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For the first time in months, New Orleans Police Department brass are optimistic they could see a drop in the number of homicides this year.

The rapid-fire pace of killings in the first six months of the year put the city on track for 199 slayings by the end of 2017, or 25 more than last year.

Among those were some cases that put residents particularly on edge, like a shooting that left three men dead at a Mid-City graduation party and the slaying of a mother and her two children inside their Gentilly home.

But between July 1 and Friday morning, there were just 21 new homicides. If killings stay at their overall pace so far this year, the city would rack up 169 slayings by the end of 2017, five fewer than last year, according to statistics kept by The New Orleans Advocate.

In an interview this week, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said such a minor dip would be no cause for celebration in the city's battle against deadly violence.

Victims advocate Tamara Jackson echoed that point, saying, "For someone who has lost a loved one to murder, the rate will always be high, and it will always resonate with them. These are shattered families and folks that are in pain."

But Harrison did cite some steps heading into the summer that may have contributed to the drop in killings.

Chief among those measures was having the NOPD's Violent Offenders Warrant Squad work with U.S. marshals to capture roughly 80 people wanted on warrants, Harrison said. Many of the warrants were in connection with shootings, aggravated assaults and other cases of violence, he said.

Undercover drug stings, carried out with the help of state troopers, also resulted in more than 40 suspected dealers being jailed and nearly 30 others being named as wanted during a news conference earlier this month. Many of those operations focused on drug hot spots identified to police by residents and civic groups, Harrison said.

"We heard them. We took it seriously and delivered on a promise that we would go after those drug dealers they reported," Harrison said.

Both operations follow an emphasis since the beginning of the year on removing as many illegal guns as possible from each of New Orleans' eight police districts.

With more than three months to go this year, New Orleans police had confiscated roughly 610 guns they described as being illegally owned, compared with 500 such weapons seized in all of last year.

The approach targets people that police say are more likely to kill, as well as some of their more common reasons and the methods that they use to do so.

The theory driving the warrants round-up is that those capable of committing a shooting or other violent crime could be prepared to kill, often with an illegal gun, Harrison said.

Meanwhile, Harrison said, the undercover narcotics stings recognize the fact that drugs are the second-most common reason people have gotten killed this year in cases where investigators are confident that they know the motive. The only more common known motive for slayings this year is verbal or physical spats that spiraled out of control, often between people who knew each other well.

Harrison said he knows that any positive effects the round-ups have had on the city's homicide rate will be fleeting if the cases don’t end in convictions and meaningful sentences or adequate rehabilitation through the corrections system.

While saying the police's recent strategy deserves some credit for the homicide slowdown of the past few months, local crime analyst Jeff Asher said New Orleans was also statistically overdue for a break.

The numerous killings during the first six months of the year occurred during the latter half of a 12-month period that saw an average of two people shot daily, which is roughly twice the normal rate in New Orleans.

The pace of killings since July 1 — which carried out over a year would translate to fewer than 100 killings — is a statistical anomaly at the opposite end of the spectrum, Asher said.

Whatever the case, both Asher and Harrison agreed that police aren't the only ones who have a hand in either drops or spikes in crime. Improvements or shortcomings in everything from the educational system and the economy to available mental health and drug treatment services also are factors, Harrison said.

But Harrison said he was proud of how a department roughly 450 officers short of its staffing goal has responded after it was widely criticized at the height of the spike in killings earlier this year.

He has repeatedly made special mention of the homicide squad, whose commander, Lt. Jimmie Turner, was the subject of unflattering stories in the spring pointing out that the rate at which his unit had arrested suspects in 2017 killings had slid below 20 percent.

The slowdown in new killings since then has helped Turner's unit boost that number to about 30 percent.

The unit has also improved its efficiency as measured by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting formula, which compares the number of killings to the number of cases that police believe they have "cleared" by making an arrest or through a special circumstance such as the death of the prime suspect.

That UCR homicide clearance rate stood at roughly 50 percent as of Friday morning, which is not too far from the national average of 61.5 percent.

"It is extremely encouraging to see the men and women of NOPD, as they see themselves shorthanded, go out and perform at a high level," Harrison said. "They remained focused, committed, and they executed a plan. ... We're now seeing the fruits of our labor."

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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