For decades, New Orleans has been infamous for homicide; one bleak, dark-humor argument one might make is that the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, at least, couldn’t have made things worse. After all, if the root causes of murder are poverty and lack of opportunity, from the perspective of the Left, or a lack of good policing and prosecution, from the perspective of the Right, New Orleans could hardly deteriorate further from its pre-pandemic state. Except things have gotten worse—much worse—and they’re still deteriorating. What happened? New Orleans’s purposeful effort at progressive prosecution, and its accidental experiment in de-policing, have come at the worst possible time, and in the worst place.
New Orleans’s murder rate has long been off the charts—but now it’s really off the charts. In 2019, the city suffered 119 murders. Measured against a post–Katrina population of just below 400,000, that translated into a murder rate of about 30 per 100,000. For perspective, Chicago’s murder rate was about 18 per 100,000 that year, and New York’s was about 3.5. New Orleans’s killing level put it somewhere between Honduras and Mexico—places some risk their lives to flee, due to high urban violence.
Amazingly enough, the 2019 rate wasn’t that awful for New Orleans—in fact, that was its lowest murder level in nearly 50 years. The city had suffered 424 murders a quarter-century earlier, in 1994. Against a pre-Katrina population of nearly half a million, the 1994 rate of 87.6 homicides per 100,000 was astoundingly bad—and too much, finally, even for the anything-goes Big Easy. Sustained public outrage and local media attention brought to New Orleans the same tough-on-crime assertive-policing and prosecution techniques that were reducing the murder rate in other U.S. cities during this era—coupled with aggressive reform, under federal oversight, of the city’s corrupt and sometimes-murderous police department. The reforms worked, if unevenly; the number of murders fell to 158 in 1999.
After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, violent crime intensified in a depopulated, destabilized city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu won office in 2010 partly on a platform of hiring more police officers to keep up with retirements, and the level of killings remained below 200 annually from 2012 to 2019. New Orleans even accomplished this feat without much economic growth, and zero population growth, relative to the pre-Katrina years. In 2019, private-sector jobs in the city and its nearby suburb, with which the federal government bundles jobs data, totaled 511,600, below the pre-Katrina level of 518,100 in 2004. If success and failure are relative, this was, at least, something: hundreds of young black men and teens stayed alive, who otherwise might have perished.
The pandemic years, though, have been a crime disaster. In 2020, the city suffered 201 murders, an increase of more than two-thirds from the previous year’s total. In 2021, public safety deteriorated further, with 218 murders, 83 percent above the 2019 level. This increase far outpaced the 22.5 percent increase in nationwide homicides in 2020, relative to 2019 (full 2021 data aren’t out yet). Things are even worse in 2022, so far, with 145 homicides through June 30, and with the increase accelerating in the late spring and early summer, leaving the city on pace to surpass 300 killings by the end of the year. Against its post-Katrina population, these numbers leave New Orleans on pace for a homicide rate of 77 per 100,000, close to the 1994 high—a murder environment that just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Western world.
The last two years, then, have been worse than anything in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, even though the storm was just as destabilizing, socially and economically, as the pandemic. Katrina killed more than 1,400 local people, compared with 1,131 pandemic deaths so far, and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of houses. It also ushered in a full depopulation of the city, chaotic looting and other opportunistic crimes, and the loss of 19.8 percent of the city’s private-sector jobs over two years—near-double the loss of 10.1 percent of its jobs between 2019 and the lows of 2020.
What is different this time is policing and prosecution. In January 2021, New Orleans’s first “progressive prosecutor,” Jason Williams, took office. Williams, a former defense attorney under indictment himself for federal tax fraud, had, like Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, promised to be “more selective” in prosecution, and to go “beyond punishment.”
He has kept these promises. As the independent Metropolitan Crime Commission found last fall, “Under D.A. Williams, there has been a drastic decline in accountability for violent felony offenders.” The previous DA accepted two-thirds of violent-felony arrests for prosecution; Williams has accepted barely half. Essentially, Williams systemically undid the work of the police department. “The NOPD secured the cooperation of victims and witnesses to make 1,411 violent-felony arrests from January 11, 2021, to September 10, 2021,” the MCC reported, but “conversely, the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office either refused or dismissed . . . 937 violent-felony cases during that time.” The felony-conviction rate fell from 57 percent in 2019 to 52 percent in 2020, notwithstanding the pandemic, to just 21 percent in 2021.
At the same time, the NOPD has suffered such an employment drain that it is in danger of coming under the definition of liquidation—essentially, going out of business—under Louisiana pension-fund law. The city has lost close to one-fifth of its officers since 2021, mostly to retirement and transfers to other police departments within the state, with the number of uniformed police falling below 1,000, “the lowest mark in generations,” the Times-Picayune has reported. The number of officers isn’t declining because of budget cuts or defund-the-police ideology: the city simply cannot find qualified new officers to replace the old, despite annual pay, after a year’s service, of close to $60,000.
Another change in New Orleans is even more jarring in this context: apathy. New Orleans has always been apathetic, one might respond. But when it comes to shocking violent crime, that assumption is not entirely true. In the mid-1990s and beyond, voters were outraged. Anti-crime marches by black and white citizens alike, as well as fiery speeches by pastors, had scared elected officials into acting, at least marginally. Particularly gruesome stranger-on-stranger crimes often galvanized public attention.
This March, though, when four teens, aged 15 to 17—three of them girls—allegedly approached 73-year-old Linda Frickey as she sat in her car and forcibly carjacked her, dragging her, trapped in her seatbelt, for more than a block to her death by dismemberment, neighbors in the generally safe area greeted the murder resignedly. “It is disgusting,” said one—but apparently not shocking. A small-scale protest after the near-murder carjacking of another woman a month earlier garnered little official action. Top police officials say now that the city’s half-year murder count is “premature,” and they have further argued that it is “nearly impossible to police … the inability of individuals to settle their differences without resorting to violence.” As murderous carjackings have surged, affluent and middle-class residents, black and white, who once used questionable coping skills such as walking quickly—and fully armed—from their cars to their homes, no longer feel safe even doing that. People are terrified to get gas—even during daytime hours—or to stop at red lights.
A new umbrella group called the Nola Coalition is trying to change that. Made up of institutions ranging from the NAACP to church groups, and business groups ranging from the cable company to a hotel association, the coalition is rightly worried about a “civic death spiral.” Unlike many other such previous efforts, which have often focused on less controversial issues such as alleviating poverty and creating opportunity, the coalition doesn’t shy away from calling for more police spending, and for “ensur[ing] violent offenders are held accountable.”
Let’s hope this new effort works—but for now, New Orleanians, workers, and visitors are voting with their feet. So the city continues to bleed population. Nearly 2 percent of its residents have fled since the pandemic began, even though New Orleans, much like Austin, with its warm weather, easygoing lifestyle, and eclectic—albeit dwindling—arts and music scene, should be a good resettlement candidate for the newly mobile work-from-home professional crowd. The city (coupled with its closest neighboring suburb) is still missing 5.5 percent of its pre-pandemic jobs (as of May), taking it back to 2013 levels, and thus erasing much hard-earned progress since Katrina. Most worrisome, the city is missing 13 percent of its leisure and hospitality jobs. The decline is far worse than the 5.5 percent of such jobs still missing nationwide, even though much of the South’s economy has been fully open for business for well more than a year, as Florida’s booming tourist economy demonstrates.
New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell, in office since 2018, is holding firm to her beliefs. Last month, she insisted that “I really refuse to accept a focus solely on law enforcement and law agencies as it comes stopping crime.” Nobody thinks that law enforcement is the sole answer. But if it’s not even one among other answers, then many more people will die in New Orleans.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber/Getty Images