NOPD: New Orleans crime spikes in all categories except murder in 2014 _lowres

New Orleans crime statistics

For all of the worry, the resurgent agitation in New Orleans over violent crime has been largely anecdotal.

High-profile robberies have commanded regular headlines in recent weeks. Victims have shared hair-raising accounts on social media and at a well-attended demonstration last month at Jackson Square.

But on Friday evening, as the workweek gave way to Carnival festivities, city officials quietly released a summary of annual crime figures that lent statistical credence to the spikes in assaults and break-ins many residents have perceived.

The citywide figures, which featured increases in every category of crime except murder, laid bare the trouble New Orleans faces in its attempt to rein in violence.

Among the most sobering results was the number of robberies reported — the most the city has counted, by a wide margin, since before Hurricane Katrina.

“The numbers just verify everybody’s fears,” said Sidney Torres IV, the former French Quarter trash mogul who has become a vocal advocate for public safety. “You can feel it walking down the street.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has sought to make murder reduction a pillar of his legacy, touting historic decreases in slayings that he attributes to his “NOLA for Life” campaign, an anti-gang initiative that has targeted retaliatory killings by singling out known gang members and offering them an array of reasons to get off the streets.

The city recorded 150 murders in 2014, a 4 percent drop from the year before. New Orleans’ murder rate remains high, given its population, but the Landrieu administration has celebrated last year’s tally as a continuation of the progress achieved in 2013, when murders fell 20 percent.

“After three consecutive years of murder reduction, we know our focus on enforcement and prevention with the city’s comprehensive NOLA for Life plan is working,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said.

But as the city has focused doggedly on stemming murders, it experienced alarming jumps last year in other indicators of violence, including a 37 percent leap in armed robberies and a 27 percent increase in aggravated assaults. Police reported the largest number of simple and armed robberies — 1,470 — the city has seen since 2004 and the most aggravated assaults — 1,906 — since 2007.

Compounding the violence was a 24 percent spike in nonfatal shootings.

“If the 2014 crime stats don’t give the administration a cause to reflect upon the effectiveness of its policies, I am not sure what would,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health. “There are some policy errors or mistakes that we’re paying the price for.”

Property crime also increased appreciably in 2014. Automobile thefts, considered a reliable barometer of crime because they are so consistently reported, increased 22 percent. Smaller upticks were registered in burglaries and thefts, contributing to an overall 13 percent increase in property crime.

John Penny, a criminologist at Southern University at New Orleans, said the recent reduction in killings could give New Orleans residents and visitors a “false sense of security.” The numbers published Friday, he said, call into question the approach the NOPD has taken to policing so-called hot spots with its understaffed ranks.

“We don’t have as many murders now, but somehow we’ve failed in the sense of curbing other categories of crime,” Penny said. “If people are being shot at, that’s still violence.”

The greatest statistical change came in the category of rape, which soared 39 percent over the year before. Police responded to 244 rapes last year, the most recorded in New Orleans since 1999, when the city still had nearly half a million residents, according to statistics published by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

That development, however, did not alarm sexual assault advocates, who generally welcome such increases as an indication that more women are overcoming the stigma associated with a grossly underreported crime.

“Usually when we see numbers go up, it is not due to an increase in sexual assault but rather an increase in people reporting,” said Amanda Tonkovich, coordinator for the New Orleans Sexual Assault Response Team. “Last year, I believe reporting of rape went up by 30 percent, but we saw virtually the same number of people come through the Interim LSU Hospital (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) unit for forensic exams.”

The Police Department’s sexual assault numbers should be marked with an asterisk given its history of mishandling — and undercounting — rapes, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said. The city, for the past 30 years, has reported an implausibly low rate of rapes compared with homicides that is roughly 20 percent of what is seen at the national level, he said.

Quatrevaux, whose office published scathing reports last year exposing the department’s bungling of rape cases, said his office’s work likely had a limited impact on the department’s 2014 reporting.

“No one can tell you how much of the increase was a real increase, and how much was getting correct numbers for the first time in a long time,” he said in an interview. In light of the recommendations his office made, Quatrevaux added, “We should not be surprised to see the 2015 rape totals double or even triple.”

Landrieu, for his part, conceded Monday that he was unhappy with the latest crime statistics. But he laid most of the blame on the financial constraints he confronted early in his first term, which prompted a hiring freeze at the Police Department and cutbacks at various agencies and nonprofits aimed at reducing crime.

“I don’t like where the numbers are right now, but I am very hopeful now that we are putting the resources back,” Landrieu said.

The mayor said he was confident his strategy for growing the Police Department’s ranks would pay off. His budget this year includes money for several new recruit classes and the first police raises since 2007.

At this point, Landrieu said, the NOPD is adding more officers than it is losing — the department had 1,158 as of Monday — though he could not pinpoint exactly when that started to occur.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’ve proven that we have a consistent plan to reinvest in the NOPD,” Landrieu said, arguing that an increase in “crimes of opportunity” is tied at least in part to the “size and breadth” of the department.

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