Reining in New Orleans’ murder rate has been a priority for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and as good news has been historically elusive on this front, city officials were pleased Friday to announce a slight decrease in killings through the first half of 2014 compared with last year.
In promoting a murder reduction strategy known as NOLA for Life, the Landrieu administration has, at times, seemed obsessed with finishing the year with fewer murders than the 156 recorded in 2013 — a tally that marked a 20 percent decline from the year before and was the lowest figure the city has seen since 1985.
A number even close to last year’s total would likely be portrayed as a vindication of the mayor’s approach, while a return to the previous high totals could leave 2013 seeming like an aberration for a city that even in its best years is among the most violent in the country.
But even as city leaders touted a “continued downward trend” in murder, the statistics released Friday revealed an alarming counter-current: increases in several other indices of violence, including a 30 percent spike in crimes against persons.
“It seems like a pretty big increase,” said James Nolan, an associate professor at West Virginia University who studies crime statistics and cautioned against reading too much into a six-month window.
Aside from murders, which fell from 77 in the first half of 2013 to 71 during the same period this year, the police could not point to a decrease in any other categories of crime.
Rapes increased by 25 percent — a jump the police typically attribute to more reporting by victims — while armed robberies swelled by nearly 37 percent. Assaults rose to 987 for the first two quarters compared with 755 during the first six months of 2013 — a 30 percent increase. Even property crimes saw an uptick of nearly 14 percent.
“It’s a disaster,” New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf said of the across-the-board increases. The numbers, he said, represent a “strange anomaly” given the reduction in murders.
“It’s like heart disease,” said Scharf, who recently joined the faculty at the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health. “If anginas are up, you’d expect heart attacks to be up as well. It’s really strange because usually these indicators go together.”
Recent shooting sprees have done little to convince the public that New Orleans is making progress, however fragile it may be. Going into Easter, city officials were looking at a 21 percent year-to-date decline compared with the 2013 murder count.
That disparity has since diminished, with murders increasing slightly in the second quarter compared with the first three months of the year. As of 8 p.m. Friday, the city had seen a total of 96 murders for 2014, the exact same total recorded through Aug. 29, 2013, said Tyler Gamble, a New Orleans Police Department spokesman. Gamble noted, however, that the murder count stood at 130 on the same date in 2012.
“We are working every day to ensure that every neighborhood in New Orleans is a safe neighborhood,” interim NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said in a statement.
Landrieu has attributed the declining murder rate the to the NOLA for Life program, a campaign against violence that among other things offers resources to youths most likely to be ensnared by street violence.
Tamara Jackson, who runs the nonprofit Silence Is Violence campaign, said the second-quarter statistics should serve as a grim reminder of the city’s chronic crime issues.
“The Police Department and the city as a whole need to apply the same amount of interest they have in homicides to other crimes so we can see a balanced decrease,” Jackson said.
She said one of the major concerns among residents remains the dearth of police officers patrolling the streets. The department has reached a 36-year low in staffing, a situation Jackson called disconcerting.
“I understand homicide takes priority, but the Police Department needs a budget increase,” she said. “These numbers grossly highlight the fact that the Police Department is definitely in a volatile situation as it relates to offering assistance in all cases.”
In his statement, Harrison sought to reassure the public that city leaders are working toward hiring more officers.
“There is no question that putting more officers on our streets is a major part of the solution,” he said. “That is why we are working aggressively every day to recruit, hire and train more police officers until we reach our goal of 1,600 officers.”
Scharf said one of the biggest challenges facing police is the “perception of fear” that is even higher than the city’s crime rate.
“A lot of people just don’t feel safe,” he said. “And so one question will be whether the new leadership (at NOPD) will be able to reverse the trend. I think that’s what everybody wants to know.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.