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Crime Bites

It's on the rise all over Louisiana just as another legislative session and round of statewide elections draw near -- and that's gnawing at an angry electorate.

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Whether you realized it or not, campaign messages for the statewide races in the fall have been running all year on your local television newscasts. You know the images. Blue and red lights bouncing off the street. Yellow police tape flapping in the wind. Shell casings marked off as evidence. And if the photographer was fast enough, maybe even a lifeless body covered up by a blanket.

The 2006 statistics that have been slowly -- and begrudgingly -- rolled out recently by law enforcement, with a healthy amount of spin, only bolster the frustration growing across communities statewide. Violent crime increased virtually everywhere, and most if not all of the major metropolitan areas have already recorded homicides for 2007.

Angry mobs of voters are forming from New Orleans to Shreveport. They're holding town hall meetings and creating watch groups. At the same time, lawmakers are preparing for a regular session that kicks off in April, followed quickly by re-election (for those not term-limited) this fall alongside statewide officials. It's a collision course that promises tough-on-crime bills by the boatload and pie-in-the-sky solutions from the stump.

Pollster Jim Kitchens, founder of the Orlando-based Kitchens Group, notes that while crime isn't emerging as a serious issue yet in other parts of the nation, he has seen a spike in voter concerns in Louisiana. The state managed to sail through the '90s without crime becoming a central public concern, he says, but the climate is rapidly changing. "This is a fundamental political issue and always has been," Kitchens says. "Public safety is kind of No. 1, and this year in Louisiana, it could be big."

Nationwide, violent crime is up for the second year in a row. According to recent FBI figures, the first six months of 2006 saw a 3.7 percent jump overall, including a 9.7 percent increase in robbery, a 1.4 percent increase in murder and a 1.2 percent increase in aggravated assault. The same report shows large increases in Louisiana.

While the increases statewide can be blamed on a variety of factors -- lack of prisoner rehabilitation, drug use, lack of jobs -- hordes of newspaper reports have quoted citizens blaming New Orleans residents displaced by Katrina. Law enforcement officials say they don't see a link, and the Crescent City sure seems to have enough crime problems left over itself after the storm.

If you believe the city has a population of 220,000, as proposed by University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf, then last year's 161 murders equate to approximately 73 homicides per 100,000 people. That's more than five times the national average. As a result, international media outlets have turned their attention to the city once more, and cops have resorted to setting up traffic checkpoints around town to increase police visibility and citizens' safety.

In Lafayette, the FBI's preliminary report shows a 45 percent increase in violent crime, which is more than 10 times the national average. Robbery figures doubled and rapes and aggravated assaults had major leaps as well. But Lafayette Interim Police Chief Jim Craft has been quoted in media reports as saying the figures are the result of a computer glitch, although there will still be an increase in crime for the region of 3 to 10 percent for 2006.

Baton Rouge, with twice the population of Lafayette, saw a 12 percent increase in violent crimes last year, with 72 homicides (up from 50 in 2005). Shreveport's 30 murders in 2006 are a historic low for the city, but the FBI stats reveal notable increases in motor vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults.

Despite the few silver linings, voters' minds have been stamped with images of serial killers running around the state and Wild West scenes in hurricane-stricken areas. "Even if crime isn't on the increase, there is obviously a crime problem," Kitchens says. "The news is reporting more crime, and that spike is creating concern."

Based on the results of last year's Louisiana Survey, conducted by Louisiana Sate University, there was a 17-point increase in the percentage of residents expressing concerns about crime and public safety. Additionally, the percentage of Louisianans that believe the state has become less safe over the past year increased by 19 points. Overall, concern about crime has equaled or surpassed what it was in 2003, when the so-called south Louisiana serial killer was still at large.

As such, crime as an issue has the potential to suppress other high-profile topics this year. "There is good news and bad news in this result," says Dr. Kirby Goidel, who oversaw the LSU study. "A return to other concerns is a reflection of a more stable political and economic environment, but it also means that other pressing concerns may lessen the sense of urgency needed to successfully rebuild the affected areas."

No one can say just yet how these tensions will play out in the upcoming legislative session and fall elections. Several unconventional studies detailed in the popular book Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, offer some interesting theories about crime stats. While reviewing why crime dropped in the 1990s, the duo credits stiffer prison sentences and more police on the street. With the state Legislature's penchant for mandatory minimum sentences and Gov. Kathleen Blanco's ongoing quest for police pay raises, it's easy to see this theory drawing adherents in Louisiana.

Kitchens says such a move could balloon prison populations and put the state budget on a bit of a tilt, but the first half of that equation may be exactly what voters want to see, or at least hear in the form of campaign promises and legislative voting records. "Anytime the public has a perception that the crime rate is growing, they are going to look to politicians to solve the problem," he says. "Now we just have to see if they come up with anything."

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