September 3, 2005

U.S. vows to end New Orleans’ violent crime wave

By Jim Loney

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (Reuters) - With thousands of troops
pouring into New Orleans, law enforcement officials vowed on
Saturday to retake the swamped city and halt a crime wave that
erupted after Hurricane Katrina's destruction.

Saying he was carrying a message from President Bush, New
Orleans U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said police and prosecutors
were ready to hunt down a small group of criminals responsible
for "horrendous" crimes in the stricken city.

"The streets of New Orleans belong to its citizens, not the
violent thugs who have stuck their heads up out of holes in an
attempt to exploit a national tragedy," Letten told reporters.

"Not one inch of that city is going to be ceded to the
criminal element," he said in Baton Rouge. "Not one inch."

A wave of looting swept New Orleans after Katrina's assault
on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Monday. Storm survivors trapped in
the city complained of rapes, brutal assaults and murders at
storm shelters, including the Superdome football stadium and
convention center.

Letten said the crime wave that horrified the nation was
carried out by the same small gangs of criminals, many involved
in the drug trade, who were responsible for most crime in New
Orleans before the storm.

"We will be getting violent offenders and dangerous
individuals off the streets of New Orleans," he promised.

Officials had no statistics on how many or what types of
crimes were committed during the chaos following the storm, but
said the complete collapse of New Orleans' communications
infrastructure contributed to the mayhem.

Hundreds of prisoners had to be moved from the Orleans
Parish Prison, which was under water, and police had nowhere to
put people they arrested.

In addition to the 12,000 National Guards on the ground in
Louisiana and more troops on the way, the state is bringing in
hundreds of police from other states to secure the streets.
They included SWAT teams to quell possible violence.

A new booking and holding center was opened in New Orleans
on Saturday, while prosecutors moved upstate and were
reassembling computer records.

But police, prosecutors and the military still faced
daunting problems in the wake of one of the worst natural
disasters in U.S. history.

Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the Pentagon's National
Guard Bureau, said two-thirds of the police in New Orleans have
abandoned the force amid horrific conditions.

(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Baton Rouge)