How New Orleans Is Winning a War against Murder
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has achieved remarkable results quickly with a systemic approach that relies on the effective use of data.
In 2010, New Orleans was suffering not only from the effects of Katrina but also from troubled leadership and raging crime. I remember a conversation with its then-new Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, about innovation in the public workforce in which he emphasized that accountability and the delivery of higher-quality public services needed to come first.
Landrieu believed there was plenty of room for improvement in both of these areas. In 2011, New Orleans had more murders per 100,000 residents than any other city in the country, earning it the title -- not for the first time -- of murder capital of the United States. A U.S. Justice Department investigation of the city's police department had revealed systemic misconduct and discriminatory practices. Yet just two years later, the city saw its lowest number of homicides in 30 years.
How Landrieu, in a period of limited resources, turned around crime and instilled confidence and hope is a story of both leadership and the pursuit of services that are better, faster and cheaper. Landrieu's "NOLA for Life" campaign has brought an intensive focus to this issue.
NOLA for Life unites 32 distinct initiatives, approaching a systemic problem with a systemic solution and emphasizing the importance of "changing the culture of violence in New Orleans," as Landrieu put it to me. Landrieu rhetorically raised the stakes, calling homicide "an epidemic, a public health crisis requiring national attention and federal commitment." And by weaving together broad coalitions, he recognized that the problem would not be solved by enforcement alone.
In several respects, the characteristics of the campaign are representative of tactics that Landrieu has taken more generally, in other issue areas, during his time at the helm of New Orleans.
Data plays a large role in the NOLA for Life campaign. In particular, the efforts focus resources on African-American men ages between the ages of 16 and 24, those that the data show are most likely to commit murder or be victims of homicide in New Orleans. Using geographic splits to drill down further, components of the campaign are aimed specifically at four neighborhoods where 40 percent of the city's homicides occur despite being home to just 19 percent of New Orleans' residents. And on an even more granular level, the campaign has sought to identify 200 New Orleans students who are most at risk for violence, with the goal of involving them in preventive programs.
Second, NOLA for Life integrates both public-private partnerships, for funding and service delivery, and cross-agency collaboration that extends to different levels of government. One example is the campaign's Multi-Agency Gang Unit, which unites local and federal law enforcement.
Other defining elements of NOLA for Life include the campaign's treatment of the issue as one of public health -- and thus susceptible to proven methods for fighting epidemics -- and the involvement in the crafting of the campaign of a diverse array of voices, from victims' parents to experts on murder reduction.
When I sat down with Landrieu four years after he took office, I asked him to illustrate for me the most powerful example of the new spirit in New Orleans, and he immediately went to its dramatically declining murder rate. No amount of money can rebuild a city that lacks leadership and hope. Yet with those ingredients, the story of today's New Orleans demonstrates that accountability, effective investments and a network response can produce dramatic results.