New Orleans murder rate lowest in decades

An armored-truck guard, gunned down in cold blood during a daylight heist at an Uptown bank, was logged into an NOPD database on Dec. 18: murder No. 155, the last killing of the year.

It marked the least bloody year in decades for American’s one-time murder capital — lower than the celebrated 158 murders of 1999, lower than the 162 recorded in an emptied city the year after Hurricane Katrina.

The number 155, as of late New Year’s Eve, will likely be at the heart of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s re-election campaign: He pledged to ax the city’s notorious rate of killings, and he did, by nearly 20 percent in one year. For city officials, the reasons are obvious: The deadliest gangsters are in jail, teenage boys are playing Saturday night basketball instead of killing or getting killed, and witnesses to crimes are finally outraged enough to call the police and report what they saw.

Some criminologists believe the reduction is evidence that the city might have finally gotten a handle on its murder epidemic, born in the 1960s and 1970s in neighborhoods plagued by poverty, poor education, shoddy prosecutions and a proliferation of guns, drugs and gangs.

“We’re now beginning in 2014 to grow out of that, to mature,” said Dee Wood Harper, a professor emeritus of sociology and criminology at Loyola University. “It looks to me like the culture is beginning to change.”

He points to other numbers that suggest the city’s legacy of violence might be truly beginning to ebb: High school dropout rates have plummeted, ACT scores are rising, the middle class is returning to the city, tough-on-crime legislators are starting to reconsider the sentencing laws that gutted inner-city neighborhoods and led Louisiana to incarcerate more people, per capita, than any other place on earth.

But others warn against cracking open the champagne just yet.

The estimated 2013 rate of more than 40 killings for every 100,000 people remains more than eight times the national average. New Orleans has for years jockeyed with other infamously bloody places for the highest per capita rate of killings, and it is unlikely to lose its spot among America’s most murderous cities. The city placed third in 2012, after Flint, Mich., and Detroit, both of which saw similar reductions in killings this year, according to local news accounts.

Unless there is an unexpected jump in murders elsewhere, New Orleans will probably remain among the top three, said Jay Corzine, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida, who has studied the city’s crime patterns.

The true test is whether the drop is sustainable long term, he said.

“The really important year is going to be 2014,” he said. “If you can get another drop or it remains at the same level, it means something meaningful.”

He points to another interesting anomaly: In the first six months of the year, as the murder rate dropped sharply, the rate of overall shootings stayed the same.

In the first half of 2012 and 2013, precisely the same number of shooting victims — 251 — were taken to the trauma center at Interim LSU Hospital. But 30 percent fewer of them died in 2013 than the year before.

The New Orleans Police Department could not provide the total number of nonfatal shootings for 2013. In the first half of the year, the department categorized 371 crimes as aggravated batteries by shooting. If the second half of the year was similar to the first, 2013 ended with around 742 non-lethal shootings. That number was 752 in 2012, representing a decrease of just 1 percent.

The NOPD acknowledged that the reduction in overall violence was “slight” in 2013.

Scholars, doctors and crime fighters offer various theories to explain the discrepancy: dumb luck, an unexplained spate of bad marksmanship, changes in the types of guns available on the streets, improved medical care and effective law enforcement that has put the most deadly gunmen in jail.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas and Landrieu both declined to be interviewed. Their spokespeople sent prepared statements, attributing the decline in murders to the administration’s “NOLA for Life” anti-violence campaign, which combines advertising, job fairs, education, recreation and a program that aims to prevent retaliatory violence in Central City, one of the city’s prime killing fields.

The program also includes a law enforcement push to target the deadliest gang members, young men in some 40 neighborhood gangs blamed for a disproportionately high number of killings. Police and probation officers have rounded up dozens of these alleged gangsters for “call-ins,” where they are given stern warnings to straighten out or find themselves targets of aggressive law enforcement. The hammer comes from prosecutors, focused on zeroing in on some members of the most dangerous gangs with indictments for racketeering, robbery and drug trafficking.

“It’s been our top priority to reduce the number of murders, so we’re very encouraged by the reduction and progress made thus far,” NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden wrote.

“Reducing the number of murders on the streets of our city is my top priority, and we are making progress,” Landrieu wrote in his statement. “The statistics show that the number of murders in New Orleans is the lowest in over 30 years. But I’m not satisfied.”

Harper also pointed to a decrease in the city’s ranks of young men as one rudimentary explanation for the drop in the murder rate. But the change he’s chronicled has happened organically, as the city’s population makeup shifted after Hurricane Katrina.

People between 15 and 24 years old are responsible for the majority of violent crime. In 2000, New Orleans had 77,000 in that age group. Last year, the number was down to 53,000, and it’s expected to continue to slide, Harper said.

“That’s crucial. They’re the ones doing the killing,” he said. “If you have less of them, you’ll have less killing.”

Though the murder rate dipped lower in 2013 than it has been in more than a decade, some warn that history could easily repeat itself.

As the city’s murder epidemic reached its crescendo in the mid-1990s, with more than one murder every day, Police Superintendent Richard Pennington promised to chop the number in half.

He made good on that pledge by 1999. The number plunged from 421 in 1994 to 158 in 1999 — a drop of more than 60 percent.

But the following year, it ticked back up, topping 200. And it kept growing for years, halted only by the storm.

After Katrina, the murder tallies again grew quickly as people returned to the city. In 2007, two years after the storm, the police counted 209 murders. With the poststorm population diminished by nearly half, murders that year — as in the mid-1990s — reached a rate more comparable to Venezuela or Honduras than the United States.

Exact murder rates are difficult to calculate. They rely on the city’s yearly population, which is widely debated, particularly for the years between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Regardless, the city typically has counted more than 50 murders per 100,000 people.

This year’s rate is estimated around 40, the lowest number in 14 years. That includes the 155 labeled as murders by the NOPD. The Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office counted 164 homicides, including justifiable and vehicular killings. Neither agency could provide a comprehensive accounting for the nine-death difference.

Tamara Jackson, who runs the nonprofit Silence Is Violence campaign, said it’s difficult to rejoice after a year that saw 14 children murdered — more than in any other year she can recall.

She knows each one by name: 7-month-old DeShawn Kinard, ambushed along with his father, a gang member, on the Crescent City Connection; 5-year-old Brandajah Smith, locked in a house alone when she found a gun, put it to her head and pulled the trigger; 1-year-old Londyn Samuels, shot while in the arms of her 18-year-old babysitter; 11-year-old Arabian Gayles, hit by a stray bullet that crashed through her wall as she slept; 14-year-old Edward Barton, shot dead on a Central City front porch; 2-year-old Zion Harris, bludgeoned to death. And the list goes on.

Other high-profile crimes shocked the city but avoided — seemingly by chance — adding to the murder total. A shooting at a second-line parade on Mother’s Day, for instance, injured 19 people but killed none.

“There’s so much more work to be done; 155 murders is still too many in the city of New Orleans,” Jackson said.

That sentiment is something everyone seems to agree on: Far too many people die every year on the streets of New Orleans.

“It still has an impressively high rate,” said Alfred Blumstein, a prominent criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University.

But he said if the change can truly be attributed to the work of the Police Department, City Hall, prosecutors and nonprofits, it’s a sign that the city finally has turned a corner. “They may be on to something,” he said. “But there’s a lot of room for improvement.”