Murder rate still sliding in New Orleans

Murder has been ingrained in the culture of New Orleans for decades, a fact of life that is perhaps the city’s most dubious distinction. Year after year, the city ranks among the nation’s deadliest, with a stubbornly high rate of killings fueled by chronic gun violence.

But last year’s body count caused something of a double-take for many observers, who could have been forgiven for thinking the official 2013 tally was missing a few months of data. The police reported 156 murders for the year, a total that, while appallingly high for the city’s population, marked a 20 percent dip from the year before and the lowest number New Orleans had recorded since 1985.

Experts cautioned against a premature celebration, and killings remain a common occurrence, as evidenced by a string of fatal shootings this week. Even so, the number of killings so far this year could be an indication that last year was more than a fleeting anomaly.

As of Friday, the 2014 murder count stood at 38, according to public data compiled by The New Orleans Advocate — a 21 percent decrease from the 48 the city had seen through this point last year. Those figures do not include homicides the authorities have deemed justifiable.

Mark VanLandingham, a public health professor at Tulane University who has studied the city’s crime patterns, said the decline, following last year’s dip, “is very impressive and encouraging.” He said it represents “an additional piece of evidence that suggests that New Orleans could be on the cusp of a profound and sustainable decline in our murder rate.”

The numbers are particularly encouraging because the first few months of the year historically have been among the bloodiest in New Orleans, said Dee Wood Harper, a professor emeritus of sociology and criminology at Loyola University. The commonly held belief that the “summer is hotter” when it comes to murder, Harper added, “doesn’t really hold in New Orleans since we have a fairly hot climate year round.”

City and law enforcement officials, who keep a close watch on the murder count, have greeted the numbers with cautious optimism. It’s hard to be excited, they said, when so many young people still are dying on the streets of New Orleans. But after years of being branded the nation’s murder capital — or, at best, not far from it — some sense a tantalizing whiff of change.

“I continue to remind people that even on our best day — and we’re having, really, the best success we’ve had in 30 years — we still have a culture of violence that produces a murder rate that’s higher than the national average,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in an interview. “We haven’t solved the whole problem.”

Multipronged effort

Landrieu attributes the progress to his administration’s NOLA for Life programs, a multipronged campaign against violence that offers resources — job fairs, education and recreational activities such as midnight basketball — to those most likely to be caught up in street violence.

Using the “group violence reduction strategy,” an approach based on the belief that killings can be stemmed if would-be criminals become convinced that the cost of pulling the trigger outweighs any benefit, the authorities have identified some 800 reputed gang members and cracked down on retaliatory shootings with a multiple-agency task force. At so-called “call-in sessions,” law enforcement officials have issued stern warnings to scores of young men, and many of those who disregarded the message have found their names included in sweeping racketeering indictments likely to keep them off the streets for years.

“I can’t honestly tell you that we know, measurably, which one of these things is contributing to which particular reduction in murder, but all of them together seem to be moving us in the right direction,” Landrieu said.

The anti-violence campaign continues to expand, and in the latter part of 2013, it launched a crisis intervention program at the Interim LSU Hospital Trauma Unit that seeks to mediate conflicts among surviving victims of gun violence.

“That (hospitalized) individual often is sort of a captive audience for a period of time, but you’re also likely going to see their family members. You’re going to see their friends as they come through to check on them,” said Charles West, who leads Landrieu’s Innovation Delivery Team.

Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University, said he is not persuaded the city’s intervention and outreach efforts have had an immediate impact on the murder rate. A more likely contributor, he said, has been the attention the U.S. Attorney’s Office has paid to notorious gangs and the collaboration of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in targeting violent gangsters and drug traffickers. “It has to do with the force of the federal hammer,” Scharf said.

Harper, the Loyola professor, said a number of other factors are at play. He said local high schools “are posting some of the highest graduation rates they’ve ever” seen, and that graduates often are partially “insulated” from the lure of the streets. It also should not be overlooked, he said, that the number of people between 15 and 24 years old in the city — a demographic that is disproportionately responsible for violent crime — has dropped significantly since Hurricane Katrina, a trend he said will continue through next year.

While Scharf has projected the city will finish the year with 120 murders, Harper declined to say a number.

Rate rises and falls

The city’s murder rate is influenced by several moving parts and has fluctuated over the past 20 years. In 1994, at the height of the murder epidemic, New Orleans recorded a staggering 421 murders, a number that dropped to 158 five years later before swinging back upward.

The stakes could not be higher at a time when the city’s population is rebounding. City Councilwoman Susan Guidry said that if New Orleans can jettison its reputation as an epicenter of crime, “it would skyrocket the city into the orbit of the top cities in the nation and in the world.”

“You look at any poll that is taken on the issues in the city, and the top area of concern of all citizens across the metro area is crime,” she said.

Reminders of the city’s rampant violence are constant, and on many days, it’s hard to believe the needle has budged in the right direction. On Wednesday night, a 59-year-old woman playing cards inside a Central City home was shot dead, apparently the victim of stray gunfire. Brenda Hal was the third woman fatally shot in Central City in less than a week and the fifth woman slain in the neighborhood this year.

Landrieu said the challenge the city faces is altering its culture. Murder, he said, is transmitted like a virus, a mindset that has surrounded the city’s youth for generations.

“Culture, for me, is defined as behavioral patterns that develop over time in response to the way people live. It’s the same thing that creates a cooking culture. It’s the same thing that creates a historical-preservation or a music culture,” the mayor said. “These are the things we learn and somehow, somewhere along the way, we in the city learned to resolve our differences at the point of a gun — and we have to unlearn it.”