Despite assurances from New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison that violent crime is down compared to last year, New Orleanians are increasingly on edge about the city's rising murder rate. Last week, masked gunmen in New Orleans East jumped out of cars and shot a teenager, then ran into his aunt's home and shot a 4-year-old child. The toddler was not killed, but 17-year-old Gerald Morgan died later at a hospital. That's just one of many horrific stories to headline crime reports in recent weeks. Compounding matters for local law enforcement, officers Daryle Holloway and Vernell Brown Jr. were killed in the line of duty this summer.
Harrison responded to citizens' concerns last week with a show of unity alongside federal and state law enforcement leaders. The chief promised more overtime for cops and said additional collaboration with federal and state agencies will help NOPD crack down on violent crime. His announcement came as the city's murder rate topped 100, a rate which seems sure to surpass the 150 murders New Orleans saw in all of 2014, which was the third* consecutive year that murders inched downward.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu hailed last year's number as a historic low for the city, and while this year's murder count pales in comparison to the nearly 400 homicides per year in the mid-1990s, that is small comfort to citizens shocked by the brazenness and ferocity of so many young gunmen in New Orleans today. Nor does it help to know that New Orleanians are not alone: Murders are up significantly in other major cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee (which historically has a low murder rate) and Chicago.
Getting violent crime under control is one thing. Keeping it under control is quite another.
Attempting to put things in perspective, Harrison said non-fatal shootings are down 20 percent so far this year. While that's a good number, other numbers are difficult to change. NOPD still does not have enough personnel. It's hoped several pay raises will stem the tide of retirements and departures that have decimated departmental ranks in recent years, but even with the 27 recruits about to complete field training and two additional recruit classes in the pipeline, it will take years to get NOPD back up to the 1,600 cops it had years ago. Additional patrols by Louisiana State Police have helped greatly, and the next governor should make them a semi-permanent addition to local crimefighting efforts.
Police alone cannot and will not stop crime, but their presence can deter criminals and certainly makes citizens feel safer. Meanwhile, social and mental health services play an equally important role. Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse recently cited a new "victim ally" partnership with the nonprofit Silence Is Violence that offers long-term help to victims at homicide scenes. Retired Criminal Court Judge Calvin Johnson, who until recently led the Metropolitan Human Services District, which oversees publicly funded, community-based behavioral health and developmental disabilities services for metro New Orleans, says giving troubled youths better access to mental health care services can stem the tide of violence.
The fight against violent crime never really ends. As recent statistics tell us, getting it under control is one thing. Keeping it under control is quite another.* A previous version of this story said murders were down for the second consecutive year in 2014, not the third. Gambit regrets the error.