By Emily Lane, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Donald “Ducky” Adams Jr. went to New Orleans Saints training camp most summers to watch the players prep for the season. He cheered at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at nearly every home game this past year and traveled to several away games, sometimes joined by relatives, his cousin said. Other times he would take the trips alone, and buddy up with other devoted Who Dats.
The Saints’ hard-fought win against the Carolina Panthers Dec. 17, which put New Orleans at the top of the NFC standings, “overjoyed” Adams, said his cousin Rashawn Johnson. He couldn’t wait for the playoffs. Three days later, Adams, 29, was shot dead in his home in Little Woods — the city’s 141st murder victim in 2018.
New Orleans ended 2018 with 146 murders, the lowest number of murders since the early 1970s, though the city’s population and demographics look different now than when New Orleans saw 116 murders in 1971. Still, since then, the number of murders in the city had not dipped below 150 until 2018 ended on Monday night.
The reduction in killings could be a downturn in a short-term cycle that’s followed by another uptick, said LSU School of Public Health criminologist Peter Scharf. It’s just the second year in a row the city’s seen a murder reduction, albeit a roughly 7 percent drop, he points out. But the new benchmark also begs a more optimistic question, he said: “Are we seeing the beginning of a tipping point?”
Other cities, like Boston, Los Angeles and Houston, have at some point in recent decades reached such a “tipping point” that pulled those cities down or off the list of places with the highest murder rates, and kept them off, Scharf said. He said some observers argue the New Orleans Police Department’s leadership, which includes well-educated, analytic, “talented folks who are very different from the old guard,” has stabilized — with the current command staff having been in their jobs for three to five years. The effects of that leadership stabilization, and growing trust from the public as NOPD implements federally mandated reforms, could be starting to show in lower murder and violent crime stats, Scharf said.
For his part, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison attributed the drop in murder and other violent crime to a more efficient department thanks to the force’s embrace of technology. He credited the “men and women of the New Orleans Police Department,” who implement their bosses’ data-driven strategies, and also pointed to higher marks for the department in an annual community satisfaction survey.
But a spurt of shootings, both fatal and non-fatal, starting with the Dec. 20 death of Adams, should provide a wake-up call, Scharf said. There has been at least a shooting every day, and seven murders, since that date — a hastened pace of violence compared to the last few months. The seven murders include the Dec. 28 death of 55-year-old Marla Belin, who succumbed to injuries she received in a Dec. 17 attack during what NOPD described as a purse snatching. It also includes the Dec. 30 death of an unidentified woman who NOPD said was shot that night in the St. Roch neighborhood, but whose death later on the evening of Dec. 30 was not confirmed by police until Jan. 2.
“Before we pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Job well done,’” Scharf said, the late December violence shows how “we’re making progress but we’re nowhere near there.” Scharf said he was referring to a point where NOPD, prosecutors and social services and outreach programs can claim they have penetrated the most violent culture in the city.
The absence of an arrest in a July gang-related mass shooting on South Claiborne that killed three people suggests to Scharf, he said, that the city has more work to do to identify and reach, or apprehend or prosecute, those most at risk of being the victims or perpetrators of gun violence. Law enforcement sources have said progress had been made in the Claiborne shooting investigation, but no one has yet been held accountable for the July 28 gunfire that struck a total of 10 people in a crowd outside a strip mall.
The police department should be commended for the 47-year low in the number of murders, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a criminal justice watchdog group. But jumps or dips in violent crime don’t “really always reflect how good or how bad law enforcement has been (in) addressing problems,” he said.
Whoever shot Adams, the Dec. 20 homicide victim, killed him inside the one-story Briarwood Drive house that his cousin said he started to work toward buying a decade ago, when he was 19. The McDonogh 35 graduate worked hard, valued his family and kept to himself, Johnson said. As the New Year starts and the Saints march into the playoffs, Johnson said she’ll continue to miss the daily texts she had come to expect from her cousin, telling her he loved her.
A drop in the number of killings last year provides little comfort to Adams’ loved ones or to those of the 144 others who were murdered in 2018. About 87 percent of those victims died as a result of gunfire.
Putting the drop into perspective
When accounting for population, the city’s 2018 murder rate is still likely to be among the highest in the country for cities 250,000 or larger, despite the reduction. The murder rate in 2018 is roughly 37 murders for every 100,000 people. The last time it was lower was in 1999, said Jeff Asher, a consultant and analyst who worked as a crime analyst for NOPD from 2013 to 2015.
The population was much larger in 1999, Asher said, making the reduction back then, down from the 1994 peak of 424 murders “an impressive accomplishment.” But just four years later, he noted, the number of murders had soared from 158 in 1999 to 274 in 2003, and New Orleans again sat at the very top of the list of American cities with the highest murder rates.
“It shows the fragility of this sort of thing,” Asher said of the jump in murders from 1999 to 2003.
The year 1999 was also the last time New Orleans was not among the top four cities with the highest murder rates, Asher said. The last time New Orleans was not included in the top five, he said, was in 1985.
Dipping below 150 murders for the first time in decades has been encouraging to police officials and criminologists, but Scharf noted many other American cities are seeing similar drops in murder. A Brennan Center for Justice report published in September, which used estimated projections of 2018 murder totals from the 30 largest cities, projected a 7.6-percent average drop in murders. The average cited in the report includes a 46 percent reduction of murders projected for Charlotte, N.C., a 23 percent drop in murders in Chicago, as well as a 35 percent increase in murders for Washington, D.C.
Nonfatal shooting victims down by a third
Murder is generally thought to be the most reliable crime statistic, Scharf said, noting police can’t be certain every shooting is reported by the wounded. But shooting data provides a deeper look into the reality of violence across the city and how many people it touches.
One-third fewer people were wounded by gunfire in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to data kept by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, based on reports from NOPD, illustrating the impact a reduction in gun violence has on New Orleans’ annual murder count.
Roughly 327 people were victims of a nonfatal shooting last year, 124 fewer than in 2017. The overall number of gunshot victims, including those killed by gunfire, dropped by about 18 percent.
‘Whether this is going to last – who knows’
If the city is approaching a tipping point with a reduction in violent crime, George Capowich, an emeritus professor of criminology at Loyola University New Orleans, said demographic data could help explain why. In 2000, New Orleans was second in the country for the number of people living in areas designated as “concentrated poverty” neighborhoods, meaning a vast majority of the residents lived below the poverty line, he said. That percentage dropped to 30 percent in 2013, ranking New Orleans at 40th. And since then, the median income has risen.
“If these social changes persist, and perhaps get better, it leads me to predict that violence will stay down,” said Capowich. “Having said that, I would caution that whether this is going to last — who knows.”
Harrison has often said that one murder is too many, but in the meantime, he and the mayor’s office are taking every opportunity to find efficiencies. With manpower still an issue for the police department, Goyeneche said the city should continue to recruit new officers, to give police a chance to sustain any success they’ve had.
The city should “appreciate” marking the lowest number of murders in nearly a half century, but approach the stat “somberly,” Asher said, “because we don’t know exactly why it was, and it could reverse.”
Update: The total murder count and other related data was updated Jan. 2 to include the Dec. 30 death of a woman who was shot that night but whose death was not confirmed by NOPD until Jan. 2. This number of people wounded by gunfire was adjusted (Jan. 1) to include a nonfatal shooting reported late Monday night.