Beneath storm clouds and white and yellow balloons, mourners gathered Wednesday for a grim occasion marked over and over this year in New Orleans: a memorial for a slain man.
Timothy Thompson Sr., a 40-year-old Navy veteran and a father, was gunned down on Father’s Day, becoming one of the most recent victims among the 91 people murdered in the city in a bloody first half of 2015.
“I’ll never forget that conversation we had,” Timothy Thompson Jr. said, recalling a recent father-son talk on family, life and legacy. “I want my dad because I want him to teach me how to be a dad to my daughter.”
But like so many other family members shattered by the city’s gun violence, Thompson Jr. has only the memories that fuel an aching want.
The fatal shooting, which remains unsolved, was all too typical for New Orleans, emblematic of a resurgent murder rate that inundated homicide detectives during the first half of 2015.
After consecutive years in which the Crescent City’s bloodshed appeared to be in a state of modest remission, killings have spiked to a familiar frequency, renewing concerns about public safety and raising questions about the long-term impact of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s much-touted anti-murder initiatives.
The New Orleans Police Department investigated 30 percent more murders in the first half of this year than in the first half of 2014.
The violence has seemed unrelenting at times, unbounded by geographic or socioeconomic lines. The victims have ranged from two small children, ostensibly in the care of their mother, to two police officers, both gunned down in the line of duty.
The deaths of the two lawmen, including the recent fatal shooting of Officer Daryle Holloway, have heightened concern considerably, because if criminals “aren’t respecting law enforcement, you know the average citizen stands a poor chance,” said Tamara Jackson, executive director of Silence Is Violence, a support group for victims’ families.
“The community is definitely outraged and concerned about their safety, and rightfully so,” Jackson said. “We’re really going into a downward spiral, and I don’t think there’s one solution that I know will work. It’s going to take a collaborative effort, including governmental agencies, to address this problem.”
A ‘grim reality’
City leaders hoped this year to further the sustained decline in murders New Orleans had experienced over the previous three years, a trend that saw the number of killings in 2014 drop to 150 — a four-decade low.
But even as the number of nonfatal shootings continues to fall, 2015 so far has felt more like the years immediately preceding the city’s murder downturn, a disconcerting setback for a Landrieu administration that has obsessed over New Orleans’ murder rate and targeted its reduction as a priority.
The first-half tally is the highest in New Orleans since the 97 killings recorded in the first six months of 2012, a year that saw 193 murders, according to city statistics.
“It’s just a constant reminder that New Orleans has a major crime problem,” Jackson said. “It’s just a grim reality.”
The city’s murder rate remains among the highest in the country. And if the statistics reported by the Mexican newspaper El Diario are correct, New Orleans’ murder rate this year is roughly twice that of Ciudad Juárez — a notoriously violent city on the Mexico-Texas border that recently has seen drastic improvements in security.
“This is a significant increase,” John Penny, a criminologist at Southern University at New Orleans, said of the 2015 murder rate here. “If this were around a 10 percent increase, it could be a fluke. But I think we have some reason for concern.”
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the parish coroner, said the increase in murders has strained his office’s resources and compounded a “lingering pain for the loved ones left behind (that) tears the collective soul of New Orleans.”
“When there is a homicide, the public may briefly see the crime scene tape, the headline in the newspaper or the pictures of the coroner’s van on television. What the public does not see is the utter senselessness of a person needlessly dead on an autopsy table,” Rouse said. “The public does not see the soul-crushing defeat, the numb rage and the blank shock on the faces of the families who come into my office in the following days.”
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison attributed this year’s spike in murders to increases in both robbery- and domestic-related slayings. Among the latter was the tragic case of Michelle McCullum, a 25-year-old mother who killed her 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter in May before turning a .40-caliber handgun on herself.
Domestic killings, in particular, can be difficult, if not impossible, to foresee. In another murder-suicide last month, in the Upper 9th Ward, a 78-year-old man named Raymond Ambrose Jr. fatally shot his ailing wife inside their Desire Street home. Earlier this year, a 28-year-old Tulane University law student killed his girlfriend before taking his own life at his Uptown apartment.
“There are some homicides that are taking place indoors, inside of private residences, inside of private vehicles,” Harrison said in an interview. “It’s people who know one another to some degree. With regard to the murders that could be related to drug activity, it’s people who are in that lifestyle already, the drug trade, who are either robbed because of drugs or robbing others because of drugs.”
Harrison insisted that Landrieu’s “NOLA for Life” campaign has continued to have a meaningful impact on the city’s murder rate, pointing to what he said has been a decline in gang-related violence as the authorities have indicted scores of accused gang members in sweeping state and federal racketeering cases.
The chief also noted that nonfatal shootings fell by 13 percent in the first half of 2015, and that the NOPD’s so-called clearance rate for murders is at 43 percent this year, a percentage he described as “pretty high.”
Even as homicide detectives continued to try to improve that clearance rate, the public learned Thursday that police were working on four fresh cases. The NOPD announced that a St. Augustine High School student shot Tuesday had died Wednesday. Then, a man working on a house in Mid-City was shot and killed, another man was killed in Hollygrove and yet another man was killed in Central City.
“4 homicides in 6 hours this afternoon,” Rouse, the coroner, tweeted. “Four, for Christ’s sake.”
Crunching the numbers
Jeff Asher, an independent consultant who previously worked for the city as a crime analyst, said he is not surprised that a murder rate that fell so sharply for three straight years — stripping New Orleans of its ignominious title of “murder capital of America” — would jump again so soon. That’s because the number of shootings actually rose by 19 percent from 2013 to last year.
However, the percentage of shootings that ended with a fatality fell last year to 32 percent — a below-average proportion that Asher attributes to good fortune for a Landrieu administration that has crowned murder reduction as its No. 1 goal. By the same token, Asher said, the share of shootings resulting in death so far this year stands at about 40 percent — higher than in any year since 2011, his figures show.
In other words, shootings here are, inexplicably, substantially more lethal this year than last, suggesting the hike in murders over the past six months may be less alarming than it seems. The flip side of his analysis, of course, is that New Orleans’ historically low murder rate last year was less impressive than it appeared — more a product of good fortune than of less violence.
For Asher, the number of so-called shooting incidents in which at least one person takes a bullet is a far better measure of the city’s overall gun violence than murders, or even the number of people who get shot and don’t die. He said his research suggests that whether a shooting ends in a fatality or not is “largely random and that the city has basically an average number of shootings that end in a fatality over time.”
Whether gunfire hits several people or kills someone, he said, tends to be more a twist of fate than how often someone pulls a trigger. Asher found that since the start of 2011, up to last week, 36.6 percent of the shooting incidents in the city ended up killing at least one person. The data he analyzed do not include gunfire that misses or shootings in which no one shows up at a hospital or reports it to police.
“Sometimes it’s above (the fatality average); sometimes it’s below it,” he said. “If you focus on murder, you’re adding things that have nothing to do with gun violence: stabbings, beatings, drownings.”
Asher predicted this year’s murder total “is unlikely to be sustained” at the current rate. Shootings hovered around 200 for the six-month period ending June 30, his figures show. Last year at the same time, they were about 11 percent higher, he said. So he expects the murder rate to drop somewhat for the rest of 2015.
Edward Shihadeh, an LSU sociology professor and criminologist, cast a somewhat jaundiced eye on Asher’s premise — that the number of murders is a less trustworthy gauge of public safety than the number of shootings.
“If 30 people were killed, I don’t care how many people killed those 30 people. All I know is 30 people are killed, and now I have to buy locks for my doors and bars for my windows,” Shihadeh said. “It’s really the murder rate. It’s the number of deaths that makes me feel safe or not.”
Shihadeh cautioned that reliance on shootings statistics to downplay murders allows public officials to “run between the raindrops” when murders rise, as they have this year in New Orleans. While he agreed that shootings offer a larger number of incidents with which to gauge overall gun violence, he also said murder isn’t as random as perhaps Asher makes it out to be.
“Murder in New Orleans, murder in Baton Rouge, it happens in very specific places, very specific communities. That’s the whole basis for what’s called smart policing,” Shihadeh added. “There are different kinds of shootings. Looking at shootings alone can mask the differences. Not every shooting is the same.”
Nevertheless, Asher’s data show that while shooting incidents started off slowly in 2015, they are fast catching up with the trends of the four prior years. Should the current rate hold, 2015 would end with about 400 shooting incidents in New Orleans — better than any year but 2013 over the past four years. The number of fatal shootings, however, would reach numbers not seen since 2012 — if the fatality rate holds.
‘All about discipline’
The June 21 death of Thompson came in the midst of a bloody Sunday in New Orleans and went largely overlooked in the hubbub surrounding the manhunt for accused cop-killer Travis Boys.
Thompson was returning home from a night out with his girlfriend to her house in the 2600 block of Lamanche Street in the Lower 9th Ward, his son said, when two men approached with a gun and started firing.
About 1:50 a.m., according to NOPD spokesman Officer Garry Flot, officers responding to a report of shots fired found him shot on the front driveway. He died at the scene.
Cpl. Timothy Thompson Jr., 22, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, said he was just waking up that Father’s Day when he got a text message from his girlfriend that his father had been shot. Bleary-eyed and confused, he at first could not believe it was true. “It’s not my dad,” he told himself.
Neither the hospital nor the police confirmed Thompson Sr.’s death for six agonizing hours. Finally, the son said, members of his family went to the girlfriend’s Lower 9th Ward house and found out the truth for themselves.
The younger Thompson was frustrated that it took so long to learn the truth, but not surprised, given “the rate at which stuff like this happens in this city. I’m sure it gets hectic.”
Thompson’s father grew up in the St. Thomas housing development and then joined the Navy, where he served for 21 years, largely as an air-traffic controller.
And just as Timothy Thompson Sr. kept the planes flying in the air, his son said, he kept his family of two boys and three girls, now ages 12 to 22, running.
“He was all about discipline,” said Thompson Jr. But his father also had a lighter side, making sure everyone at a party was involved in the fun. And his true passion was mentoring children, including Gentilly Terrace teens through the Silverback Society.
After Hurricane Katrina, his son said, the elder Thompson was back in the city as soon as he could get here to help rebuild. He chose to finish out his time in the Navy here to be with his mother, Rosetta. And when Thompson Jr. had his own daughter — now 9 months old — his father adored the girl and treated her like his own.
Thompson Sr. wanted to set an example, his son said, “of what a large, tight-knit African-American family could do.”
So far, no arrests have been announced in the case. That is also true for the separate Father’s Day killings of Lindsay Nichols, 31, who was found shot to death in a burned-out car in New Orleans East, and Kenneth Hall Jr., 27, a concert promoter who was killed in his truck in Algiers.
Thompson Jr. said he knows many people in the city are afraid to call the police with information. He himself has felt fear that his father’s killer is on the loose since he returned to the city to make funeral arrangements.
But he urged anyone with information about his father’s death to share it, because “my dad was a role model, he was an influence, he was a mentor to too many people in this community.”
The younger Thompson blames lack of educational opportunities, lack of income and a general culture of violence for the city’s murder problem.
“They’re brought up around it to where it becomes accepted, it becomes the norm, and to them, it feels like the only way,” he said. “That’s the city we live in. It’s sad. It won’t end for a while.”