It's been a difficult weekend for my family and for many other families in New Orleans. The so-called crime wave that hit the city during the start of this new year has been unsettling. As of Monday, there have been at least nine people killed in the last eight days. Correspondent Martin Savidge wrote a compelling story on the issue for Nightly News on Friday. But the problem has become personal for me, as it has for others who live here.
This weekend, Mayor Ray Nagin put it best when he said in a hastily called news conference that even one murder is too many. For a good number in this city, the one murder too many was the brutal slaying last week of Helen Hill. Hill was a talented, award-winning filmmaker. Her husband, Paul Gailiunas, is a doctor who dedicated his time to serving the poor. Together they moved back to this city after Katrina destroyed their home to raise their 2-year old son, and be a part of the city's recovery. Many people become a part of the city's rebuilding effort just by deciding to live here. According to the Times-Picayune, Helen and her husband were different. They collected food for homeless people, served indigent patients and in ways big and small served as an example to their community of what it means to help rebuild.
Thursday morning, Helen Hill was murdered inside her home, apparently by an intruder. Her husband was shot three times and found shielding their toddler in the doorway, apparently trying to protect him. It was shocking on a number of levels. The neighborhood they lived in attracted an artsy, eclectic crowd. But in recent months, a string of robberies and shootings had begun to put people on edge. Helen Hill's murder has put some people there over the edge. They are angry, frustrated and fearful. And rightfully so.
It was also shocking personally, because it turns out that Paul and Helen were friends of our friends. On Friday, I learned that Dr. Gailiunas served as a pediatrician for two of our children's closest playmates. Sunday I learned the couple were acquaintances of another family we know. I also learned that their son went to pre-school at the same place we considered sending our children. The city of New Orleans is truly a small town. People tell me that if you live here long enough, you either know someone or are related to them in some way. I'm now sure that it would have just been a matter of time before my family would have met Hill and her family.
This weekend, the mayor and police chief hinted that they'll announce aggressive new tactics including a possible overnight curfew. Helen's friends and neighbors set up a makeshift shrine on their doorstep. And folks gathered in coffee shops and churches across the city to plan a march on City Hall for Thursday. In our home, we debated whether installing a security fence would make us seem unfriendly to our new neighbors.
There will be no easy answer to the crime problem. The police force is understaffed, the criminal justice system is overburdened and some residents are so overwhelmed with fear, they refuse to tip off police about criminal activity in their own neighborhoods. What may be required is an unprecedented effort by police, City Hall, the district attorney and community groups. Whatever action is taken will come too late for Helen Hill's family. The rest of us in New Orleans are hopeful it will come just in time for ours.