Americans are witnessing — and have been increasingly victimized by — violent crime that has risen in much of the country since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a worrisome trend that has continued this year in New Orleans, Louisiana, and other U.S. cities.
Soji Iledare was born and raised in Nigeria but now calls New Orleans home. He was out of town on Jan. 13 when a series of panicked text messages from neighbors alerted him that a shooter had unleashed a torrent of bullets on his block.
"I came home, and I found eight bullets had made it into our home," Iledare told VOA on Wednesday. "During the pandemic, I spent most days in the downstairs room, studying and working. My dog would sit beside me on the couch, and that's exactly where a bullet hit. I would have been right there, too."
All occupants of Iledare's home, including his dog, escaped harm. But many other Americans who have encountered violent crime haven't been so lucky.
In 2020, homicides across the U.S. increased nearly 30% over 2019, the largest one-year jump since the FBI began keeping records. In 2021, according to the Washington-based Council on Criminal Justice, the national homicide rate increased 5% over 2020.
The situation seems even more severe in New Orleans, where data shows homicides and carjackings have far exceeded the national average.
"After the incident, I'm having a hard time even staying here," Iledare said. "I have so much anxiety when I'm at home, feeling like I got so lucky the first time and might not again. When I have to be at home, I usually stay upstairs now. I just feel like I always have to be alert — like I can never relax."
2022 off to a violent start
"I think most of our residents understand this is part of a national problem," said New Orleans Councilmember Joe Giarrusso, speaking with VOA. "But I also understand that when people are affected by something at home, they don't care about what's going on in New York or Chicago or Miami. They want us to fix what's happening right here, and they want us to do it now."
New Orleans has struggled mightily to control violent crime. In 2021, homicides rose 80% and shootings doubled compared with 2019 figures. Carjackings have been a particular concern, rising 160% during that same period.
And carjackings appear to have gotten worse in the first month of 2022, with incidents up 60% compared with the same period last year.
"I know I need to continue to go about living my life," said Mariana Rodrigues, who moved to New Orleans in March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic lockdown began. "But it's hard when you read and hear all of these violent stories and you see they're only happening a few blocks from where you live."
A recent incident took place at a Costco gasoline station. A local woman was filling her tank in the afternoon when her vehicle was carjacked. She was dragged about 35 feet through the parking lot and was left with wounds to her head, abrasions down one side of her body, and fractures in her neck and hand.
"I'm nervous to go on walks at night," Rodrigues said. "I feel like I'm looking over my shoulder every time I get in or out of my car. I'm scared to sit in my parking spot on my phone, or to be at a stoplight. It's stressful."
The city's response
On Wednesday, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell held a press conference with Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson, outlining the police department's plan to combat violent crime. The unveiling came one day after a city council member called for a change of leadership in the department.
"Now is not the time to demonstrate a lack of support for our police officers," Cantrell said at the news conference. "Now is the time to lend the support needed so that they can again protect and serve and make those arrests."
Superintendent Ferguson announced several strategies being considered to fight the city's growing crime wave, such as designating a citywide unit to investigate violent crime or considering 12-hour patrol shifts to shorten 911 response times.
But Iledare said he wasn't impressed.
"A press conference feels like empty calories," he said. "Actions speak louder than words, so I'm waiting for action."
On Tuesday, the mayor highlighted on social media the police's successful arrest of three individuals suspected in an armed carjacking.
But Rodrigues wants to see more than a high-profile bust.
"This problem isn't going to be solved overnight," Rodrigues said, "so before there's celebration, we're going to need to see sustained evidence of arrests in quantities closer to the number of violent crimes being committed."
Like many city governments across the country, the New Orleans City Council is hard at work implementing solutions to make the city safer, Councilmember Giarrusso said.
But he acknowledges the challenges are many.
"We have a budget here for 1,300 to 1,400 police officers in New Orleans," he said. "But we currently have about 1,100 on the force. We're starting at a disadvantage."
At her press conference, however, Mayor Cantrell said that once the arrests are made, she'd like to see the criminal justice system crack down harder on those responsible for violent crime.
That's something Iledare said he'd also like to see.
"There are all these crimes being reported, but you don't see nearly as many stories about people being brought to justice," he said. "But I think more appropriate sentencing could act as a real deterrent to criminals and maybe make people think twice in a way they're not doing now."
Officials such as Giarrusso say that in addition to finding short-term fixes, longer-term solutions are needed as well.
In the meantime, city residents continue to worry about their safety.
New Orleans bakery owner Carla Briggs often makes evening deliveries. Born and raised in this city, she said surging crime has put her "on high alert."
"I'm definitely having to be a lot more aware than I've had to be in the past," Briggs said, "and it's stressful to have to live like that. Imagine being a child growing up in a neighborhood where you're always dealing with that kind of stress."
One recent crime shook her especially deeply. Three children — the youngest 11 — carjacked a vehicle. While trying to avoid the police, they crashed into a business.
The incident made Briggs think of her nephews, who are both about the same age.
"Maybe you'd wonder why those kids weren't in school," she told VOA. "Well, there are a lot of kids who are missing school right now because of coronavirus. Truancy has been a huge problem the last two years. Or maybe you'd wonder why their parents aren't doing something about their kids. Well, maybe those parents are working multiple jobs to try to keep the family afloat. Or maybe some of the family's income-earners lost their jobs or passed away during the pandemic."
Briggs sees a multitude of systemic failures happening simultaneously.
"It's not just a crime issue. It's an education issue. It's an economic issue. It's a health care issue. And then, yeah, it's a crime and policing and criminal justice issue, too. I think we're just seeing these things that have always been here, and they're all just colliding into each other during this unique, difficult time we're living in."