At the debut of his Save Our Sons crime summit on Sept. 17, Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the 2,000 people gathered at UNO Lakefront Arena, "We are standing on the narrow edge of time. And we have to make a decision about whether or not we are going to fall off of it, or whether we are going to pull back from the abyss and lay a foundation for the future, for our sons and our daughters."
The mayor was speaking, of course, of New Orleans' horrendous homicide rate, which remains 10 times higher than the national average. The FBI's Unified Crime Report, which came out two days after Landrieu's speech, was filled with disquieting but hardly surprising statistics. New Orleans saw 50 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2010; the statewide average, which was still high, was 12 per 100,000. Per capita statistics are one thing, but here's another: Since 1994, more than 4,000 New Orleanians have been lost to homicide.
In July, New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas announced a commitment to cut the city's homicide rate by 5 percent. At the time, we said it was too modest a goal (and it is), but it's better than where we are now, which is actually worse than 2010, when Serpas came into office. He inherited a dysfunctional force and a deeply troubled city, but the fact remains we're heading in the wrong direction.
Landrieu's Save Our Sons initiative will, he says, be modeled after "Operation Ceasefire," which began in Boston in the 1990s. In the 10 years leading up to 1994, Boston saw a tripling of homicide rates for young black men and a 418 percent increase in juvenile handgun homicides. Operation Ceasefire focused on the worst offenders. The results were immediate, according to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report; the initiatives in Operation Ceasefire, the DOJ found, led to a 63 percent decrease in the monthly number of youth homicides in Boston.
That's the good news. The bad news is that homicides have been on the uptick again in Boston — and Operation Ceasefire and similar programs have not shown the same success in other cities where they've been tried, such as Cincinnati. Still, other mayors place hope in Ceasefire. Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker oversaw a crime-fighting strategy that led to his city's first murder-free month in decades. But Newark has had a bloody summer in 2011, and Booker is embarking on an adaptation of Operation Ceasefire right now, just as Landrieu is.
The city is putting up $250,000 in seed money and applying for supplemental grants to get "messengers" on the streets. These mediators know and can reach the young people who are likely to settle a beef with a gun. Among the other programs that will be launched or expanded are Circle of Courage, which teaches conflict resolution in public schools; and increased (and ongoing) investment in the New Orleans Recreation Department and Job One, the program that connects teens with jobs.
Community support is equally if not more important, and Landrieu had five immediate, concrete suggestions for New Orleanians: join or start a Neighborhood Watch group, serve as a mentor, support local nonprofit groups, hire a young male and volunteer.
Already there has been a predictable chorus of cynicism, skepticism and pure naysaying: We've tried similar things before. It's too much of a feel-good approach. We're broke; where is the money coming from? To all of those, we say: We haven't tried this particular approach. On the contrary, we've tried jailing our way out of this problem, and it's gotten us nothing but an enormous (and dysfunctional) prison without affecting the crime rate. Meanwhile, to sustain this effort, the city is applying for a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Justice.
Granted, Save Our Sons may not work. But if it does, it won't just be Landrieu's legacy; it will be the legacy of all New Orleanians standing on this narrow edge of time. In the 1990s, then-Police Chief Richard Pennington slashed New Orleans' homicide rate in half. Many doubted Pennington, but he proved it could be done. It can be done again, which is why this initiative deserves our support.