Relocated Drug Trade Fuels Murder Rate in New Orleans Suburb

Associated Press
Wednesday, August 16, 2006; 4:54 PM

HARVEY, La. -- An illicit drug trade, blown out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, has fueled a more than 50 percent increase in the murder rate in the suburb of Jefferson Parish, Sheriff Harry Lee said Thursday, adding that the victims and killers are largely young black men.

Thirty-five people had been murdered in the parish as of Tuesday night. Through mid-August of last year, the number was 23.

Lee released statistics showing that 18 of this year's murders were drug related -- as opposed to six last year.

"I know that there is a thought that as long as these druggies are killing each other no body is concerned about it," Lee said. "I know that may not be the proper attitude, but what happened is we cannot get a handle on the drug traffic."

Twenty-four of this year's victims and 21 of those arrested were black males. Most of the victims and the accused were under the age of 30 and some were as young as 14.

Of this year's murders, nine were in the parish's wealthier areas of Metairie and Kenner. Most were in small blue-collar towns and rural areas on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.

Various estimates put New Orleans' current population at around half its pre-Katrina level of 455,000. Jefferson Parish suffered a smaller population loss -- from close to 453,000 before the storm to about 440,000 now. With less damage from the hurricane, the parish has a larger housing base than New Orleans, and Lee said many people wanting to return to the area have settled there instead of New Orleans.

"I think the population shift has caused the drug market to shift," Lee said.

In the latest murders, a 24-year-old man was shot 11 times Monday night and officers recovered 24 shell casings from the murder scene; on Tuesday night, a man was called out of his house by a teenager on a bicycle, Lee said. The teen demanded money for crack cocaine he'd sold the man.

"The guy didn't have the money so he shot him in the top of the head," Lee said. "I think over a $40 debt. How do you explain that? How does a 15-year-old find it necessary to carry a gun?"

The sheriff's department has lost 45 deputies since the storm. Lee said that's because construction jobs in the area are paying higher wages than the Sheriff's Office. But Lee did not feel the decrease in deputies contributed to the jump in murder and he said overall crime in the parish is down.

"The people that are being killed and causing the soaring murder rates are in neighborhoods where there is violence," Lee said. "The people that live there deserve protection and we're doing what we can. But for the most part, if you come to Jefferson Parish as a visitor and just go about your business, go to the shopping centers, do what you have to do, you're not going to have any problem, because overall crime is down 20 percent in Jefferson Parish."

© 2006 The Associated Press