New Orleans experienced a welcome anomaly in early September: The Big Easy went nearly two weeks without anyone dying from a shooting.
Over a 12-day period from September 1 to September 12, the Police Department reported no homicides and hardly any nonfatal shootings. It was the first time the city had gone that long without a homicide since October 2019, a year when the city saw the fewest homicides in nearly half a century.
Like other cities across the country, New Orleans saw a devastating spike in gun violence in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the surge continued into 2021 and through 2022. That year, it recorded one of the highest firearm homicide rates in the country — far outpacing Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, cities frequently cast (inaccurately) as the most dangerous in the country.
The improvement in New Orleans is more than just a two-week reprieve. So far this year, homicides there have fallen some 24 percent compared to this time last year, a decline that’s nearly twice the average among 150 cities. Among those cities, homicides have declined 12 percent on average so far this year, according to preliminary data gathered by crime data analyst Jeff Asher.
And in the last three months, the numbers look even better: Between July and September, the city recorded 36 percent fewer homicides than the same period last year, and the fewest it has seen any summer since 2019.
“It’s real. It’s not random,” Asher, who is based in New Orleans, told me. “It’s a real reduction in violence to levels that we haven’t seen since before COVID.”
While there’s no question that New Orleans has been safer this summer, it’s not exactly clear why. It’s not because of an increase in the police force, for example: The NOPD has lost more than 250 officers since 2019. Earlier this year, the department resorted to hiring civilians to help ease the shortage.
“I’m skeptical that the city’s done anything,” Asher said. “This is happening everywhere, which suggests to me that the factors are not local government-driven.”
The declines in gun violence in New Orleans mirror national trends in more ways than one: No one is exactly sure exactly why violent crime appears to be falling this year in the U.S., though there are many theories, including COVID-19 and its accompanying effects on the social fabric of American life shifting into the background. There have been massive investments in community violence intervention efforts across the country, but not in every city where violence has fallen. Meanwhile, police departments in cities large and small are also facing issues with retention and hiring, despite increases in funding.
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Back in New Orleans, the city’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention — created in 2021 and touted by the mayor as a comprehensive public health effort to prevent violence — laid off all of its employees and halted nearly all of its operations, including a Cure Violence program, at the end of last year.
The city did, however, expand its Summer Work Program this year, employing 1,000 young people, a significant increase from the usual 200. Dr. Jennifer Avegno, New Orleans’ health director and an emergency room physician, believes this program may have played at least some part in reducing violence during the summer, a season when it traditionally spikes.
“I like to think that it’s a confluence of factors, but I’ll tell you, I don’t have any hard evidence of anything,” Avegno told me.
While the elusive decline in violence is a positive development, community leaders and public health officials in New Orleans aren’t using it as a reason to sit back and relax — instead, they’re upping their game. The New Orleans Department of Health and its community partners are on a mission to revive and expand the public health and community-driven approaches to violence reduction axed earlier this year, all in an effort to get the numbers down further.
“We’ve been very comfortable giving lots of money to law enforcement, and I’m not going to sit here and say we should take it from them. But we need to be prepared to start adding orders of magnitude to the amount that we’re investing in preventative programs,” Avegno said.
In the last few months, they’ve already started, picking up where the largely shuttered Office of Gun Violence Prevention left off. In June, the Health Department launched a 911-based 24/7 mobile crisis unit. Teams made up of a mental health professional paired with a trained peer are responding to an average of eight emergency calls a day, amounting to 30 percent of all calls screened as mental health-related. In the coming months, the department is planning to scale up the program and potentially expand its scope.
“That provides a more appropriate response to nonviolent mental health calls of all stripes, which could potentially have some impact on violence, and it frees up police to do the things that they need to be doing,” like investigating shootings and responding to more violence calls, Avegno told me.
The department is also re-investing in a hospital-based violence prevention program that had been dormant for the past year. The program is up and running at the University Medical Center, the only Level I trauma center in New Orleans, as part of a new partnership between the hospital and the city. Previously, the hospital-based program operated within the Cure Violence program; now, it exists under the hospital’s Trauma Recovery Center.
“In the old days, we had a small team of interrupters. And they were expected to be in the hospital and on the street,” Avegno said. “And that’s just grueling, and it’s not sustainable. We knew that we could not just rely on one team to do it all. We started with the hospital team because it was the easiest to restructure and set back up.”
That leaves one aspect of the Health Department’s initial plan still in the works: Last month, the department awarded a grant to Ubuntu Village, a New Orleans nonprofit and community organization working to reduce incarceration. With the grant, funded by American Rescue Plan Act dollars, Ubuntu Village will launch a new street-based violence interruption program to replace what was lost when Cure Violence shuttered. It’ll start in a few neighborhoods early next year.
Though there’s more planning work to be done, Ernest Johnson, the director of Ubuntu Village, hopes the nascent violence interruption program will help reduce violence further, particularly in Black communities in New Orleans that have long experienced elevated rates of violence, even when citywide crime trends downward. “It’s about quality of life,” he said. “It’s about us as human beings being able to live our lives.”
To do that, the new prevention efforts will have to be sustainable, last longer, and receive more support than those the city has tried previously, Johnson said. He’d like to see the city invest more in alternative approaches to violence instead of just law enforcement. “I would look for equal investment,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we want to invest in this community if it’s going to make all of us safer?”
Johnson is also unsure why violence dropped in New Orleans this summer. For him, the decline is a promising sign, but it doesn’t change his objective: “One life is too many,” he said. “The focus is us reducing it to its lowest point.”
“This is all great, and I hope we keep decreasing 25 percent, and another 25 percent,” Avegno told me. “But if it’s not sustained — if 10 years from now we’re talking about how we’ve gone back up again — then we really haven’t done anything. To sustain it, we have to transform a lot of systems, and we have to put significant amounts of resources into prevention in a manner that New Orleans and most cities have not done before.”