Rayshawn Boullt’s aunt felt so much grief about his death that she could hardly bring herself to visit his grave on Dec. 12, which would have been his 16th birthday.

She went anyway, leaving flowers to remember the nephew she raised. Boullt was shot to death on an Upper 9th Ward street in January in a killing that has yet to be solved. Five bullets cut through his body, according to the coroner.

“I just want to ask the person that did it, ‘Why? He’s only 15. What could he have done to you that’s that bad?’ ” said his aunt, Lawanda Tobias.

Boullt, a runaway from Baton Rouge whose mother was in prison when he died, was one of 157 people who were murdered in New Orleans this year as of Sunday afternoon, according to a New Orleans Police Department homicide unit count.

That number is subject to revision upward if more killings occur in the final few hours of the year, or downward if detectives determine that some of the killings were justified. Assuming the number holds steady, the city is set to exit 2017 with nearly 10 percent fewer homicides than it saw the previous year.

The fallen include NOPD Officer Marcus McNeil, who was killed on patrol in New Orleans East in October; an armored car guard who was slain in Mid-City in May; and a mother and two young children shot in Gentilly in March.

Even with the drop in murders, New Orleans remains among the four deadliest cities in the United States, according to preliminary figures. The murder rate here is far higher than in many other U.S. cities. Through Dec. 19, the city had clocked almost as many killings as Dallas — a city with more than three times its population.

For reasons that are unclear, the pace of homicides eased dramatically in the second half of the year, following a steady onslaught of killing that began in mid-2016 and left the NOPD's homicide squad drowning in new cases.

As the spike tapered off, the detectives were able to improve their clearance rate — the percentage of cases that police believe they have "cleared" by making an arrest or through a circumstance such as the death of the prime suspect — for the year. Overall, the number of cases cleared by the unit amounts to just over half of all 2017 murders, according to a department tally.

The news was mixed for two other key categories of violent crime. A Police Department spokesman said Friday that armed robberies were down 18 percent in 2017, while the number of non-fatal shooting incidents and the number of people wounded in those incidents both rose by 3 percent.

Some analysts see shooting incidents as a more accurate barometer of violent crime than murders, because there are more of them and they are less prone to statistical spikes and drops.

“The NOPD and its private and public partners are proud to be experiencing a decrease in homicides and a significant decrease in robberies and other violent crime,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said in a statement. "The hard work and resolve of our officers to provide excellent public safety is paying off in both crime reduction and increased citizen satisfaction."

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has tried to cut down on the violence with his signature NOLA For Life murder reduction program, a carrot-and-stick approach that targets known gang associates and other youths for social services or — in lieu of willing participation — the threat of arrest and prosecution.

That initiative appeared to enjoy early success: In 2014, the city registered 150 homicides, the lowest number in four decades. That was down nearly a third from the 199 murders in 2011, Landrieu's first full year in office.

Yet homicides rose again the next two years before the modest decline this year. Meanwhile, the city has continued to grapple with high rates of crime overall, and gun violence in particular, amid a continuing NOPD manpower shortage. Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell will inherit the same problems when she takes the oath of office in May.

Cantrell said she will analyze the efficiency of NOLA for Life in the coming months.

"As a council member, I have questioned the NOLA for Life budget vs. outcomes and impact on violence reduction. An analysis will be part of the work we are doing during the transition to ensure that every dollar spent delivers results our people can count on," she said in a statement.

The calendar-year comparison in homicides between 2016 and 2017 obscures a roller-coaster reality with deadly gun violence in the city that defies easy explanation, said Jeff Asher, a former city crime analyst who closely tracks public data on shootings and murders in New Orleans and elsewhere.

After a lull in murders over the first half of 2016, deadly gun violence in New Orleans erupted that summer and remained shockingly high over a 12-month period, the data show, before subsiding as abruptly as it rose.

That yearlong surge claimed nearly two shooting victims per day and left 208 people dead — a figure that would have marked a post-Katrina high in murders had it occurred over a single calendar year.

Asher said he was confounded by the sudden rise and fall in deadly violence. "There's sort of been a rhythm to violence in the city that has been relatively predictable. The last 18 months or so has not been in that same rhythm," Asher said. "It raises questions as to what's going on, what's causing it. We're sort of reaching the limits of what we can say with the publicly available data."

Shootings in which one or more people were hit by bullets declined in similar fashion in the second half of 2017, according to Asher's analysis. So has the rate of firearms discharges in the city, returning to levels of about four per day — near the average over a span of several years, the data show.

The portion of 2017 shootings that ended in death — about 29 percent — was the lowest since Asher began tracking it in 2010.

"What it suggests to me is we are due for a regression" toward the mean, Asher said — meaning more deaths, assuming the number of shooting incidents remains fairly constant.

Former Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said he was heartened by the drop in homicides. “A lower murder rate is always good news for families and the community,” he said.

However, Serpas said he was troubled by overall violent crime totals that rose 30 percent from 2010, the year Landrieu took office, to 2016, the last full year for which figures are available. Serpas was the NOPD chief from the start of Landrieu’s term until his resignation in August 2014.

“That’s not a success. That’s not good news,” Serpas said of those numbers. He pointed to the Police Department’s depleted ranks, which remain dramatically below the roughly 1,500 officers the city had in 2010.

Landrieu ordered an NOPD hiring freeze during his first term for budgetary reasons but has made replenishing the force one of his top goals in his second term. Although the city has made modest progress in hiring new officers this year, it remains to be seen whether the trend will continue.

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From left, Sada Portis, the 17-year old sister of Rayshawn Boullt, and Lawanda Tobias, the aunt of 15-year-old Rayshawn Boullt who was killed in New Orleans in January, hold up a memorial shirt at Tobias' home Friday Dec. 29, 2017, Baton Rouge, La. Tobias helped raise her nephew and says his killing has affected her.

Lawanda Tobias said she is still waiting for answers in the killing of her nephew, one of the city’s youngest homicide victims this year.

Boullt was living in Baton Rouge with Tobias, his legal guardian, until he ran away to New Orleans. She has heard conflicting stories about what may have been behind his Jan. 21 death, including one about a dispute over a $10 bag of marijuana and another about a bullet meant for someone else.

Whatever the explanation for the killing, Tobias said it has wrought immeasurable pain for his younger brother and older sister.

His sister cries about him often and had his name inscribed in her class ring, Tobias said. Boullt idolized New York Giants wide receiver and former LSU standout Odell Beckham Jr., and his younger brother has taken after him by playing football. But he also has been acting out at school, Tobias said.

Tobias remembered that before Boullt’s funeral, the family went to a printer in Algiers to have T-shirts made in his honor, a familiar ritual in a city marked by frequent violent deaths. The printer could hardly believe the age of the city’s latest victim.

“I was still in shock at the funeral,” Tobias said. “I was like, ‘This cannot be happening. No way should I be burying my 15-year-old nephew.’ ”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432