim Letten, Orleans Parish juvenile court Chief Judge David Bell, New Orleans police department deputy superintendent Anthony Cannatella, and president of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, Robert Stellingworth.
Letten briefed the committee on the impact federal law enforcement officers have had on crime in New Orleans and about the federal government's plan of action in the city.
"The U.S. attorney's office, coupled with our federal law enforcement partners — ATF, DEA, FBI, and the U.S. Marshals Service — along with our local partners, including the New Orleans police department, aggressively pursued the administration's and the department's violence reduction goals under the collaborative priority partnership known as Project Safe Neighborhoods, from its inception," Letten said.
Letten blamed the increase of New Orleans crime on four factors: drugs, immigrant-related crimes, gangs, and problems "unique to the Gulf region post-Katrina.
"The violence in the streets is generally the result of actions by individuals who, although armed because they are involved in the drug trade, nevertheless, also tend to settle non drug-related disputes violently," Letten said. "Importantly, the vast majority of homicides and other violent offenses, including rape, armed robbery, assault, and property crimes, must be handled by the local criminal justice system, because they cannot be connected to a chargeable federal offense or do not otherwise fall within federal jurisdiction."
Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Chief Judge David Bell told the committee OPJC presently has 689 open delinquency cases.
"Our current caseload of 689 far exceeds our capacity. Presently, our youth advocate program, one of our most successful programs, will be reduced in the next week from six mentor advocates to three because there is not enough funding to continue. It is currently on a freeze to reduce the number of youth in the program," Bell said.
Cannatella told the committee his department is struggling with recruitment and retention.
"Locally, we have no competitive advantage in recruiting qualified applicants. We suffered a net loss of 217 officers in 2005 and 216 in 2006. As of June 18, 2007, we have lost 72 officers," Cannatella said, adding, "We are down 505 officers until the two current recruit classes complete field training and graduate."
Blaming poor working and living conditions, Cannatella said living in post-Katrina New Orleans is hard, especially when many officers have family living outside of the city and out of state.
When asked what will come out of this committee, Leahy told ABC News, "We'll continue in the appropriations committee. Having spent eight years in law enforcement, it's just frustrating to not receive the basic things you know you need in law enforcement ... It's a horrendous thing — the fact that nothing has been done — you're still waiting to do it and it's like what Mr. Stellingworth said: restore the faith in the community, and if you don't restore the faith, then people don't come back."