By Ramon Antonio Vargas | | November 9, 2020

City statistics suggest that New Orleans is experiencing a sharp rise in violent crime this year, and the head of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission warned Monday that it could get worse if Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration continues furloughing police officers.

The remarks from the group’s president, Rafael Goyeneche, came after the commission released an analysis of local crime stats through October showing that the key violent-crime categories of homicides and aggravated batteries were up 87% and 37% this year while arrests for those offenses had dropped 16% and 35%, respectively.

Goyeneche argued those trends had no chance at reversing with officers taking six unpaid days off through the end of this year — and more in 2021 — in a bid by City Hall to manage its budget through steep declines in sales taxes and other revenues.

“They need more officers, and the politicians are saying you’re going to have fewer officers,” Goyeneche said.

Crime experts have said that the surge in violence that New Orleans has registered so far this year is worrisome but not wholly unexpected.

Cities nationwide have seen homicides and other types of violence spike this year amid rising unemployment and shutdowns because of the coronavirus. Additionally, the murder rate in New Orleans last year was unusually low, and a rebound was always a possibility.

The 121 murders that the city reported in 2019 were the fewest in nearly half-a-century and came during the third consecutive year that killings in New Orleans had dropped.

The number of non-fatal shootings last year was also lower than normal, more or less holding steady after an unusually steep 28% dip in 2018.

And while the city could be on pace for more than 200 murders by the end of this year, it is still much lower than the historic peak in 1994, when New Orleans had 424 slayings during an era with a larger overall city population.

New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson has acknowledged that the recent rise in violent crime is a troubling turnabout. But in a statement Monday, Ferguson said his agency has structured its schedule to minimize the impact of the furloughs. Most patrol shifts would be just one officer short and in some cases shifts would be able to remain at full strength.

“These are challenging times for our officers, but we will get through this together,” Ferguson said.

Despite the moves by Ferguson and the historic data, the trend this year is still alarming, Goyeneche said.

Through the end of October, New Orleans had registered 168 murders, up from 90 at the same time in 2019, the MCC’s analysis of city statistics showed. Meanwhile, there had been 896 aggravated batteries, including shootings and cuttings, which was up from 656 the prior year.

One of the numbers that concerned Goyeneche the most was the jump in carjackings reported in October. There were 32 — the highest number in any month the past two years and nearly three times higher than any month last year.

Goyeneche said violent-crime arrests are important because they can lower the chances of additional violence, especially retaliatory bloodshed. But arrests are down, according to the MCC’s analysis.

There were 83 homicide arrests through October this year, down from 99 in 2019. Arrests for aggravated battery had dropped to 371, from 569.

Ferguson on Monday said the NOPD was working doggedly alongside state and federal law enforcement partners to catch the most serious, at-large offenders.

His statement came as his officers investigated various shootings between Friday and Sunday that left at least two dead and a dozen wounded.

Tulane University sociologist Andrea Boyles, who researches community disorder as well as interactions between officers and racial minority community members, disagreed that more law enforcement personnel automatically translates into safety.

Boyles said there’s little historical evidence that cities can become safer without access to basic needs, such as employment, housing and quality healthcare, all of which will be in even shorter supply than usual in New Orleans with the Covid-19 pandemic unchecked.

“This turnaround … is not going to come through law and order,” Boyles said. “The truth is we cannot arrest our way out of crime.”

Boyles added that a rise in violent crime does not necessarily mean the NOPD is inadequately equipped or funded.

She said even before the pandemic, minority communities struggled to access job opportunities, stable housing, health care and food. The pandemic and the accompanying economic recession only exacerbated those struggles, creating a space where increases in crimes of desperation are possible.

“We need to get basic essentials in these communities,” Boyles said. “This would be true pre-Covid, and it is especially true now.”

Goyeneche nonetheless argued that the numbers paint a clear picture. He said the NOPD already didn’t have enough resources at its disposal to respond to an escalating crime problem; furloughs won’t help, and neither would activists’ call to rededicate at least some of the department’s budget to other parts of city government.

A hearing on NOPD’s budget for 2021 is set for Thursday at City Hall.

“You’re seeing patterns of violent crimes in the city, and the Police Department needs to respond, but it can’t keep up without enough resources,” Goyeneche said.