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New Orleans Boosters Brush Aside Shootings

Times Staff Writer

Determined to temper fears that New Orleans is not safe following six deadly shootings over the weekend, tourism industry representatives, city officials and police personnel are pushing a defensive message: The city’s crime problem is not spiraling out of control, and the violence in recent weeks is contained to certain neighborhoods, and certain types of people.

“This is going on among the criminal element,” said Bambi Hall, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Police Department. “They’re having these street wars among themselves and they’re spilling over into other areas, because they’ve also spilt over into other areas since Katrina.”

The hurricane displaced more than half of New Orleans’ population of 450,000 when it battered the city last August. Around half that number have trickled home in recent months, and many, including criminals, have been forced to relocate to neighborhoods that escaped flooding.

Police are still investigating the motives behind the slayings that occurred within 24 hours over the weekend, but Hall said many of the recent violent crimes were typically about drugs.

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In one weekend incident several blocks from the French Quarter, three of the four victims were brothers.

Hall underscored that the violence was generally contained to a certain “criminal element” -- thugs who are “leading a lifestyle that lends itself to violence and their ultimate demise.”

The killings represented the latest multiple-victim deaths since June, when five teenagers were gunned down while sitting in a sport utility vehicle in a neighborhood known for rampant drug activity.

That incident led Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to dispatch 300 National Guard troops and 60 state police to New Orleans to help patrol sparsely populated areas, allowing the Police Department to reassign officers to the city’s crime hotspots.

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Blanco said over the weekend that the Guard and state police would remain in New Orleans past their announced September withdrawal deadline.

City officials said earlier this month that the number of murders had dropped by at least half since the National Guard was deployed, and there had been a significant rise in arrests. There have been 78 homicides in the city so far this year; although this is less than the 134 murders during the same period last year, civic activists point to the fact that the city has far fewer residents.

Tourism officials expressed regret that crime in New Orleans was drawing media coverage at a time when they believed the city’s tourism industry was making a promising comeback.

“Unfortunately, this happens in every city in America,” said Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It only makes national news [here] because New Orleans is under a microscope right now.”

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Schulz said the convention and visitors bureau had begun telling its clients, including convention organizers and tour operators, that the violence was not widespread.

“New Orleans is still a safe and walkable city and our tourist corridor is still safe,” Schulz said, noting that her organization has been sending out electronic news flashes to keep business planners and convention decision-makers updated on police crime advisories.

She said that although it was unlikely that tourists would fall victim to the type of drug- and gang-related crime that had marred New Orleans in recent months, she urged visitors to take common-sense measures such as walking in groups and avoiding sparsely populated neighborhoods.

Pakistani tourist Samera Nawaz, who was taking pictures Monday near New Orleans’ downtown Riverwalk, said she was concerned about reports of crime, but this had not prevented her from visiting her parents, who live here.

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“We’re worried, but we still want people to visit,” said Nawaz, 22, who expressed surprise at how quiet and empty the city appeared to be, compared with the last time she visited, about a year ago.

Whitney Perrette, 23, and Clay Florane, 27, who were in town for the day from Bogalusa, La., said although news of the escalating crime was unnerving, and they feared it would further tarnish the city’s image, they were aware it was confined to certain neighborhoods and they were encouraged by the greater presence of law enforcement.

“I don’t think crime against tourists is as bad,” said Perrette. “And we see a lot of cops and National Guard.”

At a presentation last week outlining the city’s progress during the 50 days since the start of his second term, Mayor C. Ray Nagin said New Orleans was becoming cleaner, safer and economically more vibrant.

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Schulz, the tourism official, said that summer was typically a slow period for tourism -- the trade was at around 60% of its average for 2006 -- but convention business was “back up and running.”

More than 25,000 conventioneers from the Louisiana Restaurant Assn. and the American Psychological Assn. were expected in New Orleans this month, Schulz said.

“Our motto is, seeing is believing,” she said. “And when people come here and see for themselves that the tourism corridor is alive and well and ready to welcome visitors, they are often surprised.”


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