by Mason Harrison
Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly
Three years after kicking off the much-ballyhooed NOLA for Life murder reduction strategy, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is touting the program’s success in the new year as the city witnesses a sharp decline in its decades-long recalcitrant murder rate, yielding the city’s oft-repeated moniker as the nation’s murder capital. Landrieu praises the effort as an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to crime intervention through public-private partnerships crafted to prevent violence, beef up gang prosecutions and increase job opportunities for thousands of mostly young Black men operating at the margins of the city’s economy.
In 2014, the city tallied 150 murders, a number not seen since 1971. When adjusted for population size, the figure is the lowest total number of murders in New Orleans since 1999, says Charles West, director of the city’s innovation delivery team. Last year’s drop in murders comes on the heels of previous crime figures stemming from 2012 and 2013, something, West says, is tied to NOLA for Life. “Looking at the path we’ve taken, we’re experiencing three straight years of reduced murders,” West says.
Landrieu hails the historic murder lows, but cautions stakeholders to be aware that “we have a long way to go,” according to an early January statement from his office touting the 40-year low. The mayor, who won office in 2010 promising to tackle the city’s nationally known murder rate, says he remains “fully committed” to decreasing murders while not neglecting efforts to reduce overall crime in the city.
But the challenge of beating back crime in general remains a sore spot for many residents. “A drop in the number of murders is good,” says Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, but that only reflects one percent of the crime in the city.” Goyeneche says most of the city’s 300,000 residents are not faced with an everyday threat of being murdered, but remain at risk for being victims of other crimes. “Violent crime remains a problem,” he says, such as armed robberies and sexual assaults, “and it shouldn’t matter where you live, we want a city where, ultimately, there is no crime.”
Susan Guidry, chair of the City Council’s criminal justice committee, echoes the crime commission. “I am grateful for the progress we have seen so far, though we face serious challenges in combating violent crime that will continue as long as NOPD remains woefully understaffed.” Guidry has been at the epicenter of efforts to boost manpower at a time when the department is shrinking.
Dr. John Penny, a criminologist at Southern University of New Orleans, calls the ongoing drop in the city’s murder rate encouraging, but stops short of linking the decrease to the mayor’s NOLA for Life program. “I think it’s really hard to make a definitive statement about whether the two things are related,” he says. “When you look at a statistical fall like that you have to look at other variables, such as population shifts. A lot of folks didn’t come back after Katrina. The murder rate was so high after the storm because many returning gang members were trying to reestablish their territories set before the hurricane.
Penny also says murder rates can fall due to changes in victim behavior. “Criminals look for people who are vulnerable. We can see an uptick in activity in the French Quarter, which is widely publicized. Things like that can cause people to not walk alone or to stay out as late, frustrating criminal behavior.” Penny says police statistics should not be ruled out as something affecting the city’s low murder rate. “If someone is shot, but dies later from his gunshot wounds, that may not be classified as a murder.”
Despite local criticism of the police department over crime reclassifications in recent weeks, the department touts the falling murder rate as the result of effective policing. “The progress we’ve made over the past three years is real and remarkable,” says police superintendent, Michael Harrison. The city’s new top cop says long-term crime reduction, coupled with the murder reduction strategy, includes moving desk officers to patrol and deploying reserve officers and creating task forces to tackle crime hot spots.
Targets of the murder reduction plan include the Central City, St. Roch, Behrman and Little Woods communities. Barbara Lacen-Keller, chair of the Central City Partnership, lauds the mayor’s efforts while defending an area she has championed for years. “I think when we talk about crime, we have to understand that there are pockets of crime in certain neighborhoods and I wouldn’t even call them hot spots. So, whether people feel safe or not really depends on where they live in a particular part of town.” She co-founded the partnership 20 years ago, in part, to work with residents to address housing, education, health, crime and economic development issues. “We created the comeback committee,” says Lacen-Keller, dubbed the “Mayor of Central City,” “which was a partnership with officers of the 6th District, to target high crime areas and we lobbied for the creation of the new district police station.”
Projects like CeaseFire New Orleans, a Central City-based murder reduction effort, complement decades of groundwork done to reduce crime in one of the city’s history-filled neighborhoods, says Lacen-Keller. “I support CeaseFire; this is a program that has had success in Chicago and Boston and I am particularly glad to see that work is being done with boys and girls, especially the work to reach shooting victims while they are still hospitalized to decrease the number of retaliatory shootings that we see in our city.”
West calls CeaseFire, a component of NOLA for Life, “one of the most evidenced-based programs that’s been replicated elsewhere to be effective by involving outreach, violence interrupters, using a risk reduction plan, connecting participants to workforce training, and creating direct intervention.” In 2014, West says, Central City reported a 31 percent drop in shootings, along with a murder tally that fell by 11 percent compared to 2012, when the NOLA for Life campaign got underway. West says the program is on the verge of expanding to schools requesting the effort to reduce student violence.
But shootings in New Orleans remain high, says Penny. “We had 300 shootings last year. I don’t know if that’s because all of these guys are a bad shot or if people are just getting lucky. I can’t explain it—it’s an odd juxtaposition.” West, however, compares the city’s high number of shootings with its reduction in gun deaths to similar phenomena in other major cities. “We see the same thing in New York and Chicago. But our focus, of course, is maintaining the success we’ve experienced in the last three years.”
Portions of NOLA for Life include what organizers dub “call-ins,” where gang members meet with elected officials, law enforcement agents, and various social service providers who extend options other than a life of crime and repeat incarceration. In 2014, West says, 113 gang members or associates enrolled in various education, job training, housing assistance or substance abuse treatment programs. The programs come at no cost to those who choose to leave gang life and stem from public-private partnerships.
“We’re able to create these opportunities thanks to private partners like members of the New Orleans Business Alliance,” West says. “One of our partners is Ochsner Health System, which provides training, at no cost, to program participants interested in learning how to become a medical assistant.” West says commitments to job training and hiring are the lynchpins in helping the program reach success.
Landrieu has likewise hung the success of NOLA for Life on the program’s ability to create jobs. Yet, 52 percent of Black males, of working age, in New Orleans remain unemployed, excluding those who are underemployed or who have stopped looking for work. Landrieu hosted a symposium in December revealing, in part, the obstacles facing Black male job seekers, including figures demonstrating that just half of all Black male job applicants without barriers to employment secure interviews. “We’re keenly aware of this issue,” West says, “and we’re working to create ways to increase employment.”
Still, the city’s drop in gun deaths is well-received. “We’ve been doing this for a long time,” says Lacen-Keller. “So, am I pleased that we are turning a corner? Yes. Do I believe that we have a long way to go? Yes. Do I think that we can do even better than now? Yes. Do I think we’ll ever be Mayberry? No indeed.”