Murder in New Orleans is worse per capita than it is in Chicago — and statistics from the first two months of the year suggest 2017 will be bloodier than 2016.
A New Orleans-based crime analyst offers a four-point prescription to curb the violence.
At a press conference before the Feb. 17-19 weekend — during which the first big parades of Carnival season rolled, the NBA All-Star Game was in town and the French Quarter was thronged with tourists — Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans Police De-partment (NOPD) Chief Michael Harrison announced a "zero tolerance" policy for guns in the Quarter and on parade routes.
NOPD, they said, was at "100 percent" staffing for the weekend (590 NOPD officers and 165 Louisiana State Police were on the street); undercover officers wearing body armor patrolled the tourist district; some Quarter streets were closed to vehicular traffic; and special barricades were set up along Bourbon Street to prevent cars from driving down the road.
The following Monday, the city touted the weekend's success, calling it a "slam dunk" and noting that there were 100 arrests and 12 illegal weapons taken off the street over the weekend.
Despite these successes and the city's precautions, however, the tourism and hospitality industry "slam dunk" also was a violent, and not atypical, weekend in New Orleans.
Around 8:45 p.m., two people were shot near Lee Circle as the Krewe of Pygmalion approached the CBD, not far from where two people were shot during the 2015 Krewe of Muses parade. About six hours later, two men were shot in the 1500 block of Canal Street not far from the French Quarter. One died.
In all, seven people were hit by gunfire over the weekend, and there also was a fatal stabbing in the Freret neighborhood — all this with an official "zero tolerance" policy and full police staffing.
Despite years of city initiatives (some of which have borne fruit), violent crime is on the upswing again in New Orleans. Crime analyst Jeff Asher looks at the numbers and offers some solutions. — Editor
New Orleans has much to be proud of as we approach our 300th anniversary, but murder is among our great shames. Last year, 174 people were murdered in New Orleans, making it the 45th consecutive year with 150 or more people murdered here. We have ranked first or second nationally in terms of murder rate in 17 of the past 23 years.
Although it's early in 2017, this year is off to a particularly bad start, with shootings up 75 percent and murder up 183 percent relative to 2016, as February 23.
There is no reason our murder rates must remain this high for the next half century. The city's commitment to open data and new research into what works in gun violence reduction suggests murder in New Orleans is a problem that can be analyzed, understood and ultimately addressed by policies and strategies designed to counteract its underlying causes.
Here are some of the ways we can get there:
1 Relieve the manpower crisis
There were 1,473 commissioned New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers when the Saints won the Super Bowl in early 2010 and just more than 1,050 as 2016 came to a close. A well-financed, professional, and aggressive recruitment campaign has led to only a few more commissioned officers in NOPD since the department bottomed out in late 2014.
Growing police departments is a slow and difficult process everywhere these days. In New Orleans, it's also imperative. In order to sustainably reduce murder and crime, we must relieve NOPD's manpower crisis.
There is a clear correlation in New Orleans between the size of NOPD and crime in New Orleans. As NOPD manpower decreased 25 percent from 2010 to 2015, crime went up 25 percent.
Lower staffing has contributed to longer response times, lower clearance rates and a decrease in the amount of time officers can spend doing proactive policing.
There are a few ways the problem can be attacked, and the most obvious is to continue NOPD and the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation's recruitment and retention efforts. It will take years to replace the commissioned officers lost since 2010, but the difficulty of the task does not diminish its importance.
New Orleans should consider another pay raise for officers in order to improve both recruitment and retention. NOPD pay recently was bumped 15 percent to bring the department roughly on par with or ahead of many of its regional competitors. Being a police officer in New Orleans, however, can be more difficult and stressful than being a police officer in surrounding parishes. If NOPD wants to compete nationally for the best recruits, salary levels must compete with (or exceed) those of departments throughout the country. For example, an NOPD officer makes roughly what a Houston Police Department (HPD) officer makes as a recruit (an average $42, 391 for NOPD officers and $42,000 for HPD). After a year, however, the HPD officer is making 7 percent more than the NOPD officer, and after six years the gap is about 18 percent ($58, 729 for NOPD cops and $71,345 for HPD officers). If the hiring freeze earlier this decade proved anything, it's that the men and women behind the badge are the most valuable resources in which the city can invest.
Another way of relieving the manpower crisis is to find ways of enabling NOPD to focus its primary energies on the most important tasks.
In 2016, NOPD officers spent 43,785 hours handling non-injury auto accidents (including hit-and-runs) and other traffic incidents. That means 14.4 percent of the time law enforcement officers spent responding to calls for service last year was dedicated to handling traffic-related non-emergencies, many of which could be handled via other means. Another 20,000 hours were spent dealing with burglar alarms and assorted suspicious persons incidents that were emergencies in name only.
Reducing the number of these types of calls that NOPD must handle should be a priority. The city and police department have taken numerous steps to do this in the last few years, though many of them have only been proposed or are not yet fully up to speed.
Investment in technology also can help close some of the gap. The city announced plans late last year to add more than 50 license plate reader cameras at about 40 locations, and the city's new security plan will add more than 200 cameras and a command center to monitor it all.
NOPD also would be well-served by expanding its capability to use DNA testing. A research paper released in July 2016 found that DNA testing has the power to reduce recidivism by taking peope who commit crimes off the streets through higher clearance rates and deterring potential repeat offenders in the process. NOPD plans to build a new $20.8 million crime lab which likely would include needed DNA testing capabilities.
NOPD solved more than half of the city's murders in 2010, but that clearance fell to just a quarter of murders in 2016. More officers, fewer commitments, and better technologies are a needed prere- quisite to reducing murder and lowering crime throughout the city.
2 Impact the drug trade
A 2011 report by the Bureau of Justice Assistance found drugs to be the motive in 29 percent of homicides. It is no coincidence that each of the gang indictments issued from 2012 to 2015 in New Orleans refers to "high volume street level drug dealing" or other major narcotics offenses on the part of gang members.
Drugs, combined with related arguments and retribution, are the motive in nearly three-quarters of all killings, and nearly 90 percent of all New Orleans murders are rooted in drugs, arguments, retribution or robberies, according to a review of NOPD homicide data.
Impacting the city's illicit drug trade in a way that avoids the mistakes of the past is complex and difficult. Affecting the drug trade is important, but so is doing it in a way that would not cause significantly higher incarceration rates in New Orleans.
Enforcement efforts against the city's drug trade have fallen in the last few years. A June 2014 The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com article noted that narcotics units would be merged with proactive patrol units to form "general assignment" units at the district level. These changes were made to relieve the strain NOPD has felt due to falling manpower. This change appears to have had a profound impact on NOPD narcotics enforcement, particularly in terms of Schedule I and Schedule II drugs (cocaine, heroin, opioids, etc.), which declined over 50 percent between the first half of 2014 and the second half of 2016. Possession of small quantities of marijuana, by contrast, fell only 5 percent over the same time span.
More officers on the streets can help alleviate some of these issues, but the problem is more complicated than just identifying and arresting drug dealers. New Orleans also must invest more resources into innovative programs such as Pre-Arrest Diversion, which can help steer people toward help and away from future interactions with the city's criminal justice apparatus.
The city also should explore other legal mechanisms to help people avoid recidivism. A December 2016 research paper by a pair of economists found that expanded use of court deferrals for first-time felony drug offenders lowered recidivism and raised employment. The paper, "Avoiding Convictions: Regression Discontinuity Evidence on Court Deferrals for First-Time Drug Offenders" calls deferral programs "an attractive and feasible option for a jurisdiction seeking to reduce the fiscal cost and community impact of its criminal justice system."
The city's drug trade fuels gun violence, so any effort to reduce gun violence must address the difficult challenge of the city's drug trade.
3 Locate risk and Intervene
It's sometimes said that gun violence is "sticky." This means gun violence tends to occur disproportionately at certain places and involves certain groups of people.
There were nearly as many shootings in NOPD's 5th District (Seventh Ward, St. Roch, Ninth Ward, Bywater) and 7th District (New Orleans East) in the last six months of 2016 as in all of the other NOPD districts combined. In addition, roughly one-third of all 2016 shootings occurred within one of the two circles in Central City and the Seventh Ward.
But it's not just places; it's people too.
Young African-American men are at much higher risk for involvement in gun violence than anyone else in major American cities. In 2016, African-American men in their 20s in New Orleans had a murder rate of roughly 319 per 100,000. That's 60 times the national average of just more than five per 100,000 last year. Nearly 70 percent of murder victims in New Orleans last year were African-American men aged 15 to 44.
Research, however, shows that the risk of gun violence victimization goes far deeper than age, race and gender.
Yale University sociologist Andrew Papachristos has done groundbreaking research into the intense concentrations of gun violence within social networks and the tendency of risk to spread like a virus through social networks. Not only do we know gun violence is concentrated heavily within a fraction of the city's overall population, but research shows we can identify individuals at significantly higher risk for being a victim of gun violence.
There is a big difference between intuitively knowing gun violence primarily affects a small percentage of the population and identifying and engaging specific individuals in social intervention programs to prevent that risk from becoming reality. As a recent article in The Guardian noted, "Rather than making the problem easier to fix, the intense concentration of gun violence has simply made it easier for many Americans to ignore the ongoing devastation."
If you want to reduce murder, however, these concentrations are where you must start. According to Papachristos: "If we have this social map, we can send first responders, trauma specialists, interventionists and police if necessary." Identifying who is most at risk for gun violence victimization creates a moral imperative to act.
4 Invest — a lot — in social intervention programs
Besides the incalculable human costs, the financial costs society bears for murder are astronomical. It has been estimated that an individual murder victim costs society somewhere around $9 million or $10 million counting lost wages, medical expenses, investigative/prosecutorial/jailing costs and everything else that goes along with the unexpected loss of a life.
By that calculus, murder in New Orleans cost our city roughly $12.1 billion between 2010 and 2016 — not to mention the expenses incurred by the 2,700-plus nonfatal shooting victims over that span.
Non-law enforcement resources dedicated to combatting this problem, however, have received a fraction of that funding. If we are going to sustainably reduce gun violence in New Orleans, we must commit much more to social programs designed to intervene in gun violence before it occurs.
Some very good results have come out of NOLA for Life, but the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, the City Hall entity tasked with oversight of NOLA for Life and various other programs, has operated on an average annual budget of less than $4 million, including an average of $1.4 million from the city's general fund.
City-funded programs should focus on providing employment, housing, education and mentorship specifically to the people most at risk for becoming victims of gun violence — and these resources cannot be devoted exclusively to the city's children. We should be mindful that 90 percent of murder victims last year were over 20 years old, and their median age was 30.
Long-term gun violence reduction can't be accomplished on the cheap, and it can't be realized if we view solutions solely through a law enforcement lens. Investing significant resources in programs to provide a relatively concentrated subset of high-risk individuals with a wide array of assistance and services is a necessary step to sustainably reducing murder.
It was a little more than 10 years ago when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the New Orleans hurricane protection system "a system in name only."
In many respects, the same words could be used to describe the New Orleans criminal justice system, particularly as it pertains to gun violence reduction.
But the opportunity exists to begin rectifying this historical problem. The key is to mix an in-depth understanding of the patterns and drivers of gun violence with adequately funded social programs designed to interact appropriately with those individuals known to be at the highest risk for gun violence. Throw in a larger, reformed and more technologically savvy police force, and you have the recipe for gun violence reduction.
The criminal justice system can't ignore drug crimes, but it can serve as a vehicle for preventing future recidivism.
Dramatically reducing murder in New Orleans makes both moral and economic sense. New Orleans has been a leader in so many areas throughout its nearly 300-year history, so why not become a model for sustainable murder reduction in an urban environment?
Jeff Asher is a New Orleans-based crime analyst who once worked for the city in that capacity. He runs the NOLA Crime News data analysis website (www.nolacrimenews.com) and contributes to WWL-TV, The New Orleans Advocate and FiveThirtyEight.com.