New Orleans mayor’s race: Murder down, woes remain

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Gunfire one Mardi Gras weekend on boozy Bourbon Street, a mass shooting at a neighborhood jazz parade that wounded 19 and the gunshot deaths of three children in 2013 nearly overshadowed a promising statistic New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu touts as he seeks re-election Saturday: the city’s murder rate dropped last year.

And it’s down nearly 20 percent.

The 155 homicides notched in 2013 are down from 193 the prior year and the lowest since 152 in 1985, a span in which the murder toll sometimes exceeded 400 killings a year, a lingering blot on the image of this tourism-dependent city on the Mississippi River.

Still, the violence stubbornly continues — there were at least seven killings in January — and Landrieu is left trying to strike a balance in public statements between lauding the progress of his four years in office while acknowledging many in this Southern city still don’t feel safe.

Crime aside, experts say he’s the heavy favorite Saturday against two fellow Democrats.

Landrieu repeatedly laments a “culture of violence” that, while it rarely affects visitors to the tourist-dependent city and its famed French Quarter, is destructive to many of its people.

“I have spoken to this issue almost every day of my public service in the mayor’s office,” Landrieu said while campaigning. “We have a culture of violence in this city that has lasted as far back as anybody can remember and as long as we can count, since 1970, the murder rate in New Orleans has been seven to eight times the national average.”

The lower number of murders is no doubt an improvement over recent years but also must be viewed in the context of New Orleans’ diminished population since Hurricane Katrina thrashed the Gulf Coast in 2005. The city has steadily grown in recent years, but the population today — an estimated 369,250 people — is much smaller than in 1985, when the city had 561,364 residents. Measured per-capita, the murder rate today is about 42 per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in the U.S., and much greater than the city’s rate of roughly 27 per 100,000 in 1985.

Landrieu won 66 percent over 10 opponents in the 2010 race to replace term-limited Mayor Ray Nagin. He thus became the mostly black city’s first white mayor since his father, Moon Landrieu, held the post in the 1970s.

In office, the younger Landrieu has avoided the scandals that plagued Nagin, now on federal trial in a corruption case.

Bidding for four more years, Landrieu takes credit for slashing budget deficits while increasing blight reduction and boosting the rate of recovery from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005. And, he has kept up strong approval ratings, according to past years’ polls from the University of New Orleans.

Political experts say Landrieu appears in good shape to win Saturday’s election over two fellow Democrats, both African-Americans: local NAACP leader Dannatus King and recently retired civil court Judge Michael Bagneris. A runoff, if needed, would be March 15.

Bagneris has strongly attacked the notion that the city is getting safer. He notes in television ads and public forums that New Orleans’ police force, more than 1,500 strong when Landrieu took office, is now down to about 1,200.

Landrieu blames budget constraints. But he said his administration has done much to improve the quality of life and crime fighting. He touts his NOLA for Life initiative, a catchall for social and volunteer efforts including midnight basketball, spruced-up playgrounds, even distribution of smoke detectors in poor neighborhoods. And he praises joint efforts with federal prosecutors to curb gang activity.

Bagneris insists that if he’s elected, he will be able to add 400 officers, in part by reducing the number of deputy mayors and others on Landrieu’s City Hall payroll.

Fewer officers patrolling the streets, in addition to being campaign fodder for Bagneris, is cause for concern to Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, an independent city watchdog group.

Goyeneche said in an interview that he’s sympathetic with the budget problems Landrieu inherited four years ago — including an $80 million deficit — but that attrition must be quickly addressed.

Landrieu’s police chief, Ronal Serpas, ticks off several reasons why he thinks the dropping murder rate is meaningful and sustainable. Among them are the department’s acquisition of sophisticated computer software that improves policing deployment strategies and the Multi Agency Gang Task Force, which involves assistance from federal authorities.

He credits the group with 74-gang-related indictments in 2013.

“Those types of investigations have chilled people’s minds. We’ve gotten the attention of people who use crime and murder as an enterprise,” Serpas said in an interview.

Goyeneche agrees with much that Serpas is doing, but said the lower number of officers means less manpower for proven measures that criminologists say prevent crime — promising strategies often known as “community policing” or “problem solving policing.”

“You want community policing to be department-wide but it’s very labor-intensive so we’re just not able to do that and we need to be honest about it,” Serpas said. But he said each police district has a “community policing sergeant” trained in spotting problems and getting them addressed properly.

Those, and other steps, Landrieu argues, are working.

“If the murder rate was at a 30-year high, as opposed to a 30-year low, people would be screaming and yelling and blaming us for it,” Landrieu said.

He calls it a sign of progress that can be sustained. “It’s meaningful,” he added. “And it’s measurable and it’s right there on paper.”

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