Guest Blog

The “Mundane” Murders of Post-Katrina New Orleans

By Dr. Peter Scharf

Dr. Peter Scharf (Photo: George Long)

More than 800 people have been murdered in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina; many of the victims, young African American males. Many, if not all, of these killings could have been averted, if a science-based, community-wide prevention model had been adopted.

The African American youth in the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of New Orleans are inevitably and sometimes daily confronted, in one form or another, by the possibility of death by gunfire. In June, I was on scene watching New Orleans Patrol (5th District) and Homicide Investigators respond after a 19-year-old African American man–Anthony C. Brown, Jr.–was shot dead on his porch, while both of his parents were inside of the house. He was described the next day by his neighbors as “pleasant and a good student.” The location of his death was ironically “Musicians’ Village,” where Harry Connick, Jr., Branford Marsalis and other philanthropists envisioned a neighborhood for New Orleans musicians to find a “spiritual” home.

As the police crime scene tape was placed around a block-long murder scene, the crowd gathered on both sides of Alvar Street–quiet, sullen, knowing, accepting and angry. One young lady, who was wrapped in a bath towel, broke through the yellow tape to see her “cousin” and was restrained (quite gently) by a police officer. The police, district attorney homicide response team and television reporters mingled with midnight hellos and introductions, and the mostly young Alvar street residents stood in silent anger, isolation and contempt.

Though everyone on the sidewalk lived there for years, no one seemed to know (or so they informed the police) the young man being wheeled from the porch, on a gurney, to the coroner’s wagon. Even a local minister claimed not to have known the deceased, though the minister prayed aloud for the dead man’s soul. Nor did the New Orleans Police Department patrol officers attempt to break the silence to ask why this young man was killed and by whom. The crime was a typical New Orleans murder in 2010. The victim was young and African American. The apparent reason for his death, according to everyone I spoke to that evening, was the “drug trade.” Other than someone reporting a dark blue car passing through the neighborhood and shots fired soon thereafter, the “police, so far, have no suspects or motive.”

A few weeks earlier, I attended a graduation of over 100 African American youth in the Booker T. Washington Alternative School, in a hot, non-air conditioned gym. One of the program’s mentors, Ameer Baraka (a star in the HBO series, Tremé), spoke to the young people in the wooden bleachers about the risks of the summer, telling the graduates that “some of you will die this summer, some of you will go to jail and some of you will do alright and will make it.”

There was no hyperbole in his comment. Within a week, two of the students in the bleachers had been shot, one seriously injured. The students in school all know someone who was shot or killed and many have been injured or injured someone else due to a dispute related to the New Orleans drug trade.

Growing up in the housing projects of the city, many reported that they hoped one day to become a successful drug dealer, knowing well the tools of the trade (a gun) and its risks. I was walking through Hollygrove (another high-risk neighborhood in the city) accompanied by a respected African American minister. A young man, Sean, limped down the street with a crutch, his foot inverted at a right angle. He explains that he had “been shot eight times, was in a coma for a year, then a wheelchair for three more years.”

“Why were you shot?” we asked. The answer was stated as if the response was an obvious one: “I was selling drugs.”

Deconstructing New Orleans Murder Mythologies

What are New Orleans’ historical mileposts that led up to the murder on Alvar Street? The sheer banality of death by gunfire in New Orleans is suggested by the demythologized saga of murder since Hurricane Katrina struck land in 2005. Many readers might not know that murder was rising in the city before Hurricane Katrina–not caused by it.

In the week prior to the storm, the most respected crime journalist in the city, Allen Johnson, wrote a commentary–“The Scream”–in the New Orleans Gambit Weekly saying, “At the current pace, New Orleans will exceed 300 murders by the end of the year. New Orleans, the city we were born to love, lay in a pool of blood–again–last week. Beaten, stabbed, strangled and bludgeoned to death by violence.”

Many readers also might not know that there was a striking lull in murder immediately following the storm, followed by a rise in murders, beginning in mid-2006. The New York Times, in November of 2005, noted, “There has not been a single killing in this violence-prone neighborhood, or anywhere else in New Orleans, since the chaos that immediately followed Hurricane Katrina subsided. New Orleans, the nation’s most dangerous city, has suddenly become perhaps its safest, and what had easily been the country’s murder capital now has a murder rate of exactly zero.”

Anyone attempting to understand the causes of murders in New Orleans must acknowledge that most of the city’s murders are not about “beefs,” nor direct results of poverty. Murders in New Orleans do not follow the patterns of murders in other cities which often evolve from minor disputes. In a 2009 Times-Picayune article it was noted that the murder patterns of most of the city’s killings reflected a pattern of drug “hits” similar to that which sealed the fate of 19-year-old Anthony Brown, killed in the 9th Ward. The daylight murders might result from killers trying to catch their targets in vulnerable situations. Another nasty hypothesis is that these are assassinations.

Arrests in homicide cases are relatively rare events. For the 161 homicides in 2006, 12 convictions and fewer than 40 arrests were achieved. In 2007, even fewer convictions were attained among the 210 murders in the city.

The horrendous reality, too, is that the astronomic murder rate in the city has continued essentially unabated since the storm and is close to double the rate of 1999-2000 and 10 times the average of other U.S. cities of similar size. Since the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, at least 830 people have been murdered (not counting the unknown deaths in fall 2005)–that many people would fill 5 medium-sized commercial airplanes.

What Is Going on Here?

Different New Orleans “experts” explain the reasons for the high murder rate in the city using different theories, facts and ideological assumptions. For example, some argue that the problem lies in the New Orleans children and parents. From this point of view, the high rate of murder in New Orleans is attributable to poor schooling, child rearing, parenting, nutrition and supervision. Others argue that the problem of high murder rates is a result of problems within the police department–a dysfunctional department, which has been plagued by scandal and inefficiency. Yet another theory suggests that the root cause of murder in New Orleans is the thriving post-Katrina drug trade and competition among groups created, in part, by the destabilization of that drug trade in the aftermath of Katrina.

Two distinguishable views, often heard in coffee shops around the city, argue that race and racism are the cause of murder in the city. One view argues that the African American youth are victims of economic racism–educational inequality, job discrimination and the profiling and targeting of African American youth. Another race-based perspective argues that murder in New Orleans is a young black male killing pattern, with African American youth seen more as victimizer rather than as victims. The reaction to the almost daily news of death (often on page 5 of the Times-Picayune Metro Section) as judged by commentaries in the NOLA blogs which wonder in mock surprise as to the race of the deceased in the murder being reported: “What color was the victim? I wonder.”

Difficult Realities: Failures of Analysis, Response “Silos” and Integrity

There is confusion surrounding analysis of the causes of murder in New Orleans, which has led to contradictory and ineffective violence control policies since Katrina. Many of the “solutions” proposed to reduce murders in the city stumble on the factual foundation underlying the solution. Funding patterns are confused as well. Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has funded crime control at cross purposes. For example, increasing arrests, through funds to hire more police officers, create more jail cells and employ more prosecutors, while preaching non-custodial alternatives to crime. We arrest people for almost any offense, when fiscal prudence tells us we can’t afford this luxury. Perverse fiscal formulas incentivize convictions by judges and a full Orleans Parish Prison (as the sheriff could go broke if the jail were not filled to capacity.)

We are hopelessly caught between the notion that either one can arrest one’s way out of the murder plight in the city or, alternatively, prevent murder through scientific methods. And, in being caught in the middle, we do neither and suffer the consequences, in terms of an increasing murder rate. In part, New Orleans has the highest rate of murder in the United States because we haven’t bothered to try and gain a public understanding of why we have the outrageous murder realities we face.

Also important is the elimination of segmented agency, program or neighborhood response “silos” which have crippled any effort to reduce homicides. Programs which have been attempted have been poorly coordinated and often lacked elementary performance metrics. While there have been programs to reduce murder risks, ranging from prevention initiatives such as “Weed and Seed,” “G.R.E.A.T.” and police initiatives such as police and D.A. response to homicide scenes, there has been scant evidence of a coordinated city strategy to combat violent crime. In the past five years, the city has had more than 800 murders, much outrage and finger pointing, and, until the recent election of Mayor Landrieu, no plan to reduce the carnage.

Adding to the confusion are the historical and current scandals of the NOPD. The silence on Alvar Street was, in part, rooted in mistrust of the NOPD. The issue of corruption within the NOPD is a stigma attached to the department.

Even on the day in 1994 when reform Superintendent Richard Pennington was sworn in, FBI agents arrested an NOPD officer who had ordered a woman killed after she reported to the Internal Affairs Division that she had witnessed the officer brutalize a suspect. The NOPD rank and file itself was also in disarray from continued corruption scandals, such as officer convictions for bank robbery, cocaine trafficking and bribery, among other offenses, with several hundred officers indicted or fired. Superintendent Pennington made police integrity a vital component of his plan to transform the NOPD to a relatively high-performing, high-integrity organization.

The integrity reforms of the 1990’s were sadly short-lived. A federal grand jury recently indicted three current and two former New Orleans police officers in the death of Henry Glover in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. The 11-count indictment charged that Glover, a possible looter, was shot and his body left in a car that was then torched by the officers and that this action was covered up by supervisors. A similar probe involves the Danziger Bridge shooting, in which police shot six civilians, killing two. In this event, five current and former officers have pleaded guilty to federal charges, including fabrication of the subsequent investigation.

Quietly, many have declared themselves more afraid of NOPD officers than they are of the street hoodlums. Murders go unsolved both because of mistrust of the police and the reality that some NOPD officers may be untrustworthy. Also, several well known political figures have been sentenced to federal prisons because of impropriety related to educational or poverty funds, making prevention funding more difficult.

What to Do?

The new mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, and his police superintendent, Dr. Ronal Serpas, have an opportunity to reverse many of the trends and patterns I have noted here. Why not demand fewer than 90 murders a year or a reduction of 50% in murders over the next 3-5 years? A modest proposal. There is no reason why a city of the demographic composition of New Orleans, rapidly becoming an artistic, musical and aesthetic capital of the United States, should have more than 90 murders a year.

In terms of this goal of a 50% reduction in homicides, it should be noted that from 1994, when New Orleans recorded 424 murders, to 1999, when this total was reduced to 161 murders, New Orleans had more than a 70% reduction in murders. Key to this success were then-Superintendent Richard Pennington’s declaration in March 1996 of a performance measure of a 50% reduction and a strategic plan (660-pages long, with district-by-district tactical plans) to guide this effort. From the date of the introduction of COMSTAT (statistical crime analysis) in 1996–a key element of this plan–there was a 57% drop in homicides through 1999.

Here are strategies that, if integrated into a comprehensive plan, might reduce murders in New Orleans.

  • Develop, promote, communicate and seek buy-in for a community-wide prevention plan designed to reduce violent crime, injuries, imprisonment and death related to violent crime. Stating objectives and metrics is essential to success in this effort.
  • As part of the New Orleans comprehensive crime control plan, rebuild a New Orleans Police Department that is worthy of trust. Insist, demand, reward and teach integrity.
  • Front-load the policing system to avert lifelong involvement of youth in the criminal justice system. Prevent what is possible through active mentoring, Ceasefire, Youth Oriented Policing and other models of intervention that get young African American youth out of the dope, gun and killing game. Develop face-to-face relationships with youth, families and community groups, using community policing models as a broad guide.
  • Work with New Orleans neighborhoods and associations to build shared community-police intelligence models, as community members are more likely to know the drug dealers than are the police. Focus not on arrest, but (in most cases) on mentoring and intervention of the most at-risk youth and young adults.
  • Develop job networks, job training and education for the formerly incarcerated and for the most challenged youth in the city. De-incentivize the benefits of participation in the drug economy.
    Expand mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services, and work with parents to keep their children out of the drug economy by providing resources so that parents are not tempted to participate in youth drug earnings.
  • Mentor the most at-risk youth in the schools to help avert involvement in the New Orleans drug and gun culture, using approaches such as the Circle of Courage Mentoring Program, which uses ex-offenders as youth mentors and was demonstrated effective in reducing suspensions, expulsions and drug use.
  • Expand recreational, educational, health, vocational and other social determinants of health as a long-term protection from violent crime. Only when New Orleans can meet basic Centers for Disease Control-defined health goals will the long-term prospects for reduction in homicides be achievable.
  • Measure the effects of the savings gained by these prevention and effective criminal justice strategies and return these savings to New Orleans, to promote health, education, vocational and recreational investments that improve the city’s quality of life and health.

Success in this effort would result in an annual premium to be reinvested of roughly $200 million per year in reduced imprisonment, injury, unemployment caused by criminal records, policing, court and lost family support costs.

Key in these recommendations is the notion that the absurdly high murder rate since Hurricane Katrina is a product of failed policy. The observation that almost every city in the U.S. has reduced its murder rate over 15-, 10- or 5-year periods is evidence that murder patterns which have cursed New Orleans since the storm are, in most part, solvable and avertable.The roots of the murder of Anthony C. Brown, Jr. on Alvar Street lie in policies that went against the best evidence from other cities. Policing and imprisonment strategies in New Orleans were, almost by design, resulting in racial fragmentation and isolation.

Will New Orleans Get It Right?

I moved to New Orleans in October of 1994, the same day Richard Pennington was sworn in as police superintendent and the same day that police officer Len Davis had drug dealer Paul Cool Hardy murder Kim Grove after she had reported Davis beating a young man in a housing project to NOPD internal affairs–one of the 424 murders that year. I hope that murders like hers and the Alvar Street killing become unusual events and move up to the front page of the Times-Picayune Metro Section. No matter what, I and others will not give up. New Orleans is our home, and we’re not leaving.

Dr. Peter Scharf is a research professor in the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the author of eight published books on criminal justice, education and technology. He has testified three times on murder risks in New Orleans before the Crime Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

Last modified: March 27, 2014 at 11:04 pm
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