New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu greets police recruits of class #182 on their first day of training at the New Orleans Police Training Academy in New Orleans, La., Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. Recruit class #182 is scheduled to have 40 recruits as the department continues to try to expand its ranks.

As he prepares to hand over the reins to his successor in four months, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Thursday made an impassioned case for preserving his NOLA For Life murder-reduction program, arguing that it has made "a significant dent" in the city's violent crime problem.

Landrieu's remarks came a few days after Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell said she would analyze the efficiency of NOLA for Life before her May inauguration, citing questions over whether the program's impact on violence justifies its budget of roughly $5 million a year in city and grant funds.

But Landrieu denied his comments on NOLA for Life were a reaction to Cantrell's statements. He said he had always planned to address the program's results Thursday during a broader discussion about how the city can count on more and better-equipped first responders thanks to steps his administration took last year.

NOLA for Life is a 5½-year-old program targeting known gang associates and other young people for everything from social services to the threat of prosecution, depending on their willingness to participate.

Landrieu said there have been 140 fewer murders during the program's existence than there were in the 5½ years preceding its creation.

"The ... important part if you see a trend in data is to keep going in that direction," Landrieu said. "The ... reduction strategy works. It would work better if we had more money and we could do it more."

The program's biggest success occurred early in its tenure, when in 2014 the city registered the lowest number of killings in four decades: 150. That was down 25 percent from the 199 murders in 2011, Landrieu's first full year as mayor.

Yet the city experienced an increase in killings during the next two years before ending 2017 with 157 slayings, roughly 10 percent fewer than in 2016.

Two other key categories of violent crime saw mixed results last year. Armed robberies dropped by 18 percent, but the number of non-fatal shootings and the number of people wounded in those cases both rose by 3 percent.

Landrieu acknowledged the jump in non-fatal shootings was frustrating, though he said there's no obvious factor to blame for that statistic.

But he said the number of murders per 100,000 residents in New Orleans last year — 40 — is roughly the same as it was three decades ago. That was before the rate rose steadily and peaked at 85 per 100,000 in the mid-1990s, when New Orleans' population was larger than it is today.

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The term-limited Landrieu said it is Cantrell's prerogative as the incoming mayor to assess all city programs and change what she sees fit.

But "there's a lot of good evidence that this works fairly well," Landrieu said when asked for his response to Cantrell's statement. "When you find something good, you should keep doing it. When you find something bad, you should stop. And I'm sure (Cantrell's team) will do that responsibly, like I did when I got here."

In other parts of a wide-ranging talk Thursday, Landrieu touted how his administration has recruited roughly 600 new police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

While both the police and fire departments are below ideal staffing levels, Landrieu mentioned how his administration successfully pursued raises for their members recently in hopes of retaining skilled veterans and making recruitment easier.

He also said the administration has secured more than 300 new first response vehicles and has trained personnel to deal with various threats, ranging from tanker fires to active shooters.

"The city of New Orleans is in a much, much better position to keep the city safe than it has been in a long time," Landrieu said.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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