Shootings and murders are up, armed robberies are grabbing headlines and the New Orleans Police Department remains badly understaffed.

The focus in New Orleans — and in the race to determine the city’s next mayor — is once again on crime, which has risen to the top of the list of issues for those vying to succeed Mayor Mitch Landrieu in this fall's elections.

With citizens demanding action, candidates have put forth bold pledges to hire hundreds of more officers, put more boots on the ground in neighborhoods through patrols and community policing and attack the causes of crime through intervention programs, social services and jobs.

Whether any of those promises can be carried out in a single mayor’s term, or at all, is the question.

Crime has been one of the most intractable problems for Landrieu and, as he has taken to pointing out, his predecessors as well. Even when the city's murder rate hit a historic low in 1999, it was still six times the national average, Landrieu noted in his recent State of the City speech.

Of course, it’s easier for an outgoing mayor to say crime is a problem that can only be tamed over the course of many years or decades than it is for those vying to succeed him.

When it comes to the most serious crimes — shootings and murders — things are indeed bad in the city, independent crime analyst Jeff Asher said. The murder rate has slowed in recent weeks but remains high, while the number of people who have been victims of shootings is up, Asher said. Even July, one of the city’s best months this year, saw 35 shootings, a number that would have put it among the worst months of 2016.

“You could make an argument that gun violence is as bad over the last 12 months as it’s been since Katrina,” Asher said.

Beyond shootings, the city's crime rate has remained relatively stable after a rise to its current level in 2014, he said. 

As much as the specter of crime hangs over the city and the election, there may be limits to how much a mayor and a police department can do.

“That doesn’t mean you stop trying to innovate and improve, but it's not going to dramatically improve overnight. There’s too much history that says it won’t,” Asher said.

The NOPD still is hundreds of officers short of its goal of about 1,600, a shortfall tied to a hiring freeze near the beginning of Landrieu’s term in 2010 that the administration says was necessary to keep the city solvent.

While that freeze ended a few years ago, the department has struggled to increase its ranks despite aggressive recruiting, lowered educational requirements, pay raises and other initiatives.

The NOPD is slated to receive $169.4 million next year, about a quarter of the city's total operational budget. Some of that money will go toward a new pay plan that Landrieu argues will help retain and recruit officers, which itself comes on top of an earlier 15 percent increase.

Despite aggressive recruiting efforts, new officers added to the force in recent years have barely exceeded those who retire or quit, leaving the department with fewer than 1,200 officers.

There is some good news on that front, however. The percentage of officers leaving the force has slowed, suggesting that new recruits could soon start adding to the department’s ranks rather than just replacing those who leave, Asher said.

“It’s easy to promise to add a lot of officers, but I can’t think of anything else in the city that comes with a more challenging set of logistics relative to the ease of the promise,” Asher said. “Whatever number a candidate wants to throw out there, it’s going to be a long slog.”

Varying ideas

Former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet has made an ambitious recruitment goal a major plank in her campaign, pledging to add 80 to 100 officers to the department each year. That would come with additional incentives, including housing assistance for officers and negotiations to relax restrictions on off-duty details implemented as part of a federal consent decree governing the NOPD.

Former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, who has made crime the top issue in his campaign, calls for implementing another $10,000 pay increase for officers, providing bonuses contingent on staying on the force and hiring a professional recruiting firm to bring in more applicants. While pitching a goal of hiring 300 officers in four years, Bagneris also suggests negotiating with other police departments in the city — such as the Levee Board Police, Harbor Police and Sheriff’s Office — to take over low-level duties such as writing crash reports and responding to burglar alarms to free NOPD officers to handle major crimes.

City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell’s plans are less concrete. She has said she would use the six-month gap between the election and the inauguration to study the department and determine what needs to be done. Some initial ideas include helping build the department through a program in city schools modeled on ROTC and working to streamline a hiring process that right now sees only 2.6 percent of applicants make it all the way to the training academy, she said. She also said officers should be paid enough to make off-duty details unnecessary.

Cantrell also has said she would approach the violence in the city as a public health epidemic, focusing on social programs — like the Ceasefire and Peacekeepers programs that are already in place — as interventions to prevent crimes in the first place. Other plans include job training and better mental health and addiction services, she said. That involves working with others in the criminal justice community on reforms in court procedures and sentencing, including pre-trial diversions, alternative sentencing, reducing fines and fees that can hurt working-class offenders and re-entry programs for those leaving prison, Cantrell said.

Charbonnet has pitched those types of programs as well, and she notes her work with prostitution and truancy defendants on the Municipal Court bench. She also has called for better mentoring and jobs programs and partnerships with nonprofits and churches to provide services that could reduce crime.

Job training, mental health services and drug treatment also feature prominently in Bagneris’ plans, and he calls for providing intense counseling, treatment and other services for the homeless. He has criticized Landrieu’s implementation of crime reduction programs through the NOLA for Life program, saying that billboards and midnight basketball aren’t as effective as targeting those most at risk of engaging in criminal behavior and providing educational and job opportunities to lift them out of poverty.

There are signs that focusing on those social programs could work, Asher said, pointing to evidence that NOLA for Life had a large impact when it was first implemented. That has faded over time, something he said may indicate that those programs need to be constantly adapted.

Both Cantrell and Bagneris lean heavily on expected growth in city revenue to finance their plans, arguing that steady growth over the years — including a projected $25 million increase in 2018 — would provide the money needed to pay for their proposals. In addition, they say they would use money that is allocated in the budget each year but not actually spent, something they say routinely happens.

Cantrell has also pitched the idea of “social impact bonds,” a strategy that relies on start-up nonprofits to handle some of the social elements in her proposals with the promise that the city will pick up the tab if they are effective.

Charbonnet, on the other hand, is looking to trim other areas of the budget, including affordable housing and economic development funds — which likely would require a vote of the people — and the $2 million spent to monitor compliance with the consent decree every year.

All three of the front-running candidates pledge to reduce police response times, implement more neighborhood and community policing, and use technology, such as license-plate readers and cameras, to aid the NOPD.

The other candidates

Beyond the candidates who have so far dominated the race, others have their own approaches.

Troy Henry said he would use the six-month transition to study the department and identify its problems, create a strike force to deal with the most violent offenders and work to renegotiate the consent decree’s restrictions on paid details. But he has focused much of his approach to dealing with crime on creating jobs, saying he would make an aggressive push to recruit Fortune 500 companies with the goal of bringing 40,000 jobs to the area.

Tommie Vassel is taking a different approach, all but forgoing discussions about the NOPD in favor of pitching a program in which black leaders in the city would reach out personally to those involved in crime or at risk of falling into that lifestyle. While Vassel said he wants to see more homicide detectives on the force, wants a complete audit of the NOPD and wants an increase in drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs and DWI checkpoints to find those transporting guns and drugs, he said a direct approach to potential criminals would do more to reduce crime quickly — and have more positive effects — than police-focused approaches.

Perhaps the most unusual plans in the race are coming from businessman Frank Scurlock, who said he and a group of investors have reached out to the U.S. Navy to purchase a blimp that could be turned over to the NOPD and conduct surveillance from above New Orleans East. He also said he would turn over patrols in the French Quarter to the National Park Service — which has a small presence at the Jean Lafitte National Park visitor center on Decatur Street — although that seems extremely unlikely. He also wants police dispatchers to give callers an estimate of when police will arrive, would replace traffic cameras with motorcycle patrols and favors turning Charity Hospital in a mental health facility.

Among the candidates, the pledge to ensure the NOPD is led by the best chief that can be found is essentially universal. And while that’s often hedged with the caveat that Superintendent Michael Harrison might come out on top in such a search, the rhetoric suggests his days at the head of the department are numbered.

To an extent, that’s understandable, even though Harrison and the department received high marks from officers in a recent survey and he has steered the department through implementation of the consent decree, Asher said.

“Sometimes you have to change things that are perfectly good just to make them your own,” Asher said, quoting Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy from the sitcom "30 Rock."