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First Place Multi-Photo 2 of 5-People react at the scene of the 3400 block of South Claiborne Street where two people are dead and seven more injured in a shooting in New Orleans, La. Saturday, July 28, 2018.

Despite a bloody Christmas holiday, New Orleans in 2018 registered its lowest number of murders in nearly half a century, and other key gun violence statistics also saw important drops, a sign of modest progress in the city's most intractable crisis.

When the clock struck midnight early Tuesday to usher in the new year, there had been 146 people murdered in New Orleans in 2018, with three additional killings having been deemed justifiable, according to unofficial statistics provided by police.

It marked the lowest annual murder toll since 1971, when there were 116 slayings. And it was the second year in a row the number of murders had fallen in New Orleans, which recorded 157 in 2017, down from 174 in 2016.

In past years, skeptics of New Orleans’ violence-reduction efforts have downplayed the importance of such trends by pointing out that other violent crimes had not seen similar decreases.

A prime example of that was in 2014, when officials were restrained in touting a dip to 150 homicides because the number of nonfatal shootings that same year spiked by 24 percent.

In 2018, though, the 47-year low in murders was accompanied by a drop of about 28 percent in the number of non-deadly shooting incidents from 2017.

Moreover, armed robberies fell for the third year in a row, and the number of carjackings came down as well in 2018, according to statistics kept by the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison has said none of that is by accident. He said he tasked a specialized team of tactical officers and detectives with removing repeat violent offenders from the streets over the past two years, no matter how long the cases took to build, and they’ve delivered results.

Another tool to which the NOPD has increasingly resorted is an expanding network of street surveillance cameras, which in some cases have produced high-definition images of criminal suspects. Police frequently receive tips about those cases after the images are distributed to the public.

Crime analyst Jeff Asher, now a City Council consultant, said it is reasonable to credit the NOPD’s efforts as a meaningful contributor to the improved numbers. But he said other factors have almost certainly also driven the numbers down.

Violent crime is trending downward nationally, and communities frequently see cooler periods in the wake of a spike in violence, which New Orleans endured when there were about two shootings daily for a year beginning in the middle of 2016. 

“We don’t necessarily know what the drivers of gun violence (rates) are from day to day, month to month, or year to year,” Asher said. “More than likely, it’s not a single explanation, but it would be logical to say one of those things could be (the NOPD’s) enforcement.”

The drop in homicides will ensure New Orleans was not America's most murderous city in 2018 on a per-capita basis, an unwanted title the city has held several times since Hurricane Katrina. 

But the 2018 rate of about 37 murders per 100,000 residents ranks among the top four in the U.S. and one of the highest in North America. Asher said that St. Louis and Baltimore will hold down the top two spots, and Detroit and New Orleans will be No. 3 and No. 4, though it's not certain in which order. 

It would take a further significant reduction in illegal killings for New Orleans to fall to No. 5 on the list, a spot now held by Newark, New Jersey, Asher said.

Asher also noted that while 2018 saw the fewest murders in New Orleans since 1971, the city actually had a lower murder rate in 1985, when there were 152 slayings and more than 500,000 residents.

Though New Orleans was significantly more peaceful than usual in 2018, it still saw intense spasms of gun violence erupt periodically, such as when at least five people were reported shot — two fatally — on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, arguably the highest-profile murder case in 2018 — the 10-victim shooting that left three dead outside a Central City strip mall in July — remains unsolved.

In an interview recently, Harrison declined to say if detectives had identified any suspects or whether any may have been jailed in connection with unrelated incidents, citing his desire to protect the integrity of the investigation.

Remarks by the mother of one of the slaying victims in that case, Kurshaw Jackson, illustrate how improved public-safety statistics are of little consolation to the loved ones of those killed.

“People say it was his time, (but) ain’t no such thing (as) ‘It’s your time’ when someone pulls a trigger and kills you,” Robin Jackson said at a Night Out Against Crime event in October. “No, it wasn’t his time. He was murdered.

“Stop the killing.”

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Friends and family of Kurshaw 'Twin' Jackson including his mother Robin Jackson and girlfriend Areana Hickman, holding picture, attend a memorial for him in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, July 31, 2018, and for the other victims of a violent shooting that left 3 dead and 7 injured at the scene of the 3400 block of S. Claiborne Ave Saturday night.

Harrison concedes that plenty of work remains to be done. When discussing the topic of violent crime, he always makes it a point to note that one murder is too many to him and his colleagues, not just to victims’ survivors.

Nonetheless, Harrison said he is optimistic the gains of 2018 can be carried over into future years. One reason is that his agency is closing in on substantial compliance with a seven-year-old federal reform pact that has improved the department’s performance, most notably by drastically reducing how often its 1,200 officers resort to using force.

“The whole city needs to know it was the 1,200 officers who executed (the NOPD’s various strategies) and willingly transformed” the agency, Harrison said. “They should recognize it’s the officers who made the culture change, and I’m honored it’s under my leadership.”

Editor's note: This story was changed Jan. 1 to correct the number of killings. Police had originally said there were 145 murders, but the number increased by one after a woman who was wounded in a shooting Dec. 30 died from her injuries.

WWL-TV's Paul Murphy contributed to this report.


Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.