New Orleans Police Department detectives in charge of investigating homicides have taken advantage of a relative slowdown in fatal violence in the city lately to notably increase the rate at which they are solving cases, according to statistics released this week.
An analysis of the statistics by The New Orleans Advocate showed that, as of Friday afternoon, police had made arrests in 34 of the 114 killings reported in the city this year, a rate of roughly 30 percent. That rate was below 20 percent just four months ago.
Meanwhile, the homicide unit's "solve rate" on Friday afternoon was 50 percent, whereas it stood at 27 percent a few months ago, the department said.
That number results from dividing the 114 new homicides this year into the 57 cases — whether from this year or prior ones — that the department considers have been "solved" in 2017 through an arrest, the securing of a warrant for an arrest or a special circumstance such as the death of the prime suspect.
The unit's "clearance rate" as calculated by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting formula is slightly lower because that metric doesn't count three cases the NOPD considers to have been solved by virtue of a warrant.
Nonetheless, local officials said the solve rate fairly illustrates the improved results of a squad whose UCR clearance rate is now closer than it had been previously to the national average of roughly 61.5 percent for clearing homicide cases.
In a lengthy statement released this week, NOPD officials attributed the lagging numbers earlier in the year to limited manpower and the spiraling pace at which killings were being reported a few months ago.
Including supervisors, the NOPD's homicide unit has just 26 members, who also respond to major shootings, suicides and unclassified deaths to aid investigators based in the city's eight patrol districts, police said.
The unit's workload was daunting in the first two months of the year, with 37 slayings reported in 59 days.
The department acknowledged it was "challenging" to keep up with the pace.
That became obvious when — with the solve rate plummeting in the spring — a feud publicly erupted between homicide unit leader Lt. Jimmie Turner and local prosecutors. Meanwhile, rank-and-file homicide investigators vented in the media about flagging morale.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has been lauded for his success in melting …
But Turner's boss, NOPD Criminal Investigations Division Cmdr. Doug Eckert, this week said homicide detectives stayed committed to their cases. And a drop in the pace at which homicides have occurred over recent weeks has given the unit a chance to essentially "catch up" with its work.
The pace since July 1 equates to roughly one new homicide case every 3.3 days, whereas in January and February a new homicide was reported every 1.6 days.
"The clearance rate dropped not because we weren’t doing our job or we couldn’t do our jobs. It just took time, one at a time, to clear them," Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said. "We just caught a bunch of them at one time, and as we cleared them, those rates began to increase."
The 57 solved cases reported as of Friday included arrests in 10 killings in prior years, dating as far back as 2008.
One of the three suspects listed as wanted on warrants hadn't been identified until this week: Leonard Ward, 54, who is accused of fatally stabbing 27-year-old transgender woman Ciara McElveen in the 7th Ward in February. Prior to this week, police had identified Ward only as a person of interest whom detectives wanted to question in the case.
Finally, six of the 10 cases considered cleared so far this year by special circumstances — or "exceptions" — are from prior years dating back to 2010. The other four are from this year.
Not many specifics about the cases listed as "cleared by exception" were available this week.
One case involved a man who was fatally shot while trying to rob a cellphone store, police said. That case apparently is now considered to have been a justifiable homicide.
Another case was that of a Loomis armored truck employee who was killed in a robbery attempt outside a Mid-City bank in May, which has led to two men being charged in federal court rather than state court.
The beleaguered homicide detectives of New Orleans could be getting a raise.