As murders rose across the country in 2016 and turned into presidential campaign fodder, New Orleans seemed to buck the trend: Killings there were down.
As of mid-July, the city had notched 28 fewer homicides than the year before, which had been a pretty good year by New Orleans standards.
In a widely publicized April speech, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city was on track to end this year “well below” the historic 2014 murder count of 150, which itself marked a 43-year low. But that's no longer true.
On Tuesday night, a quintuple shooting claimed three lives and sent the homicide total for the year so far to 131, by the Police Department’s count. That was identical to the number on the same date in 2015, a year that saw 164 murders.
The city’s enviable performance at the start of the year, it appears, may have been the byproduct of an unusually low percentage of shootings that proved fatal — of good luck, in short.
Through the start of October, the total number of shootings in the city this year was up by 12 percent over last year. And the good luck has run out, with many of the more recent shootings proving fatal. Barring a miraculously peaceful end of the year, New Orleans is now on pace to experience a 5 to 6 percent increase in homicides.
That increase would come on top of the 10 percent rise that New Orleans saw in 2015 from the year before.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison acknowledges the grim statistics.
“Of course it is very concerning, but we’re doing everything we can as a city to identify young men who are at high risk of being perpetrators and being victims, and trying to get the right message to them,” Harrison said.
Luck, good and bad
Crime researchers like analyst Jeff Asher say the number of shootings — fatal or not — is a more reliable barometer of gun violence in a city than the murder count. Whether a shooter hits a victim in the head or in the hand is usually a matter of chance.
“It’s luck whether or not a shooting (hits) a victim, and it’s luck whether or not it’s fatal,” Asher said.
Take the story of Curtis Williams. On Aug. 27, he got into an argument with an old friend in the 1700 block of Elizardi Street in Algiers. As things got heated, police say, Williams flashed a gun, leading the friend to go back inside his house. Williams then fired a bullet that lodged inside the other man’s kitchen pantry, barely missing him.
The story as told in court is the epitome of senselessness. In the police version of events, Williams tried to settle a petty beef with a friend using lethal force. But many shootings in New Orleans follow a similar story line.
“There are far too many people who think they can settle an argument by pulling out a gun,” said John Penny, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Southern University at New Orleans.
Only a few inches saved the man in Algiers, according to police. Those few inches may also have spared Williams from a charge of aggravated battery or murder.
Researchers like Asher believe that, just as a craps player might go on a roll, the city as a whole may experience periods of random good luck.
Last October, there were 24 shootings in New Orleans, but only one of them was fatal — a remarkable statistic that resulted in the city's lowest one-month body count in decades.
Arguably, this year has been a lucky one overall: Even though shootings are up 12 percent in 2016 over last year’s total, until Tuesday the number of homicides was down. For whatever reason, shooters were nicking shoulders and grazing elbows more often than hitting hearts and heads.
But as any gambler knows, the good luck always runs out. Over the course of the summer, the number of shooting incidents rose steadily, and more of them ended in death. On Tuesday, the city finally came even with the number of homicides a year earlier.
“Shootings are up, and because shootings are up, murders have now caught up to last year,” Asher said. “May, July, August and September were just extraordinarily bad in terms of shootings, in terms of murders.”
Vanessa King, 54, was hanging out on Dumaine Street, minding her own business on the night o…
Behind the numbers
Harrison said homicide detectives have spotted a number of trends in this year’s murders. Even in some killings where they have not made an arrest, detectives have developed a likely motive.
Petty disagreements like the one in Algiers led to deaths 19 times during 2015, detectives believe. This year, police had counted 18 such killings by Oct. 1.
Throughout all of 2015, 18 murders were drug-related. Detectives suspect that by Oct. 1 of this year, the city had already chalked up 17 drug-related slayings.
Domestic murders were an especially ugly trend in 2015, with 16 recorded throughout the city. Through Oct. 1, such killings claimed only four lives this year.
Detectives were still trying to figure out a motive for 76 killings this year.
Despite recent high-profile mass shootings in Central City and Mid-City, meanwhile, the city has not seen an unusually large number of shootings that claim multiple victims — something that has plagued New Orleans in recent years.
“These are two incidents that happened within recent weeks, but prior to that, we had not seen multiple people injured in shootings like that,” Harrison said.
Harrison said Friday that detectives have received some tips about the Mid-City shooting, but he declined to say more about the investigation.
“We need more information,” he said. “We need specific, detailed information about who pulled the trigger, what people saw, what people heard, description of perpetrators’ vehicles, stuff like that.”
Minutes before the bullets started flying Tuesday night, Judith Heslop got an upset stomach …
Given recent trends, and with nine months of the year already in the books, it seems likely that New Orleans will see a rise in the murder count at year’s end. Asher predicts a final number of about 175 murders, which would be even with the total registered in 2010, the year Landrieu was elected mayor.
Whatever the number is, New Orleans will still be one of the three or four most murderous cities in the country. On a per-capita basis, the local murder rate is still far worse than that of Chicago, even though that far larger city has grabbed many more headlines this year.
"Our comparative rates are appalling compared to the rest of the country," said Peter Scharf, a professor at the LSU School of Public Health who studies crime.
"We're stuck in a trading range between 150 and 170 (killings per year), and there’s nothing that’s been done that seems to have broken through that," Scharf said. "The murder rate is in many ways structural in the city. And we as a city have a very thin grasp as to why these murders are occurring."
A rising murder total in New Orleans would be in keeping with national trends. Murders in the U.S. rose by 11.8 percent in 2015 compared with the year before, according to figures reported to the FBI. Asher said the country is on track for another rise this year.
“There are a lot of cities having bad, even historically bad years, and New Orleans is having a year that looks a lot like the years we’ve had recently,” Asher said. “It doesn’t look like whatever is driving murder to go up big nationally is driving it here.”
Criminologists and political partisans have fiercely debated the reasons for the recent murder rise nationwide. Theories include gangs battling for turf in the resurgent heroin trade, bad luck and the so-called “Ferguson effect” — the idea that officers are less likely to engage in proactive policing for fear of stirring public protests or themselves facing charges.
The “Ferguson effect” in particular is hard to see as a major factor in New Orleans. There have not been any large anti-police protests in the city, even after shocking revelations of police misconduct, such as the Danziger Bridge and Henry Glover cases right after Hurricane Katrina. Also, the number of homicides dropped between 2010 and 2014, at the same time NOPD manpower was dropping.
NOPD officers “are not running away from the issues. They’re running toward the issues to protect the citizens and keep the city safe,” Harrison said.
The FBI, DEA, Coroner’s Office and other agencies have spoken out about a recent spike in heroin deaths. But Harrison said he could not specifically attribute the rise in drug-related killings to the heroin trade.
Asher is most fond of a simple explanation for the rising murder number: After a historic lucky break in October last year, and a relatively peaceful beginning to 2016, New Orleans is reverting to its deadly average.