To recall her grandson, 67-year-old Esther Chess gestured to her left eye. It was the point where the bullets had entered and killed Marquis Thomas, age 26. “It went into his head and he fell backward, on the floor,” she’d told the New Orlean’s newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
The gunfire was part of a drive-by shooting on Oct. 8. A night when bullets had torn through the front door just as Thomas pushed his grandmother from the spray. Chess remembers him falling and the police reporting he’d died on an operating table the morning after. It was a tragedy — and sadly — another sorrowful statistic of the area.
New Orleans is so riven with murder, the city ranked eighth highest nationally in 2013 with 155 victims. Deaths from gang shootings and robberies are common here. There are casualties among bystanders too. In 2012 it was Jeremy Galmon, age 2; in 2014 Miquail Jackson, age 14. Young or old, the tallies keep mounting.
Yet recent trends show a peculiar deviation to the city’s violent crime. Last year’s murder toll is actually 20 percent less than in 2012, at 193 deaths. It also represents the lowest number of homicides since 1985, a remarkable feat for a municipality that in past decades topped murder statistics nationwide, with the worst years from 2008 to 2012, when the city led in homicides per capita for cities with populations of 250,000 or more.
Officials and outsiders see the shift as seismic. It’s a turning point attributed to Mitch Landrieu, a New Orleans' hard-charging mayor, and the city’s first-ever innovation delivery team, which in 2011 received a $4.2 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to study crime and implement social programs. The i-Team, as it’s called, is based upon Bloomberg’s innovation model that relies heavily on data for decision-making. In this instance, that data has leveraged crime statistics to identify high risk individuals, criminal social networks and the neighborhoods that foster them.
In November 2011, Landrieu appointed Charles West to be director of the i-Team, an unlikely candidate considering the role. He had no previous background in law enforcement or social work. According to his LinkedIn profile, West’s resume includes work as a computer specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and as a business analysis consultant at Advanced Strategies Inc., before joining the city as a service and innovation manager. His previous municipal duties involve organizational restructuring and financial management.
West is straightforward about his commitment to data and logical analysis. “Late in 2011, we received the grant for the innovation delivery team,” he said. “And at that point, my team was able to add a lot of capacity in terms of research and data analysis to help us better understand the problem, but also to construct a strategy.”
This strategy, he remembered, was a collective effort between the city and a group of expert volunteers. Partners inlcuded Andy Papachristos, a Yale University sociologist who specializes in mapping criminal networks; University of Cincinnati’s Robin Engel, who directs UC’s Institute of Crime Science; and David Kennedy, who heads the National Network for Safe Communities and provided counsel on strategies.
West’s team was able to process data of crime and murders that dated back to 1960. The work put long-term crime trends for 70 neighborhoods onto a digital dashboard along with 30-, 10- and five-year homicide averages, with more granular data for the last three years broken down by police districts. Layered on top of this analysis was mapped statistics of educational attainment, unemployment rates and recidivism — add-ons intended to provide a holistic view.
“We discovered four neighborhoods make up about 36 percent of the murders, but they’re only about 23 percent of the population,” West said of one of the findings.
Likewise, West said the team identified the statistical demographics for populations most susceptible to violent crime. Unfortunately, he said, hard data revealed that African-American males, 16-24 years of age, within the city’s four high-crime neighborhoods were most at risk to be both victims and perpetrators. The findings are something the mayor takes issue with.
In a panel discussion Sept. 29 on violence, Landrieu said the demographics were indicative of both a need from the black community but also an ambivalence from a governing majority. Citing national figures, he said the African-American population represents roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population, yet in terms of the 13,000-plus homicides last year, African-American men were 45 percent of the victims.
“Look at it from the victim’s perspective and ask yourself whether or not [African Americans] deserve special attention and special treatment to make sure they’re as free and they’re as safe as anybody else,” Landrieu said.
He called the disparity a national epidemic that many refuse to acknowledge except in polarizing cases where it reflects racial tensions, such as in the 2012 case of Trayvon Martin, an African American shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, or in cases where the violence directly influences the lives of the middle and upper classes. Getting specific, Landrieu recalled a citywide uproar one week when nine people were killed on Bourbon Street, a hot spot for local tourism. Yet Landrieu said he couldn’t help but wonder why no one spoke up only a week before when 10 people were killed in the poor and predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
“The numbers take you where they take you, but nobody has ever said it is a black problem – and people who say that don’t understand it – because this is a national problem," Landrieu said. "If you don’t find a way to help resurrect the young African American in this country, this country will never be strong."
To tackle the problem in New Orleans, city officials used data to construct a framework for NOLA For Life, a citywide strategic plan with five pillars: stop the shooting, invest in prevention, promote job growth, rebuild neighborhoods and strengthen the city law enforcement, he said.
The most visible use of data came from an endeavor to stop shootings. The pillar focused social programs and law enforcement outreach on the city’s percentage of at-risk young men. Core components included creation of a multi-agency gang unit targeting hot zones, bolstering illegal firearms seizures with manpower, inserting outreach workers in crime zones and hosting multi-department interventions with likely offenders — also called “call-ins” for the Group Violence Reduction Strategy.
Based on criminal records, analytics now routinely uncovers the city’s 800 individuals most likely to commit violent crimes every three months. Of the lot, members of the city’s most notorious gangs are requested to arrive at court as part of the call-in. They’re greeted by Landrieu, law enforcement and social service representatives.
Landrieu said he stands in the center of the court and first explains that despite what they might think they’re cared about in the community but that the violence has to stop. Next, pictures are shown of each, photographs highlighting law enforcement’s surveillance of them in the city. After this, Landrieu said he presents the gang members and members of violent groups with two options: receive help from the city’s social services or, after their next violent offense, be hunted down by law enforcement.
And he doesn’t stop there. Landrieu said not only will they be hunted down, but police will also pursue all of their criminal associates along with them. So far, this method, first developed by NNSC's David Kennedy, has played a significant role in reducing the number of murders.
Landrieu explained that the city didn’t attempt to arrest and prosecute its way out of crime. Since the root of the problem is diverse, he believes the response should be the same. It's the reason why NOLA For Life spreads its impacts across multiple delivery channels and is supported by a multiplicity of departments.
“What are the reasons, what are the environments, personal responsibilities, structural inequities that create this culture of behavior that allows somebody to shoot somebody else in the head?” asked Landrieu. “I’ve come to the conclusion, after having all of the data, that this is a much deeper problem that this country has got to get a grip on.”
Highlighting one correlation, West said 52 percent of the African-American males in New Orleans are not working, and of this percentage, 43 percent have a criminal history — the reason why NOLA For Life supports job re-entry programs and youth summer jobs. This be-everywhere concept is applied to education programs, youth mentorship, family counseling, blight reduction, community anti-violence campaigns, grants for organizations aiding at-risk populations, positive recreation efforts like NOLA’s Midnight Basketball Tournament, and the list goes on.
"I think one thing that we learned, and this was echoed so many times in the research, is that there just isn’t a single answer to reducing murder,” West said. “When it comes down to it, I think it’s actually the fact that the strategy is comprehensive in nature.”
As the i-Team continues its work with ongoing funding from the city, West said the job is hardly finished but he hopes to see further gains this year. The city is on track to hold or improve last year’s homicide count. Likewise, Landrieu was adamant in his optimism that the city could succeed even where others had struggled.
“Don’t think that this is too complicated to solve because we can solve it,” he said. “But first, the most essential thing for us in America is to accept what is true, that the lives of young African-American men are important and they deserve to be protected.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.