New Orleans And The Hard Work Of Pushing Down The Murder Rate | KUOW News and Information

New Orleans And The Hard Work Of Pushing Down The Murder Rate

Feb 23, 2017
Originally published on February 23, 2017 3:57 pm

Murders are on the rise in the United States.

The national murder rate jumped dramatically in 2015, and early indications are that it rose again in 2016, though official numbers aren't available yet.

But most Americans aren't seeing this increase because most of it is being driven by surges in violence in a handful of cities, such as Chicago and New Orleans.

New Orleans is an especially disappointing case because the city had made significant progress in pushing down its murder rate. Starting in 2012, it implemented a targeted anti-gang violence effort called "NOLA for Life," which led to a 20 percent year-to-year decrease in the number of murders. For the next couple of years, the murders roughly plateaued at the lower rate.

That all changed last summer.

"There's been a dramatic increase in gun violence that started in July of 2016, got significantly worse in October and November and then has continued to get worse in the first eight weeks of 2017," says Jeff Asher, a New Orleans crime analyst.

Asher keeps close watch on gun violence, and he marks the grim milestones on his Twitter feed.

The fact that New Orleans has been so quick this year to reach its 100th shooting victim — dead and wounded — is just one symptom of the severity of what's going on in the city.

Another is the sense of routine at the scene of the shooting where that milestone was reached.

In the early evening of Feb. 10, New Orleans police strung recycled crime scene tape around the intersection of Second Street and Dryades in the Central City neighborhood. Six people were shot there in a drive-by shooting aimed at a group of young men who hang out on that corner.

The only fatality is a woman who recently arrived from Central America and who appears to have been an unintended victim of a stray bullet.

A few neighbors come out to watch the police work the scene, but a block away, a man who just gives his name as Sean is sitting in his car, scrolling through his phone. He seems to shrug off the shooting.

"Every now and then, somebody that's not involved will probably get shot," he says. "But for the most part, these are people that are involved in activities with each other. It's the bad people who are killing the bad people."

It's a common refrain in New Orleans: yes, the murder rate here is high, but it's mostly a small group of people who are killing each other.

This line of thinking is meant to make it easier to live in cities like this. But it also happens to be the insight at the heart of the strategy that helped New Orleans push down its murder rate — at least for a few years. Most homicides are committed by a small percentage of the population.

"New Orleans committed to 'focused deterrence' strategy," says Nick Corsaro, of the University of Cincinnati. He's one of the co-authors of a study of New Orleans' success in pushing down murder rates in 2013.

"Focused deterrence" is a strategy, pioneered in Boston in the 1990s, which identifies the people — usually in gangs — who are locked into retaliatory gun violence.

"You concentrate your efforts, from policing, prosecution, probation, parole, federal prosecution, to let the offenders of those groups know that specific activities will be focused on those individuals, if they continue to engage in violence," Corsaro says.

Calling this effort "NOLA for Life," the city started by throwing the book at dozens of people involved in gang violence and then bringing in others for a "call-in" — a group meeting at the courthouse in which they're put on notice that they're next if they continue with the gun violence.

The "call-ins" are based on the idea that the certainty of punishment matters more than the severity of punishment; if you communicate clearly with the gang-involved people what's at stake, they'll think twice.

"At the time, I was working in Central City, which is where the violence was happening," says Frank Young, a New Orleans Police district commander. "And I watched it decline, I watched it— I watched it dive. With every announcement of indictments that were made, violent crime went down. Shootings were down, murders were down. It was incredible."

But now that effect has worn off.

These days, Young commands the fifth district, just east of the French Quarter, where he's had eight murders in just the first six weeks of the year. He has some theories for why the violence is back up: too many people are leaving guns in their cars to be stolen, and kids are on social media, starting beefs that turn homicidal.

But none of those things are that new.

What has changed is that New Orleans appears to be putting less effort into its focused deterrence strategy. Indictments have slowed to a trickle, and the "call-in" meetings stopped happening 15 months ago. (The city has now announced it will hold another one soon.)

Why would New Orleans stop pushing a strategy that seemed to be working? A big factor seems to be manpower.

To save money after the recession, the city let police department staff shrink through attrition to the point at which it was hundreds of officers lower than usual. Then, in late 2015, the department came under pressure from the media to improve its response times to 911 calls, which could take hours.

"We had to prioritize," Young says. "What's it going to be: building a long-term case or being there when people need us right now?"

When Ronal Serpas was police superintendent in New Orleans, he warned the city of the perils of letting staffing drop. Now, he's a professor of criminology at Loyola Univerity, and he's seeing similar staffing problems around the country.

"What that results in is a police department that can only be reactive," Serpas says. "There are the occasional proactive measures that can occur in a department as under-staffed as the NOPD, but it cannot maintain it. It cannot maintain that proactiveness that sends a message to the brazen criminal that there is a greater certainty of capture."

But even if the NOPD were fully staffed, its focus on homicide might have wandered. As Jeff Asher points out, that's happened in other cities that have tried the "focused deterrence" approach over the years. The reality is that the strategy takes a lot of effort from rolling investigations to bureaucratic coordination between local and federal agencies.

"It's hard to do call-ins and indictments," Asher says. "And after you've had this first success, it's hard to sort of build on that. I don't know necessarily know that it's a loss of political willpower, but I think sort of built into the strategy is this difficulty in maintaining momentum."

And when it loses momentum, there's a cost. That's because the researchers who developed "focused deterrence" say the long-term objective is to re-establish the social contract between the police and communities where violent crime is high. The idea is to make it clear that the system cares about these homicides — even if it's "bad guys killing bad guys."

So far, New Orleans' efforts have not rebuilt trust in the police for Darren Alridge. As young man who came of age after Katrina, he had a brush with the law, then got things back on track and now has a job tutoring kids at an organization called the Youth Empowerment Project.

"As a young black man, I always thought, you know, the police system was made to fail us, was made to lock us up, was made to keep us away from our family," he says.

He's still convinced that police focus on what he calls "petty crime," smaller violations that tag young people with criminal records and make them unemployable. In the meantime, he says, killers go unpunished — including the people who've killed members of his family.

"And half of them that's dead, we still ain't get justice from it," Alridge says.

And that sense of indifference from the system is what tempts people to take justice into their own hands — the spiral of retaliation that drives the homicide rate in cities like New Orleans.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The national murder rate is up. Now, it's still well below what it was in the early 1990s contrary to recent claims by the president, but it is rising thanks to a surge in shootings in a handful of cities. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste spent some time in one of those places where things have been especially bad - New Orleans.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The sad thing about New Orleans is it was making progress. In 2013, the city got its murder rate down by about 20 percent, and the rate stayed lower for a couple of years but not anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have five people shot, ma'am.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, I'm sorry. We're blocking off the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible).

KASTE: On February 10, New Orleans reached its 100th shooting victim. That's the total number of people killed or wounded since the start of the year, and hitting 100 usually takes a month longer. It reached that milestone here in the Central City neighborhood under a partially eclipsed full moon. Candince McMillian is half a block from the scene, squinting through the flashing blue lights. She knows the people who got shot.

CANDINCE MCMILLIAN: And they hang out in this area down here. And it was my understanding that a car spun on them just driving by, (imitating gunfire) shooting.

KASTE: She's trying to get closer because a Central-American man who works for her lives on that corner, and it seems a stray bullet has hit his wife.

MCMILLIAN: And then so he's hollering and screaming and crying in the phone, but I can't get to him because...

KASTE: There he is.

MCMILLIAN: Yeah, here he is. Hey, Harma (ph). Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Unintelligible).

MCMILLIAN: So is the police going to let me come?

KASTE: McMillian's allowed through, and soon she finds out that the man's wife is dead. Of the six people shot here, she's the lone fatality, and she's also the one who was least likely to have been the target.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What happened?

KASTE: What's haunting about this scene is how routine it feels. Some of the neighbors gawk, but most of them just go about their business while the police close the intersection with yellow crime tape. It's recycled crime tape. They untangle it from a big wad in the trunk of one of the police cars. Nearby, a man calling himself Sean is idly scrolling through his phone.

SEAN: Yeah, it's going to be a cycle where it's going to be - if six people got shot, I'm sure six more going to get shot.

KASTE: But then he says you've got to remember that this is mostly just bad guys killing other bad guys. It's something you hear a lot in New Orleans, and it's supposed to make it easier to live here. But it's no consolation to Lisa Fitzpatrick. She's a Methodist pastor with a mission in this neighborhood. She ministers to some of those same young bad guys, as Sean calls them.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIREN)

LISA FITZPATRICK: I don't know that they're out to, like, completely obliterate their enemy, but when nobody values your life - yeah, there's just been another shooting probably - could be in retaliation to this one. I don't know if you - yeah, just heard them. You heard the shots.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Just now.

FITZPATRICK: You get accustomed to this. We hear it every single night.

KASTE: It's that sense of routine or maybe fatalism, and it obscures a simple fact. Murders are not inevitable. There are things a city can do which have been shown to work, and in 2012, New Orleans started doing them.

NICK CORSARO: They really focused on who their problem offenders were. And the second part was concentrating efforts accordingly.

KASTE: That's Nick Corsaro, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati who studied New Orleans' approach. Their plan was marketed locally as NOLA For Life, but researchers know it as focused deterrence. And what it is is a strategy that's based on the realization that most murders are committed by a small percentage of the population, interrelated groups of people whom the police can identify and target.

CORSARO: You concentrate your efforts from policing, prosecution, probation, parole, federal prosecution to let the offenders of those groups know specific activities will be focused on those individuals if they continue to engage in violence.

KASTE: And that's what New Orleans did. It indicted some people involved in gang activity, and then it warned the rest of them. It did that by hauling them into the courthouse for call-ins, special meetings to put them on notice. Call-ins are based on the idea that certainty of punishment is what gets people's attention, that specific threats of imminent arrest matter more than vague threats of long prison sentences. Frank Young is a New Orleans police district commander, and he saw that effect up close.

DISTRICT COMMANDER FRANK YOUNG: At the time, I was working in Central City, which was where the violence was happening. And I watched it decline. I watched it dive. With every announcement of indictments that were made, violent crime went down. Shootings were down. Murders were down. It was incredible.

KASTE: But now that effect seems to have worn off. These days, Young commands the 5th District just east of the French Quarter where he's had eight murders just in the first six weeks of the year. Ask him why, and he's got some theories. Too many people are leaving guns in their cars, which get stolen, and kids are on social media starting beefs that turn homicidal.

But he also has to admit that the focus deterrence program that worked so well a couple of years ago just isn't as active as it used to be. Indictments have fallen off. And when was the last time they held call-ins, those special meetings where they bring in the potential gunmen and put them on notice?

YOUNG: We haven't had one in a while. Since when - maybe October of last year - no, longer than that.

KASTE: The answer is November 5th of 2015. It's been 15 months since the last call-in even though it's a key part of their strategy. Why? Well, it may be a lack of resources. The police department is critically understaffed, especially since the recession, and it's under intense pressure from the public and the media to do more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Nearly an hour and 20 minutes - that's the average time it takes the NOPD to respond to 911 calls.

KASTE: The police department's scramble to improve response times came at the expense of other things, including the complex work of homicide prevention. And this kind of resource shifting isn't unique to New Orleans. The former chief here, Ronal Serpas, says he's seen officer shortages and recruiting problems in departments around the country.

RONAL SERPAS: What that results in is a police department that can only be reactive. There are the occasional proactive measures that can occur in a department as understaffed as the NOPD, but it cannot maintain it, and it cannot maintain that proactiveness that sends a message to the brazen criminal that there is a greater certainty of capture.

KASTE: But even if the NOPD were fully staffed, its focus on homicide might still have wandered. That's what's happened in other cities that have tried this approach, says Jeff Asher. He's a crime analyst here.

JEFF ASHER: It's hard to do call-ins and indictments. And after you've had sort of this first success, it's hard to sort of build on that. So I don't necessarily know that it's loss of political willpower, but I think sort of built into the strategy is this difficulty in maintaining momentum.

KASTE: And when it loses momentum, there's a cost because the researchers who developed focused deterrence say the real point long-term is to re-establish the social contract between the police and the community, to say to people that stopping murders is a priority even when it's just bad guys killing bad guys. The idea is to rebuild trust with people like Darren Alridge.

DARREN ALRIDGE: You know, as a young black man, I always thought, you know, the police system was made to fail us, was made to lock us up, was made to keep us away from our family.

KASTE: Alridge had a scrape with the law when he was younger, but now he's got a job tutoring kids at an organization called the Youth Empowerment Project. But his skepticism about the police lingers, especially when there's a sense that the cops don't really care about solving certain kinds of murders. Some of the victims are members of his own family.

ALRIDGE: And half of them that's dead, we still ain't get justice from it. So it's like, you know - I feel like it's all a trap anyway.

KASTE: And that's when people are tempted to take justice into their own hands, he says - that spiral of retaliation that drives the homicide rate in cities like this. Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MICROPHONES SONG, "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.