During the recent Thanksgiving weekend, there was one thing New Orleans wasn't thankful for: the stubborn murder rate, which showed no sign of abating. Before the end of November, New Orleans tied, then surpassed, the number of total killings the city saw in 2010. By Nov. 27, the city reached 178 murders — three more than the year before — with more than a month to go before year's end.
This is bad news not only for the city, but also for New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Chief Ronal Serpas, who has seen some success in knocking down rates of other crimes. Earlier this year, he stated a goal of reducing murders in the city this year by five percent, a number so unambitious we chided him for it in this space. Sadly, a five percent reduction in killings would now be welcome news. This year's spike in bloodshed has been reminiscent of the post-Katrina years of 2006 and 2007, when the official homicide rate jumped from 161 to 209. That spike came at a time when the city's population was considerably smaller than it was before the storm — and even smaller than it is now — leaving those who had returned to the city dismayed that New Orleans was once again headed in the wrong direction.
In late November, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced his latest initiatives, the Strategic Command to Reduce Murders and Task Force One, both to be overseen by Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter. Those initiatives are the latest components of the "SOS NOLA: Saving Our Sons" campaign that Landrieu unveiled in September. Both should be seen as hopeful developments.
Task Force One is primarily an information-sharing mechanism between local, state and national crime fighting officials. This is a much-needed step, because the databases among the various agencies involved are not always able to be cross-referenced easily. At a time when manpower is an issue, the use of technology to enhance police coverage and focus crime fighters' efforts is indeed welcome.
The Strategic Command to Reduce Murders is more comprehensive. It's based on a program launched in 2005 in Milwaukee, where it's called the Homicide Review Commission. Landrieu touted the Wisconsin commission's results in his announcement of the New Orleans version. The program has five "action teams," with members ranging from mayoral staffers and cops to social services agencies and people in the business community. The commission will initially focus on the three NOPD districts with the most murders: the Fifth District (Bywater, Marigny and the Ninth Ward), the Sixth District (Central City, the Irish Channel and the Garden District) and the Seventh District (eastern New Orleans).
Based on Milwaukee's experience, what should New Orleanians expect? Frankly, it depends on how you read those results. When Milwaukee's Homicide Review Commission began in 2005, that city saw 122 homicides. By 2008, there were only 71 homicides — a decrease of nearly half in three years. That was Milwaukee's lowest total in more than 20 years. How much of this was due to the work of the Homicide Review Commission? Impossible to say, but it should be noted that after hitting bottom in 2008, the trend began reversing itself. By 2010, there were 94 homicides in Milwaukee, 22 more than the year before. This year, Milwaukee surpassed the total number of its 2010 homicides in October, just as New Orleans did in November of this year. At a minimum, it's plain that crime is both a local and a national problem.
Despite its pervasiveness, we should never give up hope and never stop working to reduce violent crime. Consider New York's experience. In 1990, New York's five boroughs saw a record 2,245 murders. Last year, they saw a small fraction of that number. Moreover, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports show the nation's murder rate decreased nearly 17.5 percent from 2006 through 2010.
Unfortunately, New Orleans is bucking that positive national trend. The mayor is right to look elsewhere for ideas that work. Some have rolled their eyes at yet another commission to stanch the bloodshed in New Orleans' streets — there have, of course, been so many initiatives before — but Landrieu and Serpas would rightly face harsher criticism had they done nothing instead.