BY MATT SLEDGE AND JEFF ADELSON | NOLA.com | August 1, 2020
A 9-year-old boy gunned down in front of his family in Treme. A 34-year-old man shot and killed in a dispute over a car title. Three men shot, one of them fatally, on a sunny afternoon in St. Roch.
The events of the past month illustrate a disturbing phenomenon: Killings and shootings have risen steeply since the coronavirus hit New Orleans, mirroring a national trend that has further rattled communities reeling from the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Non-fatal shootings and gun homicides were already up before the pandemic, but the increase accelerated since then. The rate of gun homicides since New Orleans began allowing more economic activity to resume on May 16 is up more than 50% compared to where things stood in the months before the COVID-19 outbreak, and non-fatal shootings are up 48%, according to an analysis of 911 call data.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said he believes the alarming spike stems in part from the economic and social instability that have defined 2020.
Other numbers tell a more complicated story that echoes national trends: Overall, property crimes are down so far this year compared to last, and some categories like armed robberies have registered a steep decline.
Meanwhile, though killings in New Orleans are on track to jump significantly this year, the city and nation don’t appear close to erasing long-term improvements. The sharp uptick this year in New Orleans is in comparison to 2019 — the year with the lowest murder count since 1971. Just in the past decade, the years 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 all saw more murders through late July.
The sources of the trends and their future courses are murky as the U.S. attempts a halting reopening of the economy, the virus claims more lives, expanded unemployment benefits expire and protests against police brutality continue.
“It’s been such a weird year in so many ways that it’s impossible to say what’s going to happen the rest of the year and what specifically is driving the changes and what, if anything, can be done about that,” said Jeff Asher, a data analyst and consultant for the New Orleans City Council who has detected similar trends nationally. “It’s such a remarkably unique year in so many respects that in a lot of ways it’s not surprising to see remarkably unique changes in a host of fields, including crime trends.”
Nationally, violent crime was down 5% in 25 major cities through the end of June, but murder was up 16%, according to Asher’s analysis. In New Orleans, major indicators point sharply, but in different directions.
Through the end of July, gun homicides are up 44% compared to the first seven months of 2019, non-fatal shootings are up 40% and carjackings are up 55%. With everyone staying home, business owners have complained that their establishments have been left defenseless — and business burglaries are up 43%.
On the other hand, some crimes of opportunity are down. Armed robberies and simple robberies have both dropped 20% this year, potentially because there are fewer potential victims walking the streets. There have been fewer residential burglaries so far than in any year since 2011, the first year for which 911 call data is available, perhaps because residents are stuck at home.
Overall, crimes against persons are up 4% this year compared to last, and property crimes are down 13%. Ferguson believes the trend of increased shootings and killings can be linked to larger forces.
“You started off with a few months of staying up cooped up inside because of coronavirus, and now you have civil unrest. People are uneasy, not just about policing — about inequalities, period,” he said. “If you’re looking at the news and that’s all you’re seeing, that creates stress.”
He promised to keep trying to bring killers to justice.
“We remain vigilant, we remain engaged as best as we can, given the COVID climate we’re under. Our No. 1 priority is violent crime,” he said.
Protests have gripped the nation since a policeman in Minneapolis killed George Floyd on May 25. New Orleans has been no exception, although the demonstrations here have been much less confrontational than in some other cities.
The protests have not coincided with a significant decrease in the arrest rate, however. While the number of arrests the NOPD makes dropped sharply at the onset of the pandemic, it’s remained more or less steady since then.
At the same time, the NOPD is also grappling with the fallout from a June report by federal monitors that accused the department’s task forces, units designed to proactively deter crime, of rolling over residents’ rights. In anticipation of the report’s release, Ferguson sidelined the task forces and re-assigned members to units that mostly respond to 911 calls.
Ferguson said the rise in shootings and killings is “not at all” linked to his decision to bench the task forces. District captains are still placing officers in crime “hotspots” to deter violence, he said.
Court-appointed monitors have given the NOPD an Aug. 10 deadline to report back on whether and how the task forces will return.
Some civil-rights lawyers have argued that the units cannot be salvaged. However, Rafael Goyeneche, president of the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he believes the task forces can be redesigned to protect constitutional rights. He thinks bringing on more experienced supervisors to oversee a single, central task force should help.
“If they’re not doing drug enforcement, the next time they may encounter those people that were involved in hand-to-hand sales is when there’s a shooting,” he said. “It’s kind of predictable what we’re seeing. The police department right now is largely just responding to calls for service.”
Ferguson was tight-lipped about his task force plan.
“It’s still under consideration. I have to be intentional in thinking, ‘If I choose not to move forward with the task forces, what would the department look like? What would be that way in which we are policing?'” he said. “And I’m a firm believer in smart policing.”