Something's happening. In the hallway of the New Orleans Police Department's (NOPD) Fifth District building, near the corner of Burgundy and Mazant streets, frantic messages are coming over the police radio. It's tough to hear, but someone's yelling "Galvez and Marigny."
An officer gets up from his chair and rushes out of the small conference room where District Cmdr. Chris Goodly is about to start the meeting.
The seven civilians — people who live inside the Fifth District, which stretches from the 7th Ward to the Lower 9th Ward — who've come to the January New Orleans Neighborhood Police Anti-Crime Council (NONPACC) meeting turn toward the hall to see what's going on.
"Oh great, we got a 34S," says one officer.
Goodly, a good-natured guy, smiles at the small group reassuringly and explains the meeting's going to be delayed.
"We're working a major incident now, so you'll have to bear with us a sec," he says. "We normally [name] officers of the month, but the officers we've picked are working that incident."
Tonight's 34S — police radio code for a shooting — at 2100 Elysian Fields Ave. leaves four people injured, including a 12-year-old girl who was shot six times. On Jan. 12, two days after the incident, her mother, Malissa Johnson, tells WWL-TV she's praying the girl will regain use of her legs.
The good news, or as close an approximation to good news as possible, is that the shooting won't turn out to be a 30 — homicide — though the Fifth District's had more than its share of those. Of NOPD's eight districts, the Fifth had 57 murder cases in 2011, up from 43 in 2010. Because there were multiple victims in some cases, that number actually represents 59 murders — the highest of any district, with nearly 30 percent of the 199 murders reported last year citywide.
"We had three homicides last week," Goodly says. "They're all still open." There were five murders total in New Orleans that week, the first week of 2012.
What's more, Goodly is down 12 officers from last year — lost to attrition, says NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas. The Fifth District has gone from 107 officers to 95, even as the district — which is smaller in area having lost neighborhoods in Gentilly and the Faubourg Marigny to a recent department-wide redeployment plan — still has some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods in the 7th Ward, St. Roch and the Upper 9th Ward. Overall, crime in this district has been under control, Goodly says, up only two total crimes from last year's tally. But the city as a whole continues to see murders rise out of proportion to the total crime rate.
A March 2011 report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, which used 2009 data, found that the total crime rate for New Orleans — 4,623 reported crimes per 100,000 residents — was actually below the average of similarly sized cities — (5,119 per 100,000) and significantly below Orlando, Fla. (8,579 per 100,000), which was identified as a comparable city "similar to New Orleans in size, region of the country, and level of tourism and entertainment-based economy." (Mayor Mitch Landrieu has pointed out the city ranks only 73rd for violent crimes nationwide.)
But New Orleans' murder rate not only outpaces the rest of the country — it does so by a wide margin. It's more than four times that of similarly sized cities and Orlando, and more than 10 times the national average, according to the report. In 2011, the murder rate was 58 per 100,000 — nearly three times Philadelphia's 20.7, which was the highest rate among the country's largest cities.
That 58 per 100,000 is down from 2007's rate of 71 per 100,000 (with 209 murders in a post-Hurricane Katrina population of less than 300,000), but up from last year's 51. So far, New Orleans doesn't seem to be doing much better in 2012. As of this writing, the city has seen 16 murders in this still-brand-new year.
As the murder tally grew in 2011, so did the city's list of initiatives aimed at curbing the bloodshed. In September, Mayor Mitch Landrieu officially launched "SOS NOLA: Saving Our Sons" with a crime summit at UNO Lakefront Arena. He pledged $250,000 to the CeaseFire program — a 15-year-old crime intervention model based on research by criminologist and author David Kennedy — in Central City. (The program, still being set up, will be rolled out in earnest next month, Landrieu said recently.) NOPD also ramped up efforts to create and strengthen Neighborhood Watch Groups. This month, the city started a midnight basketball program aimed at keeping young men off the street.
The initiative, announced in late November, and appears to be both the broadest in scope and most specifically targeted at the singular issue of murder is now being implemented, city officials say. It's called the Strategic Command to Reduce Murders, which the mayor first called for in his April 2011 State of the City speech.
The program is based on a similar one begun in Milwaukee in 2005. That city, which has some demographic similarities to New Orleans, also has had high murder numbers per capita, though its murder rate has never been as high as New Orleans'.
The U.S. Department of Justice brought the model to Landrieu and Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter through Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2), a local-federal partnership program launched by the Obama administration last summer in New Orleans and five other cities. "It's considered a national best practice," Carter says.
The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission (MHRC) is a data-based approach to the problem. The MHRC collects comprehensive data on every murder that occurs in the city, combines it with personal intelligence from investigators and criminal justice officials from local, state and federal agencies, then turns its findings into policy recommendations.
"We have, over time, made over 350 recommendations that range from a case-specific recommendation ... to state legislation," says MHRC director Dr. Mallory O'Brien, an epidemiologist who founded the initiative.
The model appeals to the Landrieu administration, which frequently affirms its commitment to adopting "best practices" based on "data-driven models."
Serpas says the attraction of MHRC is that it's an academic approach, based on concrete fact rather than the biases of criminal justice professionals. Whatever conclusions are drawn about crime in New Orleans after the model is applied here will be — and will be perceived by the public as — objective, he says.
"What I like about the Milwaukee model is that it involves an analysis of murders in the community that's done in a neutral way," Serpas says. "When I talk about murder, there's always going to be an audience that hears, 'well that's the police department's view.' If the district attorney talks about murder, people will think, that's the DA's point of view."
Last fall, Carter and Kirk Bouyelas, NOPD deputy superintendent of investigations, went to Milwaukee to review the MHRC in action. Beyond data-gathering, Carter says it was the interagency collaboration he saw in Milwaukee that really impressed him.
"One of the great things I saw was federal, state and local law enforcement actually seated in the same room, sharing information, cross-information, to come to conclusions," Carter says.
Dr. Steven Brandl, a Milwaukee crime expert and MHRC researcher, says information sharing is the program's greatest asset.
"I think that is the intent and the purpose," he says. "It's to increase communication among these people from different agencies. And that's probably, in my opinion, what the homicide review commission does best."
Carter and Bouyelas' Milwaukee trip was followed by a two-day training session in New Orleans, led by O'Brien and attended by officials here, including U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. "We had folks from the U.S. Attorney's Office, Corrections, U.S. Marshals, the [Milwaukee] Police Department," O'Brien says. "So the right group of people was in the room. And everybody was committed to participating in the reviews and making it work."
Letten says he was impressed with the presentation: "Having seen the success of this project in Milwaukee, let's just say I'm very hopeful and very excited that we can get some mileage out of it here."
There is some difference of opinion as to whether the Milwaukee model does, in fact, reduce murders. Carter and O'Brien say it does. But Milwaukee's murder rate, which went down steadily in the first three years after MHRC's launch, spiked again in 2010 and 2011. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a frequent and blunt critic of the city's police department, says those numbers vindicate his long-held position that the MHRC is a "waste of money" — political window-dressing for a nonpolitical problem.
City officials, however, remain confident the initiative — combined with its other efforts — has worked in Milwaukee and will work to help solve what many say is the city's most troublingly persistent issue.
"The problem is the person crimes," specifically murder, Goodly says. "That's something we've got to, got to, got to, get right."
"Prior to the Homicide Review Commission, I had worked in the field of violent injury for a number of years," O'Brien says. "Several folks came to me in the summer of 2004 and asked if I would help Milwaukee think through homicides, and what's going on with our homicides, so that we could really focus on prevention." Up to that point, O'Brien had been working with Harvard University's National Violent Injury Statistics System to develop a national model for reporting and analyzing violent death statistics.
"I talked to my colleagues around the country and came up with a plan for Milwaukee," one that took the data-gathering system they'd already created through the National Violent Injury Statistic System and made it real-time, O'Brien says.
The real-time element was key, she adds. It took about two years to compile nationwide data from department reports around the country. MHRC, however, updates data constantly as police reports come in. "That was achieved by actually housing the commission within the police department," she says. "So by housing it in the police department, we have access to all information in real time. Before, you could not access cases [or] homicide files from the police department real time."
From there, O'Brien developed a multi-level review process and groups that meet regularly to discuss data on every murder. The New Orleans model will adopt these as "action teams." From the MHRC website:
• Level 1 – In real time, the Milwaukee Police Department responds to homicides as usual, investigating why the homicide occurred and who was responsible for it. (New Orleans: "Initial Action Team" or "Rapid Engagement of Support in the Event of Trauma [RESET] Action Team," as it was called during a meeting of the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee Jan. 18.)
• Level 2 – A monthly review of all homicides that occurred the prior month by primarily local criminal justice professionals. These professionals develop a detailed description of the homicide. Also called Criminal Justice Reviews. (New Orleans: "Criminal Justice Action Team.")
• Level 3 – A monthly review of all closed cases ... by community service providers that identify community-level factors that contributed to the homicide.
• Level 4 – An annual meeting for community members to receive and provide input and feedback on the violence prevention initiatives and interventions implemented as a result of the criminal justice and community service provider reviews. Also called Community Reviews. (New Orleans: Levels 3 and 4 combined as the "Community Service Action Team.")
The model has expanded to include separate reviews of domestic violence homicides and nonfatal shootings, O'Brien says.
It's all overseen by the MHRC's executive committee (the "Executive Action Team"), which includes federal, state and local law enforcement officials, as well as federal and local prosecutors and corrections officials.
The executive committee, which meets privately because it discusses ongoing investigations; reviews demographic and criminal history data on victims, witnesses and suspects; looks for location patterns; and reports on police tactics. The MHRC examines the data from every vantage point, O'Brien says.
"So ATF is participating if a firearm's been recovered, we'll know where did that firearm come from," she says. "If the individual's ever been involved in a firearm trace, we'll know about that. If they have a criminal history that had been presented to the district attorney's office, we'll know the outcome of those. We'll look at their criminal history in detail to say, 'Why was this guy out on bail of 100 bucks? Who was the court commissioner?' We have that level of data."
O'Brien says data gleaned from those reviews have resulted in smarter crime-fighting policies. When MHRC noticed an increase in domestic violence homicides in 2010, O'Brien says, she turned the findings over to Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn. Flynn, in turn, ordered his district commanders to develop domestic violence strategies. Domestic homicides decreased by more than half from 2010 to 2011, O'Brien says.
MHRC research has, on occasion, also led police to find larger motives for murders thought to result from isolated conflicts. "We actually just had one of those cases where the initial response was, 'Oh, this was an argument,' only to find out when digging further that there was a drug deal that had gone bad," O'Brien says. She could not disclose any details of the ongoing investigation. "So it was more than just an argument."
Such intelligence in New Orleans could debunk the conventional wisdom that New Orleans has a disproportionate number of murders motivated by "personal conflict," which Tulane University criminologist Dr. Peter Scharf calls "nonsense."
"That's what the [Landrieu] administration has said," Scharf says. "It's easy to underestimate the drug involvement."
Asked whether the city expects that type of insight from its own program, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni says, "We don't necessarily expect that result, but we expect to get greater intelligence about what's going on."
Implementation of the Milwaukee-based model in New Orleans has gotten only as far as the Executive Action Team, which met for the first time in late December. The Initial Action Team met and has been partly implemented, Carter says, in the form of immediate grief-counseling services for witnesses and the families of victims, facilitated by city Health Commissioner Karen DeSalvo. The second initial action component, which involves the deployment of all available investigators for each murder, is still in the works, Cmdr. Goodly says.
The New Orleans version also has expanded on the Milwaukee model, adding a fifth group: the "Re-entry Workforce Action Team," which will concentrate on finding employment for ex-offenders. "There's an existing re-entry working group that's been working for a number of months that the city's been involved in," Berni says. "That effort is being folded into the strategic command."
Several local firms — including Royal Engineering, Gibbs Construction and the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, which is privately run — have already signed on. The city's recently announced blighted lot maintenance pilot program in the Lower 9th Ward also has been hiring ex-offenders.
"It's not a narrow replica of any program," Carter says. "We enlarged processes for what we're doing down here."
On Wednesday, Dec. 21, three days after a shooting at the B.W. Cooper Apartments in Central City left 19-year-old Emmett Allen seriously injured and 1-year-old Keira Holmes Gordon dead, WBOK-AM hosted a community meeting in the chambers of the New Orleans City Council. Guests included state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, NAACP New Orleans President Danatus King, the Rev. Willie Muhammad and Joseph Bouie, former chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans. The room was nearly full by the time the 6 p.m. meeting began.
At one point, midway through the meeting, WBOK announcer Gerod Stevens, who was acting as moderator, posed a question to the mostly black audience. "Are you comfortable talking to the police?" Stevens asked.
"No!" "No!" "Not at all!" was the overwhelming response.
The sentiment of the people in Council chambers that night can't be construed to represent all African-Americans in New Orleans. But it does underscore recent findings by the New Orleans Crime Coalition. In an August survey of 600 residents, the commission found only 42 percent of black respondents were satisfied overall with the NOPD, down from 56 percent just six months earlier. Meanwhile, 52 percent of white respondents were satisfied. Distrust of the NOPD among black residents and low morale among NOPD officers are two factors contributing to the department's ability to keep homicide under control, Scharf says.
Berni and Carter point to the community service and re-entry programs as evidence that increasing resident trust and cooperation are integral to the new program. Still, Scharf worries that the Milwaukee model is just another politically motivated bandage.
"The Milwaukee model is fine," Scharf says, but the NOPD's prevention efforts are "too late and very poorly conceptualized. We're having political policy rather than substantive policy."
One couldn't help but notice the timing of the city's announcement of the Milwaukee program. On Nov. 22, the city's murder tally for 2011 was 173, two behind the 2010 total. (By the end of that Thanksgiving weekend, it would go up to 178.) Berni disputes that was the reason the city made the announcement at that time. "You can write that, but it would be inaccurate. It would be ridiculous to assert that," Berni says.
Clarke, the outspoken Milwaukee County Sheriff, once a commander and homicide detective in the Milwaukee Police Department, is now a frequent political opponent of the agency. The sheriff says the program has not produced the promised results. (Clarke's office is not a participant in the program; he says he wasn't asked to be involved in its formation.) According to Clarke, the MHRC merely "duplicates" data the police already have.
"All they do is review all of the homicides that occur from the police reports. Then they gather statistics and they spit out statistics and some characteristics," Clarke says. "For instance, they came out with one report that said, 'Most of the suspects involved in homicides have criminal histories.' You think?"
Both Clarke and Scharf point to Milwaukee homicide statistics to bolster their opinion that the Milwaukee model is ineffective. In 2005, when the MHRC was launched, there were 122 murders in the city. That was a 38 percent increase from the prior year and the second-highest annual number for the city in the past decade, behind 127 in 2001.
In 2008 and 2009, murders went down to 71 and 72, respectively — but jumped up again, to 94 in 2010 and 86 last year. More broadly, murders have been decreasing gradually since the mid-1990s — after a high of 163 in 1991 — a pattern that follows nationwide homicide trends.
"This is how politicians attack problems, right? A commission, a task force, a blue ribbon committee, whatever," Clarke says. "It's OK to try these different things; I'm all for trying new initiatives. But after a certain point ... this thing started in '05, so we're coming on year seven or eight. Is this thing producing anything of value any more?"
Even Brandl, the Milwaukee crime expert, is skeptical about whether MHRC can fairly be called a "reduction" initiative.
"That's the official purpose," he says. "Whether or not it does that is an unanswered question. ... I don't know how you'd go about figuring out whether the Homicide Review Commission actually prevents murders. It's portrayed as a strategy to do that. I don't think it does. But again, it'd be very difficult to figure out empirically whether or not it does."
O'Brien dismisses criticism based on 2010 and 2011 murder numbers. She points to data on nonfatal shootings — which can be seen as homicidal actions — showing a steady decrease from more than 600 in 2005 to 400 in 2010. However, she says, 2011 numbers — which are not yet reported — will be up again.
Carter says the numbers from Milwaukee speak for themselves.
"To reduce any murder is significant," he says. "One of the things that the mayor has me doing is going to murder scenes, so I get to see the impact on families. No one can dispute the evidence that it has, over time, reduced the homicide rate in Milwaukee."