“Homicides are driven by a small number of very special people. Shootings involve a much larger group of less dangerous people.” DAVID KENNEDY, criminologist
It is a proudly if cautiously recited truth among the city’s top crime fighters: For the first time in a decade and a half, New Orleans is on track to make a real dent in its horrific murder rate, which routinely ranks it among America’s most murderous cities. This year has seen the least deadly 10-month period of the past few decades.
But a counterintuitive pattern has also emerged: While the murder rate has plummeted by more than 20 percent, the number of non-fatal shootings has stubbornly stayed almost exactly where it was.
The total rate of shootings, lethal and not, has declined by 5 percent. Yet, for one reason or another, fewer of the victims are dying.
“People say all the time that a gun assault that someone survives is just a homicide but a couple inches off, or they got lucky, or they got to the hospital fast, or the doctors did a good job,” said David Kennedy, a nationally recognized criminologist whose theories on reducing urban violence form the backbone of the city’s anti-murder strategy. “In a way, that’s right. But it’s not as right as we think it is. They’re just not as connected as logic would expect them to be.”
The rates of murder and non-lethal shootings typically move in tandem.
Why they have not done so this year in New Orleans remains in debate.
City leaders point to the mayor’s “NOLA for Life” campaign, which seeks to curb the killings with a combination of advertising, education, job training, recreation and a program that sends violence “interrupters” into the killing fields of Central City to try to talk potential shooters out of committing retaliatory murders.
It includes a multi-agency task force that targeted groups of well-armed “gangsters” and drug pushers thought to be responsible for the majority of deadly crime. Dozens of the city’s most dangerous criminals, the ones authorities say shoot to kill and know how to do it, were rounded up this year and hauled to Orleans Parish Prison on racketeering and murder charges. Most are being detained while awaiting trial.
At the same time, hospital officials and the city’s Emergency Medical Services department believe their life-saving advancements surely factor in to the lower death rate.
In the first half of both this year and last, precisely the same number of shooting victims — 251 — arrived at the trauma center at Interim LSU Hospital. But the outcomes were different: Doctors lost 30 percent fewer of their gunshot victims this year.
Others point to a laundry list of other possibilities: dumb luck, an unexplained bout of bad marksmanship, a shift in the types of guns available on the streets, changes in the way the New Orleans Police Department categorizes its crimes.
Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, he deferred to Kennedy and provided a written statement that celebrated the reduction in murders, but did not offer any explanation or theory for why the number of total shootings has remained steady.
“We are proud that our efforts to lower the murder count have thus far been successful, as the rate today is 22 percent lower compared to this time last year,” the Serpas statement read. “We will continue our strategies as we believe they are making a difference. I’m confident these initiatives will only become more impactful with time, as do most efforts of such magnitude.”
Charles West, who leads Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Innovation Delivery Team and is tasked with implementing the city’s murder-reduction strategy, also punted on the question.
He, too, sent a statement: “Today the number of murders in New Orleans is the lowest in 40 years, down 22 percent compared to this time last year. Through NOLA For Life, we are seeing early signs of progress.”
Kennedy, the mastermind behind the city’s anti-violence campaign, said the discrepancy in the numbers is not so surprising, and provides evidence that the program targeting gangsters is working.
Gang members are usually better armed and better marksmen than run-of the-mill shooters, he said: They are better at killing.
Non-fatal shootings, he said, are more often the work of amateurs — people who tend to fire their weapons haphazardly, in muggings gone awry, or to prove their bravery or scare off enemies.
“Homicides are driven by a small number of very special people,” he said. “Shootings involve a much larger group of less dangerous people.”
The NOPD categorized 371 crimes as aggravated batteries by shooting between January and June. If the rate continues, 2013 will close with around 742 non-lethal shootings.
That is remarkably consistent with the totals in previous years: 752 in 2012, 744 in 2011, and 771 in 2010.
But over time, the number should naturally fall some, Kennedy believes. As murders fall, the number of non-fatal shootings typically declines at about half the rate, he said.
“The streets have a temperature, and the hotter the street scene is, the more people carry guns, the more nervous they are to make sure that everyone knows they can’t be messed with,” Kennedy said. “The more active the gang scene is, the more touchy everybody else is. As the gang scene cools down, the streets overall cool down too.”
Experts have different views on how the puzzling numbers should be regarded.
When the New Orleans murder epidemic peaked in the mid-1990s, then Police Chief Richard Pennington pledged to cut the rate in half.
He did, and then some. The number plunged from 424 in 1994 to 158 in 1999. The rate of overall shootings ticked down, too.
But it didn’t last. The very next year, 204 people were killed, and the number has remained consistently high ever since.
This year is on track to end, once again, with around 150 murders, less than the low-water mark of 1999.
Dr. Mark VanLandingham, a public health professor at Tulane University who has studied the city’s crime patterns, was at first skeptical that this year’s data signal a meaningful drop. But after crunching the numbers, and considering the persistently high rate of non-fatal shootings, he decided that a significant change is, indeed, afoot on the streets of New Orleans.
He leans toward Kennedy’s theory: People pulling triggers on the streets aren’t shooting to kill as often as they were.
“Something is going on, something has happened,” VanLandingham said. “If someone really wants to kill somebody else, it’s probably going to happen. They haven’t become lousy shooters all of a sudden. I think their intent is probably changing.”
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is hesitant to call it a dramatic change until it holds over a longer period of time.
He believes that the rate of murders should track more closely with the rate of non-fatal shootings, and he has two theories to account for the discrepancy in New Orleans: Either there has been some advancement in medical treatment, or there has been a change in the accounting of assault numbers, a historically unreliable statistic nationwide.
The city has always had an extraordinarily high rate of lethal shootings.
Nationally, there is an average of 11 non-fatal shootings for every one gun murder. In New Orleans, that ratio narrowed to less than 4-to-1 last year.
The NOPD has come under fire for how it calculates those crimes, with some criminologists suggesting that the city has historically underreported its assault numbers to reduce the overall rate of violent crime.
Members of the Legislature demanded an accounting, and the state’s legislative auditor last month issued a report that found the Police Department has indeed downplayed certain serious crimes.
Serpas has vehemently denied cooking the books, and he questioned the auditor’s methodology.
Serpas said Saturday he is confident that the statistics the NOPD is gathering and sending to the FBI each quarter are valid.
“Within the known tolerances of error that occur within the Uniform Crime Report in America, we should continue to have confidence in the information we are providing to people in the city of New Orleans,” he said.
The murder drop this year brings that ratio of shootings-to-murders slightly closer to national standards: For every five shootings, there has been one murder.
But it still suggests that New Orleans gunmen are twice as lethal, on average, as they are everywhere else.
Whether a person dies from a gunshot wound is directly related to various factors: where they’re shot, how fast they get to surgery and how much blood they lose before they get there.
Liz Belcher, a spokeswoman for New Orleans Emergency Medical Services, said the service has shifted the way in which medics treat gunshot victims losing large amounts of blood.
It used to be common practice to pump them full of IV fluid en route to the hospital. But they’ve stopped doing that: Scientific advancements now suggest giving a victim only a minimal amount of fluid before they get to the hospital. Once there, patients now receive blood and plasma transfusions, rather than the IV fluids they used to get.
Dr. Norman McSwain, the trauma director at the Spirit of Charity Trauma Center at Interim LSU Public Hospital, said doctors there switched techniques several years ago, moving to practices perfected by the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
They’ve gotten faster, more practiced at it, McSwain said. They now get a victim on the operating table within 10 minutes.
In the first six months of last year, 251 people who had been shot in an assault arrived at the trauma center at Interim LSU Hospital. In the first six months of this year, the number was again 251.
But 30 percent fewer of them died this year. Between January and June 2012, 40 victims of gun assaults died on the operating tables at the hospital. In the same period this year, only 27 died.
If those 13 additional lives had not been saved, the murder rate in the first six months of the year would have been as high as it had always been.
And criminologists concede that there is an inherent volatility to murder counts.
Many of the 19 people injured in the shooting rampage at a Mother’s Day second-line parade, after all, could been killed. But none of them died.
“People not dying is a big deal,” Rosenfeld said. “But you’re going to want to wait before you anoint this decline as something drastic. Drastic would mean it’s not only big, but it lasts a while.”