Patrolling the Streets of New Orleans at Night

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After the shooting death of a New Orleans toddler, a photographer decides to see firsthand what police are doing about violent crime. 

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Julie Dermansky

In 2011, there were 199 murders in the Big Easy. One of those killed the week before Christmas was Keira "Pooh Bear" Holmes, a little girl just days shy of her second birthday, who was struck in the head by a stray bullet during a barrage of gunfire at her housing project playground. New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas blamed the justice system's revolving door, which allows criminals to return to the streets all too easily.

For five nights last week, I rode along with New Orleans police officer David DeSalvo to see what was going on. DeSalvo is 23 and has been on the job for two years. He acknowledges that he has locked up some of the same people twice, but he tries not to worry about the parts of the process he can't control. Instead, he prides himself on confiscating guns -- 21 of them, to be exact, since April, when he began working with the 5th District Power Squad, a specialized unit that has been highly effective in patrolling the city's toughest neighborhoods.

As he drives, DeSalvo scans the both sides of the blocks ahead. He rolls up to people, sizes them up, and checks out their body language, paying special attention to their hands. Many of the people DeSalvo passes wave and he wishes them a good night. Others get spooked when they see his car and run or drive away erratically.

I witnessed this on one occasion as we turned a corner and approached a man DeSalvo thought might have a gun in his coat pocket. As we pulled up alongside him, DeSalvo heard the sound of metal on pavement. DeSalvo's determination, coupled with the man's street fashion choice -- loosely tied sneakers and baggy pants without a belt -- led to his capture. Afterwards, DeSalvo returned to the starting point of the chase and recovered the loaded gun, as well as the shoes the man lost during the chase.

DeSalvo confiscated his first weapon of 2012 half an hour after midnight on January 1. His ability to differentiate between the sounds of fireworks and gunshots led him to a 22-year-old who was hanging out with seven friends on a lower 9th Ward porch, holding a 9mm semi-automatic shotgun. "A random dude in the neighborhood shot the gun and left it in the alley. I just picked it up," the suspect said. He was taken away in cuffs as New Orleans continued to celebrate the New Year.

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Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University's Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.

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