The procession of high-profile Uptown robberies may seem unabated: a Garden District couple held up on their front porch, masked men barging into Cooter Brown's in search of the safe and a trio of very young teens in skeleton masks demanding money at gunpoint on Broadway Street, all in June.
Despite the perception these incidents create, and in spite of a generally shrinking New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), Uptown has seen a decrease of 50 percent or more in the number of armed robberies reported in 2013 from the same time period last year, according to statistics compiled from NOPD sources.
Uptown New Orleans is divided fairly neatly into two police districts, which are divided at Napoleon Avenue: the 6th District includes Hoffman Triangle, Central City, Garden District, Irish Channel and Lower Garden District, while the 2nd District covers Hollygrove, Carrollton, the university area, Freret and much of Broadmoor.
As of June 28, the 2nd District reported 22 armed robberies for the year, down from 40 this time last year — a 45 percent reduction. The 6th District reported 20 armed robberies, down from 53 last year — a reduction of 62 percent. Taken together, the two districts have seen a 55 percent reduction in armed robberies. (The NOPD tracks armed robberies and simple robberies separately. Adding the simple robberies into the armed robbery numbers does not change the trend much, however; the two districts are down 56 percent for armed and simple robberies combined, for example.)
"It's a meaningful reduction," said professor George Capowich, a criminologist at Loyola University New Orleans. "If it drops from 100 to 45, there's no doubt that's statistically significant."
The trend for armed robberies isn't consistent around the city — three districts have seen reductions, though not as large as those in the 2nd and 6th, and three have seen increases. It could be argued that the 2nd and 6th Districts' improvements over last year account for all the robbery reduction in the city. The NOPD reported 294 armed robberies this year — down 44 from 338 this time last year — while the 2nd and 6th districts are down 51 robberies together.
NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, speaking at the department-wide COMSTAT meeting June 28, attributed the general reduction in violent crime to use of data-driven deployment of patrol vehicles. A NOPD computer system analyzes the frequency of all crime — from the traditional focus areas of rape, robbery and murder down to less serious incidents such as theft and car crashes — and creates a map of "hot spots" in the district, often as specific as an individual intersection or stretch of a few blocks.
A dedicated officer is then sent to those hot spots, and in theory, his or her presence either convinces potential troublemakers to go elsewhere, or results in an arrest that takes a criminal off the street. Even if that hot spot is nowhere near the site of the nearest robbery — one frequent spot in the 6th District, for example, is the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue, because of the high number of car crashes, though it is rarely the site of robberies — the pressure on criminals is intended to reduce the overall amount of crime.
Loyola's Capowich consults with the NOPD on its implementation of the data-driven policing, and said the approach to these patrols is based on the best research available.
"Random patrol is not very effective all by itself," Capowich said. "Because crime isn't random, patrolling randomly — you wouldn't expect it to be all that effective. ... What a directed strategy like that does is it increases uncertainty for the offenders. It looks like, 'There's too great a chance I might get caught,' so they might leave the area."
Serpas noted the reduction in violent crime despite a force that's 20 percent smaller than it was just two or three years ago, and said the only way to explain it is through more effective police deployment. With new recruits now in the academy, more officers should soon be headed onto the streets, increasing the manpower available to be dedicated to those directed patrols, Serpas said.
Second District Cmdr. Paul Noel and 6th District Cmdr. Bob Bardy offer additional, somewhat related explanations.
In 2012, both districts suffered from several robbery sprees allegedly committed by one person or a small group, such as a "clique" of robbers in the Irish Channel targeting taxi drivers, or a rash of robberies in the university area last summer. Such a spree — a handful of robberies in a few days' time — can quickly push robbery statistics through the roof.
As the year progressed, some of those perpetrators were arrested, taking them off Uptown streets — such as the gang allegedly involved in the carjacking on Camp Street that left attorney Sandy Kaynor severely injured, or the suspect in the robbery of Dat Dog on Freret Street. And this year in general has seen a strong pattern of arrests as Noel has made reducing armed robberies the top priority for the district. In the 2nd District, for example, detectives currently have a 43 percent clearance rate, Noel said — well above the national average of about 25 percent for cities of similar size.
"We really don't believe that's an accident," Noel told the NOPD leadership at a recent departmental COMSTAT meeting. He praised the 2nd District detectives saying, "They solve these cases. We're capturing these guys and getting them off the streets."
The 6th District has seen a robbery-clearance rate closer in line with national averages, but its overall violent crime numbers also have plummeted — down 40 percent for the year. Bardy attributes that to a string of major indictments against alleged 6th District area gangs — the 110ers in the Irish Channel area, the Allen family in the central part of the district, and the 3NG group in the Hoffman Triangle area — that led to dozens of arrests.
"The last three Fridays in a row, we've had some surprises for you," Bardy said to 6th District residents at June's community meeting shortly after the most recent indictments. "I'm really happy with it. This is a long-term, not a Band-Aid, fix."
The level of violence in New Orleans can be difficult to describe solely with statistics. The city has the highest or second-highest rate of murders per capita in the country (though numbers from the first half of 2013 show a sharp reduction), which is the statistic criminologists rely on most because of its lack of subjectivity. Most times, the presence of a dead body makes the crime indisputable, tough to hide behind fuzzy classifications or inaccurate crime reports.
But New Orleans officials frequently counter that the murder problem is relatively contained to a small subset of society involved in criminal enterprises and doesn't reflect life for most people in the city. Robberies, police officials say, may be a better indicator.
"Armed robberies are a way we measure violence in society," Bardy said at the June community meeting. Robberies are most often committed against strangers, unlike murders, which typically are committed among acquaintances. "It's a measure of aggression in society," he said.
Overall violent crime rates in New Orleans are far lower than the murder rates, and robbery rates bear that out in comparison to other cities. The Crescent City saw about 3 robberies per 1,000 people in 2012, according to the FBI database. That's around the middle of the pack for similar-sized cities in the region — Atlanta and Memphis saw robbery rates of more than 5 per 1,000 people; Birmingham, Ala., Baton Rouge and Jackson, Miss. all recorded rates around 4.5 robberies per 1,000 people; Nashville's rate was similar to New Orleans, at 2.8; Mobile, Ala. was 1.8 and Austin, Texas was 1.2.
So if New Orleans' robbery rates are truly falling, should New Orleanians feel safer? Perhaps, said Capowich — until the next shocking robbery, or until the victim is someone you know.
"People's perceptions and their fear of crime are affected by a lot of things. Certainly one of them is, 'What's the crime rate?' So if that continues, it would have an effect," Capowich said. "But even if it continues, and suddenly there's a rash of high-profile incidents, that improved perception is easily erased."