This year I joined the ranks of New Orleanians who have seen a dead body in the street. It was in February, outside a car parts store in the section of town that real estate agents these days pass off as “New Marigny”—a bloody man lay shot dead beneath the SUV he’d been trying to fix. Weeks later, a thug robbed the dollar store at the end of our supposedly gentrified street (which also features a sweets shop and a wine bar with live jazz), shot the police officer who showed up on the scene, then fled. For the next three days, helicopters hung low over our corner of Bywater. My friends posted photos on Facebook of SWAT teams trampling through their backyards in the early-morning dew. These days the show The First 48 is camped out here, documenting New Orleans’s authentic and still horrifically robust murder culture.
The city has never been truly safe, but things are changing, says Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who this month publicly claimed New Orleans is headed toward a 40-year record low: 153 murders at the time of his December 17 announcement. That works out to a homicide rate that’s nearly ten times the national average, but still an improvement compared with 181 murders by December of last year, according to Landrieu.
Crime statistics are political battlegrounds and, feeling overwhelmed by the topic, I got in touch with database builder Alexa Surinck, whose unsuccessful hunt for 2008 murder totals prompted her to start keeping minute track of the city’s slayings in 2009. Scouring the obits is both her compulsion and hobby. She met me armed with spreadsheets from the murder database she keeps.
Surinck agrees the homicide rate is falling, but disputes aspects of Landrieu’s narrative. First off, she said, 1985 had only 152 murders by this time, so the notion of murders being at a 40-year low is incorrect. “Mitch Landrieu says the murder rate is improving, and it is, compared to the recent high of 200 in 2011, [Ronal] Serpas’s first full year as police chief,” Surinck schooled me. “But examined in the light of the murder totals at the time Landrieu took office, the reduction looks much smaller: A 2013 total of 154 would be only 12 percent less than the 174 murders New Orleans saw under [Mayor Ray] Nagin and [Police Superintendent Warren] Riley in 2009.”
Landrieu gives credit for the supposed drop in homicides to his NOLA for Life anti–gang violence initiative, a program where cops make contact with gang members citywide and offer them the carrot of job-training programs, midnight basketball games, and the like—while also threatening them with prosecution should any of their cohorts act violent. The program has reportedly helped indict almost 80 members of various street gangs on racketeering charges.
Landrieu will surely continue taking credit for the murder rate’s slight improvement as February’s election approaches. But New Orleans Police Department Captain Mike Glasser, the president of the Police Association of New Orleans, told the Times-Picayune that the credit goes to improved emergency medical services and fantastic trauma surgeons: “It’s not crime reduction, it’s the medical community that has improved.”
The New Orleans Advocate backed this theory up in a recent piece headlined “Murders Down in New Orleans, Not Shootings.” The article reported that 2013 will likely close with around 742 non-lethal shootings, just ten less than last year, and that the same number of shooting victims entering the trauma center at Interim LSU Hospital this year, but doctors saved 30 percent more lives.
“Murder is down this year," Surnick told me, "But [the rate of] gun violence is almost exactly the same.”
What has solidly plummeted over the years, however, is the amount of cops on hand to prevent crimes. “The number of police is down to a critical level,” said Surinck, “and there’s almost no patrolling as a result.” She pointed to a November 2012 WWLTV article titled “Number of NOPD Officers at 39-Year Low,” which showed that the city’s police force has lost hundreds of officers since a small post-Katrina hiring uptick. New Orleans employed only 1,260 cops in 2013. Not hiring more makes little sense to the average New Orleanian, given recent hikes on their property taxes, a Super Bowl that was supposed to be great for the local economy, and the millions in revenue the city now collects from traffic cameras.
The raw numbers alone do not do justice to the tragedy of all the people—especially young people—murdered for nothing. Surinck’s 2013 spreadsheet is lousy with young people:
On March 24, 19-year-old Gregory Hills was shot dead blocks from where his stepfather was gunned down in his car. That same month, 16-year-old Keshawn Bell was discovered facedown in the grass near railroad tracks in Pontchartrain Park (he was suspected to have been shot by fellow teens), and 16-year-old Ralphmon Green was shot at an intersection and later died at the hospital. In December, 18-year-old Kenneth Young was found stuffed in the trunk of a blood-smeared car abandoned out in the woods of Slidell after being shot and killed in Gentilly.
Five teens at the NET Charter High School for at-risk students lost their lives to bullets over the course of 2013: Antwan Seaton (17) was shot dead in his Holly Grove home on October 26; the body of Terrence Roberts (15) was found in a vacant lot on November 11; Isaiah Johnston (19) was shot in the face in the parking lot of an apartment complex on June 18 and died the next day; Leonard George (18) was killed along with his mother and sister in their Gentilly home on September 11; and Tyrin Whitfield (19) was found dead in a bullet-riddled car on October 7.
In July, just after the Trayvon Martin case was decided in favor of shooter George Zimmerman, unarmed 14-year-old Marshall Coulter jumped a six-foot fence in the Marigny neighborhood and was shot in the head from a distance of 30 feet by homeowner Merritt Landry—another case of a white man firing at a black teen he found to be suspicious. Coulter survived but his mother Christiana Ford told me for an article in the Louisiana Weekly that “his mobility is severely limited and he drools a lot.” New Orleans’s DA is deliberating whether or not to indict Landry for attempted second-degree murder.
On Sunday, June 23, a five-year-old girl shot and killed herself with a .38 after her mother went out to the store then stopped on the way back to reportedly watch a street fight. The child had previously been documented as having suffered suicidal ideation brought about from sexual abuse, but still, her death was not considered a suicide and her mother was charged with second-degree murder—a charge a judge later tossed out.
In August, an 18-year-old nanny walking home from the park was struck in the back by a bullet that killed one-year-old Londyn Samuels in her arms—this just days before an 11-year-old New Orleans girl, Arabian Gayles, was shot and killed while holding her one-year-old cousin. The baby lived, but two adults were injured after gunmen unloaded a dozen bullets into the house. Then on November 13 in Algiers on the West Bank, the youngest victim of the year, seven-month-old Deshawn Kinard, was killed along with his 25-year-old father Deshawn Butler when their car was ambushed and fired upon crossing the Crescent City Connection bridge.
Possibly the most heartwrenching story of young violence this year belongs to ten-year-old Ka’Nard Allen. He was shot in the face and leg at his tenth birthday party in May 2012, where his five-year-old cousin and a woman were killed, and two men were wounded when three perps sprayed the street with bullets. That October, Ka’Nard’s father was stabbed to death in a domestic dispute. Then at a Mother’s Day parade in May 2013, Ka’Nard was shot a second time during gun battle, along with 18 other victims.
Though miraculously no one died last Mother’s Day, the horror of that mass shooting still reverberates through New Orleans. Another victim of that shooting was writer Deborah Cotton, an outspoken anti-violence advocate who had blogged about the unfortunate trend of gun violence at second-line parades. This morbid coincidence, along with Ka’Nard’s horrific luck, compounded the feeling among New Orleans’s citizenry that we will all be directly touched by gun violence at some point, and nothing will ever change.
Among those killed were many struggling to make a difference: 18-year-old Americorps volunteer Joseph Massenburg, from Illinois, was gunned down on April 2; Zachary Carpenter, a 30-year-old who had been trying to build a New Orleans skateboarding community by teaching kids and building and improving skating facilities was found in his car with a single bullet through his head on May 10; and Ashley Qualls, a 25-year-old social worker, was shot and killed on July 9 while walking home through the Treme neighborhood from her job at the Odyssey House substance abuse treatment center.
As the New Year approaches, the notion that the city is less violent has been negated by more and more gruesome murders. Five days before Christmas, 45-year old armored car guard Hector Trochez was executed while bringing money into a bank. The same holiday week, French Quarter artist Tshepiso Matlapeng-Sani, who just after Thanksgiving had been beaten with a gun and kicked in front of her Central City home as her nine-year-old daughter looked on, died of brain swelling. Police maintain her death was brought on by other medical complications, and will not pursue a murder investigation.
As for how many of these violent offenders are being apprehended and indicted, Surinck and the public are at a bit of a loss. “That data results from sessions of the state grand juries held at the prompting of the DA’s office, and I don’t have access to it,” said Surinck, who chooses to focus just on the deaths. “But a very, very rough measure would be suspects I found in media reports as compared to murders. For instance, 2013 to date: 124 suspects attached to 73 murders out of 153, meaning 47.7 percent [of cases] with suspects, and 52.3 percent without. One number that’s often used to measure the attention paid to solving homicides is the ‘clearance rate,’ which one authority defined to me as: A case is ‘cleared’ when police have ‘identified a perpetrator, have sufficient evidence to charge him, and take him into custody, or he dies or is already in custody.’” In 2010, NOPD cleared only 25 percent of its murders, a rate comparable to Puerto Rico’s. By 2012, NOPD had brought that up to 39 percent.
Though it is always worth remembering the fallen, I realize my simply rounding up the year’s most heinous crimes doesn’t necessarily help anyone. I too am deficient in the solutions department. Consider this piece a simple S.O.S. from New Orleans to the world. And as we close out this year with supposed record-low murders—and with our city elections on the way—recall the names listed above and remember that very, very little has changed.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.