NEW ORLEANS — In late August, three gunmen burst through the doors of Patois, one of the most cherished restaurants in this city’s tony Uptown neighborhood. They forced diners to drop to the floor and hand over their cash and cellphones.
In September, it happened again, this time at an Uptown bistro called Atchafalaya. Four days after that, robbers hit the Monkey Hill Bar, an upscale watering hole three blocks from Patois.
For a city reliant on tourism, where the culinary scene is king, the idea that diners might get held up between the appetizer and entree was a big problem. Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), who for years has assured tourists that New Orleans is safe, did so again. But the “stagecoach” robberies highlighted an unsettling truth in the Big Easy: There simply are not enough cops.
“We have some great police officers. We just don’t have enough of them,” said Virginia Saussy, 49, a civic activist and Uptown resident. “Everybody’s feeling it, and everybody is worried.”
Home invasions are common. In July, Saussy said a friend looked up to find gunmen in her living room. Since then, both women have begun frequenting a gun range.
In the Bywater neighborhood, a comedy club made news when its owner waited more than 10 hours for police to show up after an August robbery. When police finally appeared, the owner was gone, so they marked the report as “unfounded.”
And in the French Quarter, police took 40 minutes last month to respond to a road rage incident that left a tourist from La Jolla, Calif., paralyzed from the neck down. Police marked that report unfounded, too, because the man had been taken to the hospital by the time they arrived.
“It’s open season on criminal opportunity,” said Peter Scharf, a Louisiana State University criminologist.
The ranks of police in New Orleans have dwindled since Hurricane Katrina, from about 1,500 before the storm to 1,134 today, a 24 percent drop. City officials blame federal and local budget cuts, as well as a sweeping Justice Department consent decree that in 2013 ordered major reforms that the department is struggling to implement.
The city did not hire any sworn officers between 2010 and 2012, a period when police were leaving the city at the rate of about 150 a year, police spokesman Tyler Gamble said. By the time the decree was in place, he said, recruitment “was like starting from scratch.”
Landrieu has budgeted $10.5 million to hire 150 officers next year. And, in an effort to increase recruitment, the department has raised officer pay and streamlined the hiring process, putting applications online for the first time.
Still, the negative spotlight on law enforcement in the wake of last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has made recruitment tough nationwide. Gamble said it will take nearly two years to get the department back to full capacity.
Meanwhile, violent crime is on the rise, jumping 45 percent in the city between 2010 and 2014, according to police data. In the first nine months of 2015, homicides jumped 15 percent, compared with the same period last year. Rape was up 57 percent.
Although the overall violent crime rate remains far lower than in the bloody 1990s, New Orleans is much more dangerous than most U.S. cities. According to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, New Orleans is one of only five major U.S. cities where homicide rates have soared this year.
After the restaurant robberies, Landrieu promised to reach out for federal assistance so that the robbers, if caught, would face tougher federal charges. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau approved the move — and is paying $2.5 million this year to have Louisiana State Police patrol the French Quarter.
“We want the criminals to know that there are real, negative consequences associated with choosing criminal behavior,” bureau spokesman Kristian Sonnier said.
Scharf, the criminologist, said crime is migrating to wealthier parts of town because criminals understand that the likelihood of being caught is low. Plus, post-
Katrina gentrification has created more areas of obvious wealth — “softened targets” promising easy rewards.
“Would you rather take on an armed dope dealer who is obviously armed, or some gentrified souls who are probably not armed and probably have more money?” Scharf said. “The question is one of rational opportunity.”
In Uptown, a rush of new residents has moved in, many of them young and prone to vulnerable behavior such as biking alone at night.
“A lot of these people are from other places and get lured in by the beauty of the city, and they don’t understand the danger,” said Grace Kaynor, a lifelong Uptown resident.
Kaynor is a reluctant expert on New Orleans violence. Three years ago, while she and her 8-year-old daughter were asleep, three gunmen shot Kaynor’s husband, Sandy, in their driveway during a carjacking. Then they stepped over his bleeding body to rob the house.
Once an attorney whose passion was creating educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, Sandy Kaynor is now brain-damaged, partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair, uncommunicative, and requires around-the-clock medical care at a cost of $150,000 a year.
“Cheated out of his life,” Kaynor said.
To Kaynor, the problem in New Orleans is not just a diminished police force but also a broken system of criminal justice. At the time of the shooting, the gunman, Byron Johnson, was on probation despite 22 prior felony and misdemeanor arrests dating to 2009. In September, Johnson was sentenced to 45 years in prison for the shooting.
His alleged accomplices are charged not only with Kaynor’s shooting but also with the murder of a university student earlier in 2012. Their trials are set for later this year.
Kaynor thinks about leaving New Orleans, but she worries that “there’s no place that is actually safe to go to.”
“I don’t want to give up on the city I love and grew up in,” she said. “I just don’t know the answer.”
Guarino is a freelance writer.