By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the federal government on Tuesday for more help fighting a murder epidemic that took almost 200 lives in his city last year.
Landrieu, who invited federal intervention in fighting local crime shortly after taking office two years ago, sent a letter to President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking them to enlarge the federal force in the city that has the nation's highest per-capita homicide rate.
"I'm asking them to make it more robust," Landrieu said on Tuesday after a State of the City address marking the midpoint of his term in office.
Twenty-two federal agents now working in the city have helped take some of the most violent offenders, including gun and drug traffickers, off the streets, Landrieu told Reuters.
In the letter, Landrieu proposed creating a "surge" team of 50 officers from the FBI and other federal agencies, along with six federal prosecutors, who would work in New Orleans for at least six months.
"Federal conspiracy investigations have proven to be an extremely effective tool to target violent street gangs, but our local capacity to investigate and prosecute large, complex conspiracy cases is limited," Landrieu said in the letter.
In his speech, Landrieu called for "a more permanent" deployment of federal officers to help charge and prosecute violent gang members and "drug lords" who he said were terrorizing some sections of the city.
He also announced a crime strategy that he said involves remaking the police department.
"For too long, a few corrupt cops have caused our community and this (police) department much pain and agony," he said.
Landrieu said that steps already taken, such as doubling the number of detectives in the homicide unit, were producing results.
The city's murder rate declined by 27 percent during the first quarter of 2012 compared with the first three months of last year, according to statistics the city released last week.
Violent crime overall soared during the period, however, with armed robberies and assaults contributing to a 36 percent jump in total crimes against individuals.
In announcing his latest plan, Landrieu likely aims to fulfill in advance some of the stipulations the U.S. Justice Department will impose on the city and its police department through a federal court order.
The city has anticipated the consent decree ever since the Justice Department released a scathing report in April 2011 on a multitude of shortcomings at the New Orleans Police Department, from frequent use of excessive force to discriminatory stop-and-search practices.
The city has been negotiating terms of the order for months, and Landrieu has said the document could be complete in June.
Once signed, the order will serve as a blueprint for reforming police policies and practices, and the department would likely operate under the scrutiny of a federal monitor, possibly for years to come.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Eric Walsh)