Once there was a mayor of New Orleans whose legacy was closely tied with crime and murder in the city — in a good way. He implemented an anti-crime agenda that produced a previously unimaginable drop in murder — to the lowest number in a generation. Three years later, however, just as the mayor's second term was coming to an end, the killings increased as the long-term sustainability of those gains came into question.
That mayor was Marc Morial.
This imperfect analogy is important to consider when thinking about the legacy of Mayor Mitch Landrieu in relation to crime in New Orleans. Will people primarily remember 2014, when the city reached its lowest murder total since the early 1970s? Or will they remember the drop in police manpower, New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) reforms and increased gun violence? Or will it be some combination?
This month marks five years since then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Landrieu filed a federal consent decree to reform NOPD, and the department has posted some gains. Yet gun violence remains a problem. The city has not fallen lower than the country's fourth highest murder rate — and both shootings and murders are rising dramatically so far in 2017.
It's impossible to predict how history will judge Landrieu's crime-fighting legacy, but these four themes likely will be defining factors:
One • Thumbs Up
NOLA FOR LIFE'S INITIAL SUCCESS
During Morial's first five years in office (1994 to 1999), murder fell by more than 60 percent. The drop during the middle of Landrieu's term, from 2011 to 2014, wasn't as dramatic, but that doesn't make the decline any less encouraging or less historic.
NOLA for Life, the city's anti-violence program, was launched in 2012 and produced positive results against gun violence almost immediately. Beginning in 2013, more than 100 gang members were indicted on federal or state racketeering charges. Additionally, several hundred identified gang members attended "call-ins" hosted by the city, in which participants were presented with a choice between engaging negatively with the criminal justice system or positively with social services.
April 2013 saw the first gang members indicted under the auspices of NOLA for Life. New Orleans averaged 37 shootings per month between May 2012 and April 2013, but there were only 27 shootings per month from May 2013 through the end of the year. The city ended 2013 with 23 people being shot in both August and December — the fewest number of shooting victims in a single month since at least 2010.
While the number of shootings ticked up in 2014, the number of murders declined even further, to 150. New Orleans went from a combined 392 murders and 905 shootings in the two years before NOLA for Life began to 306 murders and 794 shootings in the two years after. The 150 murders in 2014 were the fewest since 116 murders in 1971. When academics from the University of Cincinnati evaluated NOLA for Life in a 2015 paper, they concluded, "Homicides in New Orleans experienced a statistically significant reduction above and beyond changes observed in comparable lethally violent cities."
Their most encouraging finding for Mayor Landrieu's legacy is how NOLA for Life demonstrated that "it might be possible to alter the mindset of gang and criminally active group members in settings where retaliatory violence has been a common occurrence. ... In short, it might be possible to alter in a tangible way persistent cultures of violence."
If New Orleans ever stems its murder rate long-term, the success of NOLA for Life undoubtedly will have played a role. The gains of 2013 and 2014 serve as an example of how policies originating from City Hall can impact the city's murder count.
Two • Thumbs Down
GAINS NOT SUSTAINED
NOLA for Life's initial success reflects positively on the city's ability to develop successful gun-violence reduction policies, but the rise in gun violence since the summer of 2016 shows how fragile those gains have been. Chart 1 measures the number of shooting incidents over 365 days in New Orleans. Each of the gang indictments carried out under the auspices of NOLA for Life is highlighted.
Nearly all the gang indictments occurred between April 2013 and August 2014, with the most recent in mid-2015. The majority of the 10 "call-ins" held by the city occurred between 2012 and 2014, with the most recent in November 2015.
Gun violence has risen at the same time as the city's anti-gang initiatives are running out of steam. As of this writing, the city is on pace for more than 200 more shootings than in 2013 and nearly 50 more murders than in 2014. There have been 204 murders in New Orleans over the last 365 days as of late June, a devastating figure which would be the city's worst year since 2007 if accrued over a full calendar year.
Another way to look at the challenge of sustaining NOLA for Life is to compare the number of shootings over 12 months with the number of NOLA for Life press releases on the city's website over the same timeframe (Chart 3). Press releases obviously don't reduce shootings, but they do highlight the amount of resources and attention being paid to the city's anti-gun violence initiatives over time.
The city's next mayor would be wise to heed this graphic as a warning of both the difficulty and importance of sustaining gun violence reduction efforts. The initial gains under NOLA for Life were a good step, but Landrieu is leaving office with higher levels of gun violence and murder than when he entered.
Three • Thumbs Up
A 21ST-CENTURY POLICE FORCE TO BE PROUD OF
Under Chief Michael Harrison, NOPD has become an example of how a 21st-century police department should serve its public. The foundation has been laid for a future NOPD that will eschew the violence and misconduct that has plagued the department over much of its history. Consider:
• NOPD's Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC) peer intervention program has been touted as the first of its kind in a law enforcement agency. The program is designed to help officers throughout the department recognize and prevent misconduct.
• The department's use of force policies are among the most progressive in the country. A recent analysis by police reform organization Campaign Zero found NOPD was one of only six police departments (out of 91 studied) that had implemented at least six of the eight policies the analysis found were most likely to reduce incidence of police violence. The department also was one of the first in the country to adopt widespread use of body cameras (a tenet of the consent decree).
• New Orleans has led the way in open crime and policing data. The city's open data portal and management analytics tool (called MAX) make NOPD arguably the most open and transparent police force in the nation.
As criminologist David Kennedy notes: "Public safety means freedom from violence and fear of both the community and the state." NOPD's reforms appear to be designed with this concept in mind.
NOPD also is helping turn the tide against the state's nation-leading incarceration rate by making fewer unnecessary arrests. A recent Metropolitan Crime Commission report noted there was a 44 percent reduction in Orleans Parish arrests from 2013 to 2016, and a remarkable 71 percent reduction since 2009.
More than 90 percent of the decline in arrests is due to substantial drops in three minor arrest categories: minor warrants from out of parish, traffic arrests and misdemeanor arrests. These reductions were no accident, as the drop in minor arrests has not been met with a similar decrease in serious arrests; there was a 44 percent increase in arrests for violent felonies since 2013. That reflects the mayor's comprehensive strategy to reduce the city's prison population, which has been reduced 47 percent from 2011 to 2016.
Finally, NOPD has become an agency that embraces the identification of problems as a means of improvement. Inspector General (IG) Ed Quatrevaux's findings of major issues within the department's sex crimes unit led to a "remarkable turnaround," according to the IG. Additionally, when the Consent Decree Monitor shared concerns regarding NOPD's background investigation process, the department responded quickly with a "well-thought-out corrective action plan," according to the monitor's report.
For policing to be effective, it must be just. Many of the steps taken by City Hall and NOPD over the past few years have created an environment for constitutional policing to thrive well into the future.
Four • Thumbs Down
MANPOWER AND CRIME
When it comes to Landrieu's legacy on crime, the mayor can't escape the numbers. There were 9 percent more shooting incidents and 52 percent more robberies in 2016 than in 2010. The average response time to a 911 call in 2010 was 24 minutes. In 2016 it was 76 minutes. There were more than 4,000 more Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Part I crimes in 2010 than 2016, including a 23 percent increase in property crime and a 64 percent increase in violent crime. Crimes in UCR Part I include murder, non-negligent homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny-theft and arson.
Then there's the manpower issue.
NOPD reported having 1,483 commissioned officers in May 2010 and just 1,058 in May 2017 (a drop of 28.7 percent). New Orleans was not alone in losing scores of officers during the recent national recession. Manpower declined in 71 percent of police departments serving cities of more than 250,000 people between 2009 and 2015, and the manpower decline in New Orleans was not the nation's most extreme. It's impossible, however, to consider Landrieu's legacy without noting police manpower.
The reason for the freeze in recruiting is well-documented. In 2010, New Orleans faced a severe budget crisis that Landrieu inherited from former Mayor Ray Nagin. Landrieu needed to cut spending immediately. Ultimately, the mayor and the New Orleans City Council decided to have no police recruiting classes in 2011, one class each in 2012 and 2013, and two in 2014. Little police recruitment combined with slightly higher-than-average attrition over that time (9.4 percent per year on average over those years compared to the pre-Katrina average of 8.4 percent) produced the manpower crisis NOPD faces today.
Nevertheless, the city realized only modest savings from cutting police recruit classes. The city spent less than $6 million combined on recruits in 2009 and 2010, which accounted for roughly 0.4 percent of the city's overall budget for each of those years. Reduced NOPD recruiting from 2011 to 2014 saved the city about $11 million total that it would have spent on a full recruiting effort.
The ramifications of that decision may be the bleakest aspect of the mayor's crime-related legacy. Fewer officers on the street led directly and indirectly to longer response times, dramatic declines in proactive policing, a plummeting homicide clearance rate and a spike in overall crime on Landrieu's watch.
Defining Landrieu's legacy on crime
Any effort to paint Landrieu's legacy on crime as wholly positive or wholly negative — especially right after he leaves office — will miss a great deal of underlying complexity. How we look back at Landrieu's tenure may be tied to how much his successor learns from his shortcomings and builds on his successes.
Landrieu's legacy will look substantially brighter if the next mayor can expand the city's initial success with NOLA for Life, grow NOPD, maintain reforms implemented under the federal consent decree and subsequently reduce crime. Alternatively, Landrieu's legacy would appear much worse if murder continues to rise, NOPD continues to struggle with manpower issues, the department's reforms prove unsustainable and the city's crime rate remains relatively high.
Like him, dislike him, admire him or not — it will take years to accurately assess the true impact of Landrieu's war on crime.
Jeff Asher worked as a crime analyst for the City of New Orleans between 2013 and 2015. He now runs the NOLA Crime News website (www.nolacrimenews.com), which analyzes crime statistics.