By Emily Lane and Greg LaRose | WDSU | January 7, 2021
LaRicha Roussell has slept next to her son’s football jersey each night since the eighth grader was shot dead on Christmas.
Before gunfire killed her son, 14-year-old Ja-Mere Alfred, outside a Walgreens store in eastern New Orleans, his team had placed second in a football tournament. He told his mom over lunch of his plans to go to St. Augustine High School and then Morehouse College. He was conflicted about the college choice because it wasn’t a “football school,” and he had NFL dreams.
He was a “bubbly” kid who loved playing football, performing on the drums with the Roots of Music, and his PlayStation, his parents said. With his mother and father, he mapped out plans for a future he won’t have.
“That’s my only child, I’m not able to have kids anymore,” Roussell said.
Ja-mere’s father, John Alfred, cited news reports that New Orleans saw its highest murder count in 2020 in many years. LaRicha added that Ja-Mere wasn’t the only person killed in the city on Christmas night. Alfred, unaware, shook his head.
“How did it get to this point?” he said.
It’s unclear why murders increased 68% last year compared with 2019 when city and police leaders celebrated the lowest murder count since 1971. Criminal justice observers say impacts from COVID-19 and changes in police strategies likely played roles.
Regardless, jumping to 202 murders in 2020 after three consecutive years of declines sunk hopes New Orleans could drop out of the ranks of the nation’s most violent cities.
Most U.S. cities also saw increases in murders in 2020, likely related to economic hardships, unemployment and other factors stemming from the pandemic, LSU School of Public Health criminologist Peter Scharf said. But they were not nearly as steep as New Orleans’ rise in killings.
The impact of COVID-19 restrictions on public life could have led to shifts in drug markets, said Scharf, who pointed to the shootout at the Jung Hotel on Dec. 28 as an example of an uptick in drug-related gun violence.
WDSU tracks data on shootings and murders as the NOPD and Orleans Parish coroner releases it. It shows 199 people were killed in New Orleans last year.
NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson gave a count Thursday of 202 murders. It’s unclear what the discrepancy is. WDSU asked NOPD for its list of murders and was told the list would be made available next week.
Here’s what WDSU data tell us about New Orleans murders and shootings in 2020:
- 10 juveniles were murdered in 2020
- The youngest murder victim was 3-year-old Isaha Adams, who was fatally shot along with his 23-year-old brother James Estem in a triple shooting that also wounded their mother May 11 in Algiers.
- The average age of the city’s murder victims was 33.
- About 94% of the murder victims were shot.
- – About 79% of the murder victims were Black males; 11% were Black females; 6% were white males; and 1% were white females.
- At least 77 juveniles were shot, nine fatally.
- NOPD responded to just under 600 shooting scenes.
- A total of about 748 people were shot, including 562 survivors and 186 victims who died.
- The youngest shooting survivor was a 1-year-old shot Feb. 25 in the 2000 block of Tulane Avenue.
- Nearly half of the city’s murders occurred in two of NOPD’s eight police districts: 24% of the murders, 47 killings, were in NOPD’s 7th District, which polices eastern New Orleans; 23% of the murders were in the 5th District, which includes much of the 7th Ward and all of the 9th Ward.
- The police district with the fewest murders – seven – was the 8th District, which covers the French Quarter, Marigny and Central Business District.
The last time New Orleans saw more murders than the 202 NOPD reported was 2007, a year when thousands marched on City Hall to demand an end to gun violence after 210 people were killed.
The Rev. Bill Terry with St. Anna’s Episcopal Church said that’s the year his church began logging the names of the city’s murder victim on the wall outside the Esplanade Avenue sanctuary. Thirteen years later, thousands of names are listed.
“One of the issues with murder in New Orleans … is that it becomes about numbers and rates, and that’s dehumanizing,” Terry said.
He’s not surprised the numbers have remained high each year, Terry said, because there hasn’t been enough done to address the systemic causes of poverty.
During a news conference Thursday to address 2020 crime, Ferguson said furloughs put in place at NOPD and for all city employees in the last quarter of the year had minimal impact on crime fighting.
But police labor groups and New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafeal Goyeneche have argued the furloughs, slashing of overtime and a reduction in manpower all played a role. Arrests have sharply dipped, as well, as police follow orders to avoid arrests when possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails.
“Absolutely, policing has changed in 2020 versus 2019,” Goyeneche said.
For the first time in a number of years since NOPD has actively sought to boost manpower, the NOPD ended 2020 with fewer police officers than it started the year. Ferguson said NOPD lost 96 officers and gained 52 last year. While he wouldn’t be specific with how many officers he wanted on the force, he said more would help increase community engagement.
Scharf traces the increase in gun violence and shootings to a change in tactics away from proactive policing, in part, because of ethical concerns about strategies such as facial recognition software and predictive analytics.
Without those tools, he says, the NOPD’s lack of community connections has a direct link to the department’s ability to identify suspects. COVID-19 and increased scrutiny on police departments across the nation amid a racial reckoning may have also led to fewer interactions with the public.
“You know one cop told me, ‘We used to know who the bad -quote – bad guys were. We don’t know anymore. We don’t know who we’re looking for,” Scharf said.
Finding the perpetrators of violence can remove people likely to re-offend from the streets, Scharf noted. It also gives a sense of justice and builds trust with the community.
John Alfred and LaRicha Roussell said they have already reached the point of forgiveness for their son’s shooter but want answers and justice for their son. John feels “positive somebody knows something” about his son’s murder.
“It has to stop. Let this be the point that changes everything, to where parents stand up, aunts and uncles stand up, get together and protect our kids,” he said.
Ferguson thanked the parent of a juvenile on Thursday who turned in his son for a recent murder, noting NOPD can’t do their job without cooperation from the public.
While determined to spark a greater intolerance in New Orleans for gun violence after his son’s death and finding positive outlets to channel his pain, John Alfred said he’s still haunted by thoughts of what he could have done.
“I taught him a lot. I wanted him to know what I knew, and more. But it almost makes me feel like I failed at that moment because I couldn’t teach him not to die,” John Alfred said, his voice wavering. “Or how not to be a victim.”