Suspected bicycle theft preceded fatal shooting _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A man was found shot to death Thursday, November 13, 2014 in the 1900 block of Fern Street, New Orleans police said.

Since Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared war on New Orleans’ murder rate, city leaders have monitored the number of killings here like an electronic Wall Street ticker.

The stakes could not have been higher for the Landrieu administration this year on the murder front, as City Hall and the beleaguered New Orleans Police Department set out to show that the city’s 2013 body count, the lowest in nearly three decades, was not a fluke, but a hard-won result of the mayor’s anti-violence initiatives.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, the city had recorded 150 murders in 2014, a marginal decrease from the 156 counted in 2013 but an encouraging sign that some sustained progress has been achieved.

Still, New Orleans again finished the year with one of the highest murder rates in the country, despite redoubled efforts to disrupt the incessant killing. More troublingly, police said Wednesday that nonfatal shootings — which might be viewed as unsuccessful attempted murders — increased this year by a whopping 23 percent.

While Landrieu clearly had hoped for a better showing and to build upon the 19 percent reduction in murders the city saw from 2012 to 2013, his administration on Wednesday touted this year’s murder count as the most persuasive evidence to date that the “NOLA for Life” campaign has created a lasting impact.

The initiative has sought to prevent killings by offering gang members a combination of job training, education and recreation. A multiple-agency task force has homed in on clusters of the city’s most violent gang members and drug dealers, who are blamed for a disproportionate share of the city’s bloodshed. Dozens of them are in jail awaiting trial, having been locked up on wide-ranging, multiple-defendant racketeering charges.

“We’re heartened by a steady trend,” said Charles West, the leader of Landrieu’s so-called Innovation Delivery Team, who is tasked with implementing the city’s murder-reduction strategy. “We’ve had three straight years of reducing the number of murders in the city. We continue to be at this historically low number of murders, and we fully expect that to continue.”

Experts largely agreed that the 2014 tally bolsters Landrieu’s contention that the city has achieved incremental progress, even if the cause for the drop in slayings cannot be solely attributed to an anti-gang initiative.

“New Orleans does not have the highest homicide rate any more, so that is definitely an improvement,” said Jay Corzine, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida who has studied the city’s crime patterns. “If I had to take my best guess, unless something happens to drive the homicide rate back up, this is probably the new standard, if you will.”

Diminishing returns?

But another interpretation of this year’s statistics is that the city’s efforts to curb slayings are pushing up against a threshold of diminishing returns. In the city’s war on murder, 2014 marked a year in the trenches in which New Orleans fought mightily to hold its ground against incessant gun violence fueled in part by a resurgence of heroin.

“It’s like losing weight,” said Ed Shihadeh, a criminologist and professor of sociology at LSU. “The first 10 pounds are easy. The next 10 pounds are tough.”

City leaders said they had not aimed to reduce the city’s murder rate by any specific percentage in 2014, echoing Landrieu’s refrain that “one murder is too many.” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said in an interview that the city intends to “double down” on gangs again next year and to reduce killings for a fourth consecutive year.

“People in the past have connected us to being the murder capital from time to time,” Harrison said. “That’s a negative outlook that we don’t want to have, so we’re always looking to make murder reduction the highest priority, so we’re not categorized like that.

“We want New Orleans to be looked at as a safe city and a city where people can live and visit and feel comfortable,” the chief added.

There were constant reminders throughout 2014 of the dire challenges the city faces. The overwhelming majority of murders involved guns, and most of the victims were young black men, a narrative consistent with many other cities that struggle with murder.

But the 2014 total also included two dozen women, an increase over the 19 women slain last year. One of them, 59-year-old Brenda Hal, was killed by what appeared to be stray gunfire when a bullet pierced the front door and wall of a friend’s home in Central City and struck her in the neck.

Making headlines

There were also notorious killings that generated headlines far beyond New Orleans, including the mass shooting on Bourbon Street in June in which two gunmen opened fire on each other, killing Brittany Thomas, a 21-year-old nursing student from Hammond, and wounding nine others. And in another bloodbath, a hail of bullets erupted in August in the 5400 block of Burgundy Street, claiming the lives of 16-year-old Jasmine Anderson and 33-year-old Terrance McBride while injuring five others, including two young boys.

“Policing homicide is not easy, and the reason why is that you can’t really interdict it successfully,” said Dee Wood Harper, a professor emeritus of sociology and criminology at Loyola University. “The only thing you can do is follow up and try to take people off the street that are prone to that kind of misbehavior.”

Of course, the murder rate does not tell the entire story of the violence that continues to plague New Orleans. Nonfatal shootings increased from 322 in 2013 to 396 in 2014, said Officer Frank Robertson, a Police Department spokesman. That’s an average of more than one per day. It’s worth noting that mass shootings are counted as a single event, regardless of how many casualties ensue.

Corzine, the UCF professor, said New Orleans’ reduction in murders could be attributable to initiatives like NOLA for Life and the increasing focus on prosecuting the city’s gang members in sweeping racketeering indictments. But he said advances in medical care could also be playing a key role.

“The lethality rate seems to be going down in part because of the adoption in U.S. emergency rooms of some strategies to prevent loss of life that have been developed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Corzine said. “One of the major reasons that people die when they’re shot is they bleed out, and there’s been some techniques developed and new materials that help prevent that.”

‘Just kidding ourselves’

While city leaders have made murder a priority, it would be “delusional” for city leaders not to take a careful look at the alarming number of nonfatal shootings and consider additional measures to reduce them, said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health.

“We have this fiction in New Orleans where we compare ourselves to ourselves, and we’re outliers at the wrong end in terms of violent crime risk,” Scharf said. “We say we’re less awful than last year, and we’re just kidding ourselves. This is a world-class city, and we have to ask ourselves what we’re doing competing with likes of Flint and Detroit for (the title) murder capital of the country.”

In recent years, New Orleans has had the third-highest murder rate in the country after those two Michigan cities, after holding the No. 1 ranking for several years running.

Landrieu will confront the murder problem in 2015 with a recently minted police chief and a renewed effort to attract manpower to the NOPD, including a 5 percent pay hike for the entire department and incentives for officers who help bring in recruits.

So far, he has not signaled any major shift in his approach. During an end-of-year news briefing this week, Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse ticked off some of what went into the effort in 2014, including 100 indictments, “NOLA for Life Day” events aimed at beautifying run-down neighborhoods and midnight basketball.

Morse said she was hopeful that New Orleans would end the year with fewer murders than in 2013 and added, “This will continue to give us the sense that the strategy we have in place is actually working.”

“The dramatic reduction of murder in 2013 followed by another reduction in 2014 gives us all hope,” said Ronal Serpas, the former New Orleans police chief who retired in August to take a teaching position at Loyola. “But there is still much work to do.”

Advocate staff writer Andrew Vanacore contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.