The Longest Yard
Hope vs. the murder rate
Brian Hubble illustration
Seven years ago this month, the city of New Orleans came together like never before.
On Feb. 7, 2010, Sunday worship services citywide ended early. Carnival krewes changed their parade schedules. In perhaps their most unprecedented move, the strippers on Bourbon Street stopped dancing – upstaged by Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints’ first (and only) appearance in the Super Bowl.
“Holly,” a hostess at one nightclub, said: “Everybody’s watching the game. The Saints are a really good reason to rally around the city.”
Five years after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters nearly destroyed New Orleans, a weary city turned to live television broadcasts of the Super Bowl at Miami. The underdog Saints upset superstar Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17.
The French Quarter exploded with a joyous noise. People of every description poured out of the barrooms, restaurants (and strip clubs), chanting in unison: “Who Dat!”
WDSU-TV carried a live broadcast of the mostly peaceful street party into the wee hours.
Veteran anchorman Norman Robinson surveyed the giddy scene from the station’s studio, concluding: “Everybody loves everybody.”
The previous night, New Orleans voters elected then-Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu to replace Ray Nagin as mayor. On the morning of the Super Bowl, Mayor-elect Landrieu met reporters at the Fairmont Roosevelt Hotel.
Before yielding the limelight to the city’s delirium over the Saints and Carnival, Landrieu said reducing the city’s notorious violent crime rate would be his top priority as mayor – ahead of rebuilding flood damaged streets, infrastructure, jobs and businesses. “If we’re not safe, nothing else matters.”
Those words ring true today, seven years later.
Mayor Landrieu’s NOLA for Life crime reduction strategy is coming under fire amid two consecutive years of rebounding murder rates, anemic responses to NOPD recruiters and high-profile crimes, such as the “road rage” killings of two former New Orleans Saints players in separate incidents.
Criminologist Peter Scharf says NOLA for Life is a “kitchen sink” collection of initiatives and programs that hasn’t worked since its unveiling in 2012. “If something doesn’t work, try something different!”
The administration says it’s doubling down on NOLA for Life, an array of law enforcement initiatives and social programs.
A year ago this month, I said time was getting short for the Mayor to secure his legacy as the leader who transformed the NOPD and made the city safe. (“Fighting Time,” February 2016).
The political reality is that the Mayor may have less time to institutionalize his crime fighting plans than I first thought. The mayor started 2017 with less than 18 months left in office.
Orleans Parish voters will elect Landrieu’s replacement in the Oct. 14 primary, or no later than the general election, Nov. 18, 2017.
Qualifying for mayor and other offices affecting the local criminal justice system, including all seven city council seats, Sheriff, Clerk of Criminal District Court and Coroner, is set for July 12-14.
By this summer we may hear ideas on crime fighting from declared candidates for mayor, sheriff and the city council who think they can do those jobs just as well, if not better.
The Legislature rescheduled New Orleans elections to the fall of 2017 – a long-standing request of the League of Women Voters. A Landrieu ally in the Legislature tried unsuccessfully to postpone the election changes until ’21.
The league had long urged that city elections be rescheduled to autumn to increase voter participation and reduce distractions: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Carnival parades and pro sports, to name a few. The old system favored incumbents and politicos with name recognition.
In short, 2017 is an election year.
Crime will still be a challenge in New Orleans, as Mayor Landrieu can attest.
10 Times the National Average
In July 2010, Mayor Landrieu gave his first State of the City address. He alleged a $30 million deficit in the operating budget left by the Nagin Administration. Rather than erase the red ink by mass layoffs or implementation of a four-day workweek, Landrieu would order a hiring freeze that resulted in the force losing hundreds of cops. The NOPD is still struggling to re-boot its staff levels.
In 2010, Landrieu also announced he had invited the U.S. Department of Justice to “partner in the complete transformation of the New Orleans Department.” The administration and the feds would later sign a pact, detailing 490 reforms the NOPD must enact under court supervision. (U.S. v. City of New Orleans, 2:12-cv-1924).
After a national search, he appointed Ronal Serpas as police superintendent – “the Drew Brees of police chiefs.”
Landrieu also announced New Orleans had the nation’s highest per capita murder rate – 10 times the national average. “Ten times. And there have been 35 murders since I took office 67 days ago. (May 3, 2010)”
In May 2012, Landrieu unveiled NOLA for Life, which he billed as a “comprehensive murder reduction strategy.”
The 34-page plan states that since 1979 New Orleans has recorded murder rates “seven to eight times higher” than the national average.
In 2011, 199 people were slain, making New Orleans the nation’s “murder capital” of cities with a population of more than 100,000.
The year 2011 also marked the sixth time the city became the nation’s murder capital, 1985-2012, according to a study by the PEW Research Center.
The city saw the murder total dip down to 193 by the end of 2012; then fall to 156 in ’13 and 150 in ’14.
Landrieu cited the falling murder totals, during his re-election campaign in 2014.
By the end of 2015, murders spiked upward to 164, or 41.7 killings per 100,000 people. The national average is 4.9 murders.
In other words, the New Orleans murder rate for 2015 was eight times the national average – the same historic trend Mayor Landrieu team has worked for seven years to reverse.
The Mayor’s last day in office is May 6, 2018.