James Gill: N.O. crime stats look iffy

The message from New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas could hardly be more reassuring.

If you don’t count murders, New Orleans is an “incredibly safe city.”

And, in case there are still a few nervous Nellies out there, Mayor Mitch Landrieu will always be there to spread the same encouraging news. While the bodies may pile up in New Orleans, crime is unlikely to touch the survivors.

That, you might think, would set everyone’s mind at rest.

But the doubters are out in force to cast a jaundiced eye on the crime stats Serpas and Landrieu cite to reach their upbeat conclusion. The situation is not as rosy as claimed, according to these crabbed souls, because it is impossible to credit stats that show the nation’s murder capital otherwise displays a seriously below-average propensity for violence.

Perhaps it is kind of a shame about all those murders, but they are largely restricted to underprivileged neighborhoods, where tourists and conventioneers don’t stray. A sense of security where they do hang out is what matters to the city economy, so it’s lucky that the official numbers say a trip to New Orleans is just like taking a stroll through Mayberry.

“You have to understand the difference between the crime rate and the murder rate,” Landrieu says. Right. The crucial difference may be that the murder rate is accurate.

When figures suggest that nonfatal assaults with a deadly weapon are much rarer in New Orleans than elsewhere, for instance, fudging will be strongly suspected, although there is another possible explanation. Maybe our hoodlums are such crack shots that they are more likely to finish the job off.

That theory, however, is less-than-plausible after 20 were left wounded, but nobody was killed, when gunfire broke out at a Mother’s Day parade. Besides, while nonlethal assaults have grown steadily less common in the last 20 years, according to NOPD, the wounded have been showing up in emergency rooms with more or less undiminished frequency.

When the newspaper queried 2012 stats showing continued dramatic decline in assaults with guns and knives, NOPD discovered a “programming error” had blamed “other weapons” in 400 cases. Even with the adjustment, the number still said New Orleans was an “incredibly safe city.”

Sen. J.P.Morrell, D-New Orleans, finds that hard to believe, and it is true that fixing crime stats would, by NOPD’s recent standard, rank as a venial offense. Morrell wants the Legislative Auditor to find out what’s going on.

But, if the numbers are skewed — and only Serpas and Landrieu seem inclined to doubt that they are — there may still be an innocent explanation. Perhaps citizens are in the habit of dummying up for the cops. That would certainly let NOPD off the hook for creating a spurious impression of urban tranquility.

Alas, we have Serpas’s word for it that the public cannot be blamed for failing to report crime. Indeed, folks in New Orleans fall over one another to blab to the cops. Polls show that nationwide 50 percent of crime victims say they filed a report, as against 80 percent in New Orleans.

Thus, we are asked to believe that New Orleans is safer than other cities by an even wider margin than the official crime stats indicate — as if it weren’t already hard enough to buy what Serpas and Landrieu tell us.

Victims in New Orleans are more forthcoming because they love and trust the Police Department, according to Serpas. Why wouldn’t they, living in such an “incredibly safe city?” It’s just as well he told us, though, because, after so much scandal, there were nagging suspicions that NOPD did not command the public’s full confidence. They can be banished now.

Well, not entirely. Whether by accident or design, the crime stats clearly do not reflect reality. For instance, assaults that do not involve guns or knives, the majority in most cities, are reported so rarely in New Orleans that the official crime rate is significantly depressed. NOPD recorded only 254 such assaults in 2010, when the rate was five times higher in Baton Rouge and four times higher in the suburban haven of Jefferson Parish.

Such discrepancies, as one criminologist put it, are “staggering.” Another said, “It’s clear that something is going on.”

Still, if it’s OK to disregard murder, we can surely do whatever we want with other offenses.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@theadvocate.com