By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The New Orleans mayor and police chief vowed on Friday to better address violent crime in a city where the murder rate is more than 10 times the national average.
"The violence on the streets in the city of New Orleans has become unnatural and unacceptable," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a news conference.
His comments came a week after the Department of Justice released a scathing report outlining systemic failings of the New Orleans Police Department. It said that the police department too often uses excessive force, conducts illegal stops and arrests, and has a pattern of discriminating on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation.
There have been 60 murders so far in 2011, including five in the past week, according to the police department.
In 2009, the homicide rate in New Orleans was more than 10 times the national average and more than four times the rate for cities of similar size, according to a March report commissioned by the Bureau of Justice Assistance that was released at the news conference.
The city had 174 murders -- or 52 per 100,000 residents, in 2009, and 175 homicides last year, said the report, prepared by researchers at the University of Maryland and Suffolk University.
That report and another by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, dated December 2010 and also released on Friday, came at the request of Landrieu, who asked for help analyzing crime trends and the police department's handling of homicides.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said that several characteristics of local murders have made them difficult to prevent. In other cities with high murder rates, he said, the crimes are often associated with gangs and organized illegal drug activity.
In those cities, he said, "the police know where to go to disrupt gang activity."
While some gangs exist in New Orleans, the December report shows that murders are more often the result of arguments among individuals that escalate and lead to killings. This type of crime is more difficult to anticipate, Serpas said.
He also pointed to the problem of witnesses who refuse to participate in solving crimes.
"We have to continue to find ways to encourage people to come forward," he said.
The December report recommended improvements for officer training, management, overtime policies, homicide and forensics investigations and cold case analysis. It says police department practices are simply out of date.
"The homicide unit has not kept up with newer technologies," Serpas said.
Landrieu and Serpas, both of whom are in their first year on the job, said that many reforms are already under way. Landrieu said Serpas re-launched a program to take guns off the streets, has revamped some policies related to overtime and training, and is reorganizing management.
"The department is not sitting on its hands," Serpas said.
And Landrieu said that the murder problem "is serious, and seems intractable, but I don't believe it is -- I believe it's solvable."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)