Understanding New Orleans' Murder Epidemic

The murder rate in New Orleans has consistently been well above the national average. But Mayor Mitch Landrieu is searching for answers to change that. He speaks with host Michel Martin about his five-step plan to lower the murder rate, his plans to reform the police department, and being mayor of a city in recovery.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, award winning chef Guillermo Pernot is credited for introducing the East Coast to Nuevo Latino cuisine. We'll hear about his transatlantic approach to food in a few minutes. But first, we're stopping in New Orleans. It's a city that's rich with history, culture, music and food, of course, but it has also suffered through more than its fair share of disasters.

There was of course Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP oil spill just a few years later. Today though, we're talking about something that's proven to be a much more intractable problem - its high murder rate. New Orleans ranks eighth in the number of murders in any American city but looking at the city's population, it has the highest murder rate in the nation per capita.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu recently zeroed in on this during his 2012 State of the City address last week. Here's a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE CITY ADDRESS)

MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU: It is a sad, horrifying truth that in 2011 a John McDonogh High School student was more likely to be killed on the streets of America in the city of New Orleans than a soldier fighting for our freedom in Afghanistan. Indeed, last month, we had six murder victims who were baby-face teenagers. Dreams deferred, dreams denied.

MARTIN: Now Mayor Landrieu and his administration are talking up a new strategy to reduce the murder rate in New Orleans. They're calling it NOLA For Life, and Mayor Landrieu joins us now from New Orleans to tell us more about it. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LANDRIEU: Michel, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: What have you honed in on, on the why? I mean, I think, you know better than anybody that there are a lot of cities who have high unemployment, there are a lot of cities with a lot of poverty. But across the country, the murder rate has dropped in recent years, except in a few places and New Orleans is one of those few places.

And I do recognize, as you talked about in your speech, that you have had some improvement year to year since you've taken office, but overall, what have you figured out about the why?

LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, I think the most important thing is, is that some of us, along with Mayor Mike Nutter in Philadelphia and other mayors, want to put a spotlight on the issue of murder. It is generally true that murder has fallen in America over the last couple of years, but it is also true that in certain neighborhoods in America it has always been high.

It's catastrophically high. It's unnatural. And when you really drill down on what's happening, notwithstanding the fact that you could say some cities are getting better per capita, is that if you're a young African-American male between 16 and 25, if you have a truncated educational attainment level, if you've been involved in the criminal justice system before, then you are killing and/or getting killed at an astronomically higher rate than anybody else in America.

And I think we want to call, number one, attention to this issue and also, you know, make a statement that this is unnatural, it's unacceptable, and it in fact can be changed. Now, mayors are very, very careful not to point their fingers at other cities. All of us have responsibility for running our own. And so I chose, and I know Mayor Nutter has done this in Philadelphia, and a couple of other mayors have as well, to really focus in on this issue.

It's a particularly difficult issue to talk about because people really don't want to hear it. They believe it's an isolated incident. In some instances it is, but it doesn't make it any less catastrophic. And one of the things that we are beginning to learn is that we don't understand the why, and we're looking at a bunch of different variables so that we could come up with a strategy to actually - and I'm going to use a word that I've chosen - change the culture of behavior so that people get towards resolving differences in a peaceful way.

That is, not with a gun. And what we find here, unfortunately, in New Orleans, is that young men have learned to resolve their differences, however petty they may be, by walking up to somebody - 78 percent of them know each other, amazingly - and shoot, you know, somebody they know in the head because of disrespect or because someone stepped on their turf.

And this is a learned behavior that has taken root over a very, very long period of time, as far back as we can count, 1979 in New Orleans. We've had over an average of 241 murders every year for the past 33 years. And so, we want to really drill down on it. We want to understand it better and then we want to come up with a targeted response to stop it from happening.

MARTIN: And when you say it's hard to talk about, with whom is it hard to talk about? Or about whom is it hard to talk about?

LANDRIEU: Well, I think...

MARTIN: Is it hard to talk because you feel that a lot of the - you're worried about the tourist population, scaring them off? Or is it because you're worried that people will think you're pointing a finger, sound like a racist? What's the...

LANDRIEU: First of all, I don't have a hard time talking about it. I've been talking about it every day since I've been in office. But what we find is that people have a very difficult time articulating what it is that they think about a subject like this. Members of the African-American community have a hard time talking about it because their initial reaction is, oh, that sounds like you're blaming somebody.

Members of the white community have a hard time talking about it because they may think that they sound insensitive. Other criminologists have a hard time talking about it because they'll have to admit that they don't know what the answer to the problem is. And so we don't talk about it, and it goes on and on and on and we become numb to it.

But you can't - the reason why I point the numbers out, and I'm not trying to be dramatic, I'm not trying to overemphasize, but when you have 13,000 people being killed on the streets of America and a very large portion of them are young African-American men who are killing young African-American men and there's a gun involved and 78 percent of them know each other and in 73 neighborhoods around America - pick any city that you want - has a, you know, 50 to 75 to 100 times murder rate higher than the national per capita, you have an epidemic on your hands.

And I think people just kind of skate through this in America as though it's natural, that it's always been this way and that it can't ever be changed. I'm telling you that it's not natural.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. We're talking about his plans to try to reduce the longstanding high murder rate in his city. You know, you used the word epidemic. It sounds like you're talking about this as a health problem. Are there things that you're looking at that help you kind of frame this as a health issue?

LANDRIEU: Well, there's no question about it if you think about it, not just in the terms of crime and punishment but in terms of public health and what are the general conditions that actually create the situation, then you would look at it like it's a public health problem. It's also a criminal justice problem. It's a personal responsibility problem.

One of the other reasons why it's difficult to talk about it - and you know, the nation's been grappling with this issue - everybody knows who Trayvon Martin is. But does anybody know the 60 people that were killed in New Orleans in the last 90 to 120 days? Or you could ask the same question about the individuals whose lives were taken in New York or Chicago or, you know, pick whatever city it was.

And I guess the question ought to be why do we get outraged at one thing and not outraged at another? What is it that we get outraged about? What causes us to stand up? Is it the loss of life or is it the injustice? Or is it a combination of the two? These issues, in my opinion, have to be explored on a national basis because it's not OK for these young men's lives to be taken nor is it OK for them to be taking other people's lives at the rate that they are.

So from a public health perspective we ask the questions that public health professionals would ask. What environment were they born into? What are the circumstances under which they were allowed to engage in these kinds of behaviors? What kind of modifications are there? What kind of consequences were there, or not? What do our institutions look like? What's the family look like? What is the church doing? What is everybody doing?

But at the end of the day, sometimes the most important thing is the simplest thing, saying this is unacceptable. We're recognizing this is happening. We're now declaring that it's unacceptable and we vow to take whatever actions are necessary to learn what's wrong, to figure out why it's happening and then to find an answer to the problem.

If you don't come to those things first then you really can't find an answer to whatever it is.

MARTIN: I understand that you are sort of seeking guidance and recommendations from people who've thought about this problem, studied this problem. You're getting some help from some outside consultants. Have they come up with anything that's intriguing to you that you hadn't thought of?

LANDRIEU: Well, actually, and again I don't want to confuse simple with difficult to do. The first issue is to stop the shooting. Find a way to focus on this small percentage of young men who are killing and be killed. The second is to understand that once you do that you can't arrest your way out of the problem. You have to stop it from happening to be begin with. So you have to invest in prevention. The third is you've got to give them a way out. So you've got to promote jobs and opportunity. You can't make that happen if the fourth thing, the neighborhood and the community, is not involved. And finally, your law enforcement has to be such that it's designed to protect and to serve.

Those are the five pillars that have seemed to have worked in Boston and New York and Chicago. So, again, we're not trying to recreate the wheel down here. There have been some examples of some great successes. Having said that though, we still have too many young people killed and being killed, and they're resolving their differences through violent means and we've got to find a way to fix that.

So we're asking people for help. If anybody has a great idea about what to work - we'll try whatever. We have a detailed plan of the things we're going to try to work through, but I don't think anybody in America has the answer. I think a lot of people can boast about them reducing murder, but none of them can actually boast that we'll even come close to solving this problem, and, of course, it's true all over the country.

We should stop looking at it as cities to city and we ought to start looking at it about neighborhood to neighborhood. And we shouldn't make excuses about it. We ought to find an answer to it and then put the federal, state and local resources together with the community assets to focus on the fact that the American streets ought to at least be as safe as Iraq and Afghanistan, which is where we've spent a tremendous amount of time rebuilding police departments to help those nations, you know, secure their freedom. We ought to use some of that peace dividend that's now being realized because those wars are winding down and bring that money full circle to the streets of America to make this a reality.

MARTIN: Is there any city that's tried something that is a model for what you'd like to try now? I think a lot of people will remember that Boston achieved, I think, a couple of years without any juvenile homicides. I think there was, like, a two year stretch...

LANDRIEU: Yeah. There are a couple of them.

MARTIN: ...that they were very proud of. That has ended, but is there something that they tried? Can you just be a little bit more specific?

LANDRIEU: Yes. No. Absolutely. You know, one of the things that I hope that smart people do is try to find other smart folks that have done it before and not try to recreate the wheel. So we've looked across, you know, the landscape of America. Boston has done some great work. You've seen CeaseFire operating in Chicago, which is great. Milwaukee has done something called the Milwaukee Homicide Review model. All of those are different models that have been used, applied different strategies to different levels of this problem. And we're taking each one of those. We're making sure that we can turn it into an organizational structure that's sustainable, that actually fits with the New Orleans culture and we're beginning to institute each one of those that have met with some success.

There's no one city that has one answer. There are a bunch of them that have tried. Some things that have worked - and we're going to take those, import them and then we're going to do the work that we should do on our own.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break and, in a moment, we'll continue our conversation with the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. When we come back, we'll talk more about how the city hopes to balance public safety with safeguarding the rights of citizens. That's something that other cities have struggled with.

Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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