July was a terrible month for violent crime in New Orleans.
With nearly 50 shooting incidents and more than 25 murders, it was one of the worst months for gun violence since Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods. August hasn't started much better, with 13 shootings and four murders in the month's first week.
Nevertheless, there are definite signs of improvement.
As of mid-July, New Orleans was on pace for about 140 murders in 2016, which would be the fewest in a single year since 1970, though by month's end the outlook for the year was up to 157 murders. New Orleans averaged 188 murders a year from 2007 to 2012, when NOLA for Life, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's multifaceted murder reduction program, was implemented. There has been an average of 157 murders a year for the last three years.
At the same time, overall crime has skyrocketed since 2010, as the New Orleans Police Department's (NOPD) manpower plummeted. Uniform Crime Report Part I (the country's official crime measure) showed crime in New Or-leans jumped 32 percent between 2010 and 2014. Response times improved nearly 300 percent last year compared to 2010, but they're still pretty bad. The longer response times also led to underreporting as victims and witnesses gave up on police and left crime scenes.
Yet I feel optimistic about where we're going in terms of crime reduction. It may take several years to reach fruition, but a foundation has been laid for significantly lower levels of crimes being fought by a police department that consistently respects constitutional rights and has strong organizational oversight. Here's why:
1. NOPD is growing.
It's slow, it won't happen overnight, but the growth of the police department ranks as a major reason to feel optimistic about the long-term potential of crime reduction in New Orleans. The city, NOPD and the Police and Justice Foundation have undertaken a multifaceted, professional campaign to "grow" NOPD, and progress over the past year and a half has been slow but steady. The goal of having 1,600 officers on staff by 2020 probably was overly optimistic even before voters rejected higher property taxes in an April election that would have funded a millage dedicated to police.
The impact adding officers has on New Orleans crime is illustrated in four scatter plots on p. 16. These charts plot the change in NOPD officers in any given year (Y-axis) versus the change in the rate (per 100,000 residents) in overall crime, property crime, violent crime and robberies. (Note that 2005 and 2006 were removed due to data quality issues following Hurricane Katrina, thus 2007 represents the change in crimes and officers from 2004.)
Since 1998, there has been a statistically significant inverse relationship between NOPD adding or losing officers and crime rates in the city. When NOPD grows, crime rates go down. When NOPD shrinks, crime rates go up. The relationship is strongest with violent crimes — robberies in particular — and is weaker with property crimes. Adding officers enables NOPD to patrol more efficiently, reduces response times and empowers officers to do proactive policing, which helps reduce crime.
Staying the course on growing NOPD is the easiest path toward long-term crime reduction.
2. Open crime data
can help create independent assessments of New Orleans crime trends. Everything we know about response times, we know because of open crime data. We can track gun violence trends because of Calls for Service and the Major Offense Log. Open data tells us whether the city's official crime stats went up or down weeks before the city's official numbers are released.
Not only has NOPD employed body cameras and in-car cameras for its officers, but it also has put a large amount of the gathered metadata online for anyone to download. There's a tremendous amount of data from the 2010 to April 2016 from NOPD's field interview card (FIC) system, which is available online, and NOPD has several annual reports online that provide insight into some of the department's most troubled areas. There's an annual misconduct report, sexual assault report, use of force report and more.
There also are data sets that aren't available but could be useful, such as arrest data. When properly scrubbed of personal information, arrest data can help the public understand policing patterns. Baltimore does this and it's quite useful. A homicide tracker like one put out by the Philadelphia Police Department also would be great to see, and many cities — like Chicago, which has its own troubled police force — produce weekly crime summaries of Uniform Crime Reporting data that are far timelier than NOPD's quarterly summaries.
Open data not only is transparent but also allows anyone to perform independent analysis of the statistics and shines a light on New Orleans' crime patterns and the police department's reaction to those patterns. The more data that's available, the better the insight. Everyday citizens now can spot crime trends as they occur and can push civic institutions to improve.
3. Strong and independent oversight bodies
are critical for developing a successful criminal justice system. The federal consent decree under which the NOPD is mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice to clean up misconduct and civil rights violations has onerous elements, and the department has a way to go before the consent decree is completed, but reports indicate progress is being made.
The city's Office of Inspector General has produced several reports analyzing policing problems and identifying waste that have led to real changes in the city's behavior. The Independent Police Monitor's office performs important oversight of NOPD's complaint and disciplinary system, and the Metropolitan Crime Commission's research program provides a critical high-level overview of changing patterns in the city's criminal justice system.
4. We have a gun violence reduction blueprint.
NOLA for Life has its supporters and detractors, but from a data perspective, it appears the program has contributed significantly to the city's drop in murder. That drop started in 2013 and has been sustained, to a degree, over the last two and a half years.
The city employed what academic circles call a "focused deterrence" strategy, which operates on the idea that gun violence is heavily concentrated within communities. NOLA for Life's Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS) targeted gang members as individuals disproportionately involved in gun violence using indictments and call-ins (face-to-face meetings between police and criminals).
The indictments took the most violent gang members off the streets and the call-ins delivered a directly targeted anti-violence message. The effect was clear in 2013, but initial results began to fade as the messaging was heard and the pace of indictments proved impossible to sustain.
"There is a diminishing return. There has to be," Nicholas Corsaro, author of a 2015 study of NOLA for Life's impact, said in a recent article on the online news site FiveThirtyEight. "If you've got a small percentage of gang members that are driving your violence and you focus on them and they go away for whatever reason ... then you're going to hit a ceiling."
Gun violence in New Orleans from 2014 to today has been slightly less frequent, reflecting a city with less gang violence. But the other factors that contribute to gun violence — drug trade, arguments, domestic violence, etc. — remain largely unchanged.
FiveThirtyEight laid out a blueprint for how New Orleans can reduce gun violence even further and sustain that trend. Gun violence is heavily concentrated in certain areas of the city and goes beyond gang members. The key to sustained homicide reduction is developing effective social intervention programs in those areas to prevent people who are at high risk from becoming victims — or perpetrators. FiveThirtyEight highlighted the work of Andrew Papachristos in using social networking techniques to identify individuals at substantially higher risk than other people for involvement in gun violence: If police know who is most likely to shoot and be shot, theoretically they can develop social intervention programs that will help those individuals avoid gun violence.
NOLA for Life has proved the city can effectively reduce murder in New Orleans through a combination of social programs and law enforcement intervention. Now it's time to take it a step further. New Orleans can identify the concentration of individuals at high risk and develop social intervention programs to prevent that risk from becoming reality. The city should look at programs like Chicago's Becoming a Man, Boston's Roca, or New Orleans' Youth Empowerment Project for ideas about what works. A citywide program that proactively targets those at high risk for gun violence would serve as an important crime fighting tool and could dramatically reduce gun violence citywide. It's not easy, but it's doable, and we know it works.
5. There's work left to do.
The long-term future of New Orleans crime may be trending in the right direction, but the present is a mixed bag. Murders are down from 2011 and 2012, but the murder rate is among the worst in the country. Take a look at how things have changed since 2010:
Burglaries and gun violence are down but everything else is up. Increasing NOPD's manpower is a long-term solution, but in the meantime the city needs to develop alternate ways to effectively deal with crime and violence.
New Orleans should look to technological solutions to reduce the strain on NOPD and increase the department's deterrent capabilities. A citywide license plate reader system could substantially deter potential armed robbers, carjackers and shooters by increasing the likelihood they will be caught.
ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection technology the city dabbled with unsuccess- fully years ago. In recent years, it has become more effective.
Assistance from the Louisiana Legislature would help. NOPD has responded to nearly 30,000 traffic incidents and non-injury traffic accidents this year (through mid-July). That translates to roughly one in every 7.5 calls for service. Each incident takes about 40 minutes from the time an officer is dispatched to the time the task is completed, meaning NOPD has spent nearly 800 days (more than 19,000 hours) of manpower handling these types of non-emergencies. Requiring NOPD to respond to such incidents to avoid insurance headaches leads to increased response times citywide, which in turn leads to more incidents being marked as "unfounded" (UNF) or "gone on arrival" (GOA) by NOPD because those involved got tired of waiting and left the scene.
Only 2.4 percent of traffic incidents and accidents were coded UNF or GOA in 2010, while 6 percent were in 2015. Sixteen percent of non-injury hit and runs were UNF or GOA in 2010 and more than 23 percent were in 2015. Reducing NOPD's burden of responding to minor traffic accidents likely would greatly improve response times.
New Orleans will have a municipal election in 2017,
and whomever is our next mayor should continue developing our present course. The short term may be bumpy with uneven advancement, but the foundation has been laid for a long-term reduction in crime.
Growing NOPD is a must, and the city's leadership in the open data movement and the presence of strong oversight bodies create an environment conducive to smarter criminal justice policy. Transparency improves the odds that good choices will follow. We know what works in reducing gun violence, so we need to invest the time, research and resources necessary to aggressively pursue that goal.
A future New Orleans with historically low levels of crime and gun violence is achievable. It just may take some time.