Assessing the state of crime in New Orleans near the end of 2015 is a complicated affair. The question is often raised: “Is New Orleans safer?” The analysis shows that the answer depends on one’s perspective and timeframe. Historically speaking, all crime in New Orleans is substantially lower than it was during the latter half of the 1980s and 1990s. New Orleans is undoubtedly safer than it was 20 to 30 years ago.
But zooming in on more recent history shows that violent crime as a whole is close to returning to 2004 (pre-Katrina) levels, while property crime remains about 20 percent lower than it was just before Katrina. Zooming in even further shows an increase in property crime and an even sharper increase in violent crime — with a corresponding decrease in murders over the last six years.
The FBI provides a Uniform Crime Report data tool that allows one to download basic crime statistics dating back to 1985. Doing so for New Orleans shows a fairly clear decline in crime since the 1980s. I estimated the city’s 2015 population at 399,351 using a logarithmic trendline formula in Excel. 2015 crime numbers were extrapolated from the pace of UCR crimes through September as provided by the city.
Property crimes (above) have fallen sharply since peaking in 1990. Violent crimes (below) peaked between 1990 and 1996 before falling until Katrina. The crime numbers around 2005 and 2006 are fairly unreliable and can be largely ignored.
Murder has undoubtedly fallen, both in raw numbers and terms of the rate per 100,000 people, since its mid-1990s peak. The rate of murders fell sharply after that, bottoming out in 1999 before rising just prior to Katrina. The murder rate has fallen about 20 percent since 2012, a change that I have argued is largely attributed to the city’s anti-gang efforts under NOLA for Life.
Relative to 2004
Violent crime in New Orleans is on pace to be only 2 percent lower in 2015 than it was in 2004. We know that we are on pace for about 159 murders in 2015, and robberies have picked up substantially over the last few months, so I have estimated those final numbers accordingly in the chart below. The chart below estimates there will be 159 murders and 1,550 robberies (a 5 percent increase from 2014) in 2015.
Violent crimes per 100,000 residents are nearly even with 2004 totals here in 2015 after finishing 2014 about 2 percent above 2004’s total. Conversely, property crimes are down substantially from where they were just before Katrina, a very good sign.
A more troubling picture of New Orleans crime trends is painted by comparing 2015’s estimated crime totals to where we have been since 2009. The below chart compares violent and property crime per 100,000 residents from 2010 to present to 2009 violent and property crime levels. This chart shows that violent crime in 2015 has risen 20 percent relative to 2009 totals after an even sharper increase in 2014.
A portion of this rise is explained by a 266 percent increase in rape over that timeframe, which may be a sign of increased reporting rather than increased crimes. Mostly, though, the rise in violent crime reflects a two-thirds increase in robberies per 100,000 and a one-third increase in assaults per 100,000 relative to 2009.
Property crimes were up roughly 10 percent in 2014 relative to 2009 totals and are on pace to fall slightly in 2015. On the surface that is a good thing, but 2015’s property crime numbers are severely clouded by the response time crisis which caused an estimated 6 percent deflation in reported crime.
We may never fully know how many property crimes were committed in 2015, but if we adjust the property crime number up we can assess that it was probably 3 or 4 percent higher in 2015 than in 2009.
There is a similar level of uncertainty with violent crimes as well. For example, nearly 44 percent of aggravated assaults and battery incidents were marked unfounded through the first nine months of 2015, compared to 37 percent in 2014. Assaults would likely be on pace to rise, rather than fall, if not for an increase in the number of these crimes being deemed unfounded between January and the end of October.
Ultimately, these issues make it impossible to say whether there has been less crime in New Orleans in 2015 relative to 2014. Comparing to 2009, therefore, provides a better barometer showing a relatively sizable rise in non-murder violent crime and a smaller though not insignificant jump in property crime.
Is New Orleans Safer?
New Orleans is undoubtedly safer than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Murder is down, violent crime is down, and property crime is down.
In terms of a more recent perspective, New Orleans has less property crime than it did before Katrina, but that number appears to be on a slight upward trend over the last few years.
Non-murder violent crime is more concerning though. The city has made progress against gun violence in the last three years, but other violent crimes appear to be making a comeback. This trend is being driven by a rise in robberies, highlighted in the chart below. This chart excludes the large fluctuations between 2005 and 2008 to highlight the return of robberies per 100,000 residents to pre-Katrina levels.
Assessing New Orleans crime is a complex task made even more difficult by reporting issues. This analysis shows good progress against some aspects of crime (in particular murder and many property crimes), but a worrisome growth in non-murder violent crimes.
It is essential for the city to address the growing armed robbery and carjacking problem before they become even more endemic and threaten the city’s progress in other areas of the crime spectrum.