By Matt Sledge and Jeff Adelson l Nola.com I April 11, 2020
New Orleans residents are calling 911 a hundred fewer times each day since the city shut down to halt the novel coronavirus, with crime reports falling in major categories like homicides, robberies, carjackings, auto burglaries and thefts.
Serious crime stats have dropped in the wake of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s March 15 order closing most businesses, which was followed five days later with a more stringent stay-at-home directive, an analysis of 911 call data suggests.
Yet while crime reports involving people and property are both down overall, not every category has dipped over the last few weeks. Business burglaries, shopliftings and some categories of domestic violence have risen.
The mixed stats have criminologists, law enforcement officials and residents holding their breath to see if the trends continue through April 30, when Gov. John Bel Edward’s statewide stay-at-home order is set to expire.
Meanwhile, the long-term outlook for the city, which breathed a sigh of relief last year as major crimes dropped, is clouded by the social and economic havoc the virus has wrought.
NOPD data shows a consistent downward trend across most major categories when comparing crime data from January 1 to March 15 against the weeks since then, when the city hunkered down at home.
All crimes against persons are down 21 percent compared to their daily average in the first part of the year, and crimes involving property alone are down 30 percent.
Gun homicides are down 58 percent, non-fatal shootings are down 19 percent, armed robberies are down 29 percent, carjackings are down 54 percent, thefts are down 49 percent and auto burglaries are down 34 percent.
The NOPD data, which is available in a publicly accessible database, tracks initial daily reports rather than the final numbers reported to the FBI at the end of the year. But it has proven to be a reliable barometer of crime trends.
“The logical reason would be because people are staying home,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “There’s going to be less opportunities for robberies and crimes of violence because people are staying indoors.”
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, which doesn’t post a crime call database online, is still compiling its March statistics, according to a spokesman.
In New Orleans, auto burglaries shot up last year even amid a general crime drop, leading to a major political debate over the best way to curb them.
But auto burglary reports are also down since the mayor issued her stay-at-home order. That could be because residents are keeping a closer eye on their cars — or because they’re using them so rarely that they don’t notice burglaries in time to call the cops.
The crime report data, which is mostly based on 911 calls, is not foolproof. If residents are reluctant to call police, or if reporting is otherwise deterred, reports can diverge from the reality on the ground.
Jeff Asher, a crime analyst whose clients include the New Orleans City Council, noted that some crime statistics could be artificially deflated by virus-related disruptions. Teachers may not spot and report child abuse because schools are closed. Domestic violence victims might not call the police when they are worried that they have nowhere else to go.
“The reporting mechanism for many of these crime types is either broken or damaged. It might be that crime is down because of under-reporting, and it might also be that crime is down,” Asher said.
Meanwhile, there are no guarantees that crime stats will continue to drop. Tens of thousands of New Orleanians have lost their jobs and hundreds of people are dead from the virus, creating untold trauma.
Crime stats dipped after Hurricane Katrina when the city emptied out — then shot back up to alarming rates in the years after as residents returned, Goyeneche noted.
Amid the general decline there have been some notable increases. Business burglaries are up 110 percent and shoplifting is up 24 percent.
Cantrell cited crime increases like those in a letter this week defending her administration’s decision to continue arresting residents for some low-level offenses, in contrast to advocates’ call for a blanket policy of issuing citations.
Certain domestic incidents, like aggravated assaults, criminal damage and general disturbances, have also increased to rates greater than their daily averages in the first part of 2020 or all of 2019.
Domestic aggravated assaults, which involve relatives or partners using a dangerous weapon in the course of their threats, are up 37 percent over the first part of the year and 16 percent over the 2019 average.
Advocates for domestic violence victims are bracing for a rush on services when stay-home orders are lifted, according to Mary Claire Landry, executive director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center.
Landry believes that people in immediate danger are calling police, but they may not be following up with a call to her non-profit to seek safe housing.
“Until there’s more freedom of movement and people feel like they have options to leave, I feel like they’re going to be very conservative in the types of actions they’re going to take,” she said.
But Landry urged anyone who needs help to call her group’s 24-7 hotline at (504) 866-9554. She noted grimly that several domestic murder-suicides around the country have already been tied to coronavirus shutdowns.
The overall crime decline comes as the New Orleans jail’s inmate population plummets to levels not seen in decades. The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office headcount stood at 814 inmates on Friday, down more than 200 people since the start of the year.
No local agencies are tracking recidivism rates for recently released inmates, Asher and Goyeneche said.
However, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said that two people released from jails this month have fallen victim to shootings.
On April 6, alleged gang leader Glynn McCormick was gunned down and killed in the 6th Ward days after his release. On Thursday, a 14-year-old boy accused of armed robbery was shot in Hollygrove hours after his release from the city’s juvenile jail.
Cannizzaro said he has supported reducing the jail inmate count, but prosecutors did try to block the release of McCormick and the teen, who was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
“We can only hope that he will survive, and that the courts will begin taking our objections to the release of violent offenders more seriously,” Cannizzaro said.
The chief of the Orleans Public Defenders, which represents the 14-year-old in juvenile court, said they will continue fighting in court to reduce jail populations.
“As powerful as coronavirus is, it did not chase away any of the ordinary injustices and problems already in our communities,” said Derwyn Bunton. “We need to reduce jail size to prevent further infection and death from the virus.”
As of Friday, 16 inmates in Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office custody had tested positive for the coronavirus.