By Cameron McWhirter | Wall Street Journal | September 16, 2022

Violent crime in New Orleans has grown to the point that Ibrahim Rabee no longer feels safe at his auto shop.

At least seven people have been killed within blocks of his store since the beginning of the year, according to police records. Customers bring in cars for repairs with handguns and semiautomatic rifles piled on the seats, Mr. Rabee said. A man with a gun recently threatened an employee who wouldn’t put air in his tire. After someone walked in with a gun and threatened to shoot up the store, Mr. Rabee called 911. An officer finally showed up the next day.

“I’m thinking I’m not going to work another year here,” said Mr. Rabee, who came to the U.S. from the Palestinian territories and is now considering moving near his brother in upstate New York.

Violent crime has surged across the U.S. since the start of the pandemic. Although it has flattened in much of the country this year, the numbers have continued to rise in several cities including Dallas, Phoenix and New Orleans, according to data compiled for the first half of this year by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional organization of police executives.

New Orleans had the highest homicide rate of any major city so far this year, with about 41 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the organization’s data, collected from most of the nation’s largest law-enforcement departments. The homicide rate was 11.5 in Chicago, 4.8 in Los Angeles and 2.4 per 100,000 in New York City for the same period.

This year to date, the New Orleans homicide rate is up 141% compared with the same period in 2019, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission Inc., a nonprofit that works to reduce crime in the city. Shootings are up 100%, carjackings 210% and armed robberies up 25%. The homicide rate is on pace to surpass last year’s rate, which was the worst since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Criminologists and law-enforcement officers have cited several potential factors in the rise in violent crime across the U.S., including stress from the pandemic, police pullbacks after racial-justice protests and a proliferation of guns.

In New Orleans, city officials and residents point to an overwhelmed police department as a major factor. The city has about 50% to 60% of the officers it needs to offer adequate protection for residents, estimated Ronal Serpas, who was the city’s police superintendent from 2010 to 2014 and is now a criminal justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

“We’re in a crisis of crime and a crisis of confidence in this city,” he said.

Police officers and political leaders, including Democratic Mayor LaToya Cantrell, say the department has been hobbled in part by fallout from a decade-old agreement between the federal government and the city to address corruption and other issues, which they say has resulted in crackdowns on officers for minor infractions. Police officers are leaving the force more quickly than the city can replace them, making it easier for criminals in the city.

“The criminals are more bolder and more brazen,” said New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson. “They do not believe they will face any consequences for their actions.”

The police department is stretched so thin that the average 911 response time is 2½ hours, according to a recent report by an analytics firm presented to city council. The department says the time is much shorter for very serious emergency calls.

The city’s inability to address the crime wave is sowing divisions among civic, business and community leaders and motivating some business owners and residents to leave—a spiral that worsens the problem.

New Orleans has in many ways been struggling to recover since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the city’s current population at 377,000, down 24% from 2005 and about 1.8% from 2020.

Around Hurricane Katrina, the police department had about 1,400 officers. Today, it has about 950, with the number dropping weekly.

In March, thieves stole the car of a 73-year-old woman, who was dragged to her death as they drove away. Four juvenile teenagers have been charged with the crime. In June, an 80-year-old woman was killed by random gunfire at a high-school graduation. Several children have been hit recently by stray gunshots.

Michael Casey, owner of Liberty Cheesesteaks, was on a date in a wealthy area of the city when he witnessed an older man being beaten during a carjacking. He rushed over to help and the attacker fled, but then returned twice and threatened to shoot the man and Mr. Casey, 38 years old.

The police arrived relatively quickly, he said, but when Mr. Casey pointed out the attacker, they wouldn’t go after him. An officer advised the victim to buy a gun, Mr. Casey said.

Afterward, Mr. Casey decided to close his shop in New Orleans, leaving him with one location in the suburbs. “I can’t put a 16-year-old kid at the register and he’s going to get two in the head,” Mr. Casey said.

Scott Fanning, 23, made local headlines when he quit the city’s police department a few hours into his shift in July out of frustration with the staffing shortage.

“It’s dangerous stuff every single day,” said Mr. Fanning, who moved to Covington, La., to work as a handyman. “I just had to get out of that before something happened.”

James Martin, 48, left the department last fall after witnessing extensive looting on his patrols following 2021’s Hurricane Ida. The stress became too much, he said. He now works as an artist. “It’s a numbers game and we don’t have enough,” he said.

A chief complaint among police officers, echoed by the mayor, has been a 2012 agreement between the city and the federal government to overhaul the department. The agreement, known as a consent decree, was implemented after then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the Justice Department to investigate the New Orleans police in 2010. It gave a federal judge authority to oversee police reforms to correct issues of corruption, inequity, abuse of power and other problems that had plagued the department for years.

The decree was supposed to last six years, but was extended because the court hasn’t yet declared that the problems have been resolved. Mayor Cantrell has called for the decree to end, arguing that it has led to officers being punished repeatedly for minor infractions.

Mr. Martin, who left the force last fall, said that officers particularly dislike being written up by an internal unit given powers under the consent decree for infractions such as dress code violations that can take months to investigate.

The consent decree has hampered the retention and recruitment of officers, said Superintendent Ferguson. “We are in dire need of having more officers,” he said. “There is no quick fix.”

The budget for the city’s police department total expenditures this year is $215 million, up from $178 million in 2021. That’s about $570 per resident. New York is spending about $653 on policing per resident this fiscal year.

Some in the city have faulted Mayor Cantrell, who was re-elected last year, for not responding to crime quickly enough and for not doing enough to support police.

Ms. Cantrell said in an interview that she has been focusing on the problem for a while, and that public anger over crime was pushing officials to focus on the problem. “A pivot is near and here,” she said. She urged more cooperation from city council members and other officials in rebuilding the police department and reducing crime.

Jason Williams, the local district attorney, said he has been pursuing more prosecutions while also trying to revamp the justice system, but disruptions caused by pandemic closures have made it difficult.

“This is a group lift,” he said. “There is no agency with a gun with a silver bullet in it.”

In July, a group of more than 100 area businesses, nonprofits, church groups and the local NAACP said they were frustrated by city leaders’ inability to reduce crime and pledged $15 million over the next three years to tackle crime and promote youth services.

New Orleans remains one of the country’s top tourist destinations, but many worry that growing violent crime could change that. Tourism is an economic linchpin that has rebounded since Covid-19 lockdowns but is still behind prepandemic levels. Visitor spending in New Orleans reached an all-time high of $5.2 billion in 2019, according to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. It fell to $2.6 billion in 2020, and recovered last year to $3.8 billion.

Ranelle Leitch, 64, has been coming to New Orleans from her home in Hunt, Texas, a few times a year for decades to enjoy the city’s restaurants with her husband, a retired dentist. For one favorite restaurant, they used to take the St. Charles streetcar back to the French Quarter after dinner. Then a waiter warned them to take a car instead. They now rarely leave their hotel when it’s dark. “At nighttime, we don’t roam the streets,” she said.

The police department has been considering new policies to address the loss of officers, such as proposing the transfer of some police calls, such as nonemergency calls and mental-health emergencies, to other city departments. It has extended shifts from eight to 12 hours. The department is also working to ease the ability of officers from elsewhere in Louisiana to take jobs in New Orleans.

The nonprofit New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, which raises funds to aid police in the city, recently hired two police consultants from New York to assess the situation. A preliminary report from their assessment included a suggestion to immediately transfer 212 officers assigned to special operations, investigations and other units to uniformed patrols to get more police on the streets.

“Action must be taken NOW if there is ever a chance to save the city and bring the reputation of being a city where tourists can come to party and celebrate and not become victims,” the report stated. Elizabeth Boh, the foundation’s chairwoman, said city leaders are pushing for major changes in coming weeks and months.

Nhu Vu, 40, a cashier at the Viet My Supermarket in the residential neighborhood of New Orleans East, is making plans to move from the New Orleans area with her children, she said. In May, a daytime shooting down the street from the store left two people dead and four wounded. Recently an angry homeless man threw a beer can at her. She called police. An officer showed up the next day, she said.

“The only way you can really get police to come is if you say you are shot and bleeding,” she said.

A pharmacist nearby, who has been at his location for more than 30 years, said burglars smashed through a brick wall to get into his store and soon after tried again. He has installed bars on his windows, security cameras and a magnetic lock on his front door. He keeps several guns near him when he works, including an AR-9 semiautomatic. He often has a Glock handgun under his shirt.

“I pray every day that I put it on that I don’t have to use it,” he said.

At Mr. Rabee’s auto shop, Conway Herzog, who works for an automotive oil supplier, stopped by recently to check on orders. The only time he carries a gun is when he comes to this part of New Orleans, he said. He’s seen two shootings in the area in broad daylight, he said.

Mr. Herzog said he just moved to Mississippi after living in New Orleans for more than 50 years—mainly to escape crime.

“Man, am I glad to get out of here,” he said. “I don’t see it getting any better.”