Over the past three years, city leaders have heralded an encouraging trend in New Orleans’ murder rate: The number of killings has fallen each year since 2012, and the 150 murders recorded last year marked the lowest total in decades, a landmark for a city that nevertheless remains among the most violent in the nation.
But the first quarter of 2015 has put a noticeable damper on the celebration. Through the end of March, police already had investigated 45 killings, more than in any other three-month stretch since the bloodshed began to decline in 2012, according to city crime statistics.
By comparison, the city tallied 26 killings through the first three months of 2014, said Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department. Gamble noted, however, that nonfatal shootings fell from 72 in the first quarter of last year to 48 through the first three months of 2015.
“It definitely says that we still have a problem,” said Tamara Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Silence Is Violence campaign. “It seems like every other day there’s another killing.”
Experts caution that crime statistics are most instructive over longer periods of time, as quarterly snapshots can be skewed by isolated outbursts of violence. A two-week hiatus in killings in December can balance out a bullet-riddled Memorial Day weekend, they say.
“It’s a lot of smaller numbers, and a lot of smaller numbers basically means they’re going to fluctuate,” said Ed Shihadeh, a criminologist and professor of sociology at LSU, referring to quarterly crime breakdowns.
This year’s spike seems staggering — about 73 percent — when compared with the first quarter of last year. But it appears less drastic when viewed through a longer-term lens. The city has averaged between 12 and 13 murders per month over the past two years, or roughly 38 per quarter.
Shihadeh warned, however, that the steep rise in killings so far this year “may fall outside the boundary of small number fluctuation.”
“There could be some non-trivial cause,” he said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has made murder reduction one of the centerpieces of his administration, acknowledged the first quarter represented a setback — a change of tone for a mayor who has spent the past several months trumpeting “historic” drops in the number of killings .
The declining murder rate has been a silver lining of sorts on the crime front, particularly last year, when virtually every other category of crime increased in the city.
“We don’t really know why, in the first three months, there’s been an uptick,” Landrieu said Wednesday at NOPD headquarters, where officials gathered to announce the arrest of Michael Portis, a man accused of fatally shooting a Domino’s pizza delivery driver in the Lower 9th Ward. The driver, Michael Price, became the city’s 43rd murder victim this year on March 24, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
“The first three months of this year have taken us back a step,” Landrieu added, repeating his refrain that one murder is too many. “We have reason to believe that it won’t stay that way for the end of the year.”
The year’s killing began early. By about noon on New Year’s Day, police were investigating a double murder of a father and son who were gunned down as they worked on a pickup in a quiet Gentilly neighborhood. Like about half of the killings so far this year, the fatal shootings of Desmond Lange Sr. and Desmond Lange Jr. remain unsolved, according to police records.
The Carnival season was interrupted by a double murder along the St. Charles Avenue parade route. Police quickly arrested a suspect in that case, 19-year-old John Hicks, who remains jailed in the shooting deaths of Peter Dabney, 21, and Ivan Williams, 22.
Despite the discouraging first quarter, Landrieu said city officials will stay the course in their efforts to scale back New Orleans’ rampant gun violence. He has continued to tout his NOLA for Life programs, the multipronged campaign that seeks to identify youths most likely to be ensnared by street violence and offer them an array of resources.
Insisting the city is headed in the right direction, the mayor also pointed to a multiple-agency gang unit that has sought to reduce the number of retaliatory killings, as well as aggressive racketeering prosecutions that have landed a number of the city’s most violent criminals behind bars.
“It gets on the front end of it and the back end of it, and we have seen great progress over the last three years,” Landrieu said of NOLA for Life. “The overall is still very, very positive.”
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health who has studied the city’s murder rate for years, said New Orleans historically has seen fewer murders during the first quarter than in later months of the year, due in part to a lack of daylight hours and cooler weather. Over the past 30 years, Scharf said, the city typically has seen a bump in murders during the summer — a pattern that could threaten the city’s chances of reducing its murder tally a fourth straight year.
“It’s bad news,” he said of the first-quarter figure. “If you assume a 6 percent increase in the summer hot months for murders, we’re back to where we were in 2011 with 200 murders.”
Scharf also questioned the plausibility of the city recording a nearly 1-to-1 ratio of nonfatal shootings to murders in the first quarter. Historically, he said, that ratio has fallen somewhere between 3-to-1 and 5-to-1. For instance, police counted 398 nonfatal shootings last year and 322 the year before.
Landrieu, at his news conference Wednesday, said city officials would continue to fight “the epidemic of murder” by focusing resources “in specific areas of specific neighborhoods.” But he acknowledged that his administration can do only so much. The community, he said, must establish a “zero-tolerance policy” against killings.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” the mayor said. “We are really trying to figure out, in the city of New Orleans, the answer to a question that most people in America don’t know the answer to, which is how you stem a culture of violence.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.