Mark Byrnes/CityLab

Three years ago, the violence-stricken city bet big on a data-focused approach funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. When will we know if it's working?

NEW ORLEANS—They found George D. Carter III shot dead in the middle of Piety Street in the Desire neighborhood, just as a fine fall morning dawned.

Only 15 years old, Carter had already made a big impression in his native city, working since the age of seven with the group Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, where he helped advocate for more meaningful education and healthier food in the city’s school system. He had just started an internship with a legal organization that provides support to prisoners on death row.

Carter’s death, on October 21, attracted more attention than most of this year’s murders in New Orleans because he was such a bright star. Murder, in general, is an old, worn-out story in this city. For nearly 20 years, New Orleans has had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation, often achieving the sad distinction of being number one.

The real tragedy, of course, is not the numbers, but the people behind them—the men, women, and children who have been cut down. Too often, their stories are glossed over or forgotten, but they were all, like young George Carter, human beings with full and complex lives. People like Alfred Johnson, 26, who was targeted on the street in Central City, or 11-year-old Arabian Gayles, who was killed while sleeping in her bed when bullets came through the wall, or the unidentified woman whose body was found in a vacant lot in Treme just a couple of hours after Carter’s.

The numbers may not tell those people’s stories, but data can offer a way of understanding the scale and scope of the problem. And over the past three years, New Orleans has turned its focus to saving as many lives as possible by gathering more numbers, analyzing more data, and then acting on that information from every possible angle. They call the initiative NOLA for Life, and they say it’s working.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who took office in 2010, said from the start that he was going to take on the city’s murder rate as one of his top priorities. Shortly after he began his tenure, he got a chance to put a whole bunch of money where his mouth was. In 2012, New Orleans was named one of five pilot cities to receive a hefty grant—in this case, $4.5 million over the course of three years—from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The cash, as it did in each of the selected cities (the other four were Memphis, Louisville, Chicago, and Atlanta, and a second, larger round of 12 more U.S. cities was announced earlier this month) went toward the creation of an “Innovation Delivery Team,” or “I-Team” for short. Picture it this way: the city government was able to take Bloomberg’s largesse and create, more or less, an entirely new department—made up of eight people, in New Orleans’ case—that’s charged with tackling top mayoral priorities. Each I-Team’s mandate is to do that via data-driven approaches designed to shake up the conventional ways government gets things done.

“Innovation delivery” is a quintessentially Bloombergian model, focused on data and metrics to spur the creation of new answers to old problems, without regard to ideology or party. The approach, co-developed by the foundation and Nesta, an innovation-focused charity based in the U.K., focuses on building partnerships between the public and private sectors and on bringing best practices from one city to another. It’s Mike Bloomberg’s technocratic baby all over, a manifestation of the ethos that there is nothing that can’t be fixed with enough information, money, and smarts.

So while the grant, one-third of which was matched by the city of New Orleans, couldn’t be used for “direct implementation of programmatic initiatives,” according to a city spokesperson, it paid the salaries of the I-Team’s staff as well as their operational expenses, including technical assistance, software, graphic design and printing, independent evaluation, training and travel. This was a serious amount of money precisely aimed at helping to create a paradigm shift, as opposed to throwing cash at existing, ineffective solutions.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu greets residents before a May 16, 2013 news conference at North Villere and Frenchman Streets, where 20 people were shot in a parade on Mother's Day 2013 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton, file)

Landrieu wanted his I-Team to tackle two major jobs: The first was to improve the city’s customer service to its citizens, in large part through streamlining permitting processes across departments. The second—and the one that‘s gotten the most attention—was murder reduction.

*****

In a city like New Orleans, where years of scandal, corruption, population loss, chronic violence, racial division, and stubbornly high crime rates have made some of the city’s toughest problems seem intractable, the Innovation Team offers a different kind of vision. It’s one in which efficiency, transparency, and performance metrics are valued. It’s clean and modern and promises tangible results.

Charles West, a New Orleans native with a background in consulting, was hired to head up the innovation delivery effort. He says the I-Team’s role is to catalyze and coordinate meaningful new programs with a singular focus on the mayor’s priority of murder reduction.

“Our role is to be the extra capacity for the data analysis, the research, the strategy development—and ongoing, the performance management and project management support,” says West, a man whose quiet intensity makes him seem bigger than he is. “But it’s people in the departments and across the city, [as well as] outside of city government, who have to implement the work.”

A woman who only identified herself as a sister of one person who was killed, right, grieves with another woman among a crowd of onlookers at a shooting scene in New Orleans, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The choice to focus first on murder makes the stakes exceptionally high. The city has been waking up to headlines shouting out violent deaths in vacant lots and playgrounds and homes on a regular basis for way too long. Louisiana already has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and therefore the world, so simply putting people in jail clearly hasn’t made the crucial difference in bringing down murder rates. And the issue has long been dealt with piecemeal or even ignored by the city’s elite, in part because it disproportionately affects the less well-to-do African American residents of New Orleans.

“Mitch Landrieu is a white mayor,” says Jason Williams, an at-large city council member. “That sends a different message to the affluent community that typically doesn’t see this as their problem.”

NOLA for Life aims to bring down the number of people killed in New Orleans through a multipronged effort that includes intensive data analysis by law enforcement; implementation of the CeaseFire program first used in Chicago, which works to stop violence before it starts by engaging gang members with law enforcement and community members; job training and mentorships; and recreational programs, such as a midnight basketball league.

The people in city hall say the numbers show measurable progress. NOLA for Life launched in May 2012, a year when 193 people were murdered in New Orleans. In 2013, the number of homicides went down to 156—a 19 percent reduction over the previous year, representing the lowest rate since 1999. This year, as of December 17, the city was at 144 and counting, down 5.9 percent from the same time in 2013.

The stat meeting is at the core of the I-Team approach. Every month, a group of people responsible for different aspects of the plan’s implementation gathers to look at the latest data. Members of the police department, the mayor’s office, and the health department are among those who participate as “owners” of different parts of the initiative. They come together around a table in a gloomy room inside New Orleans’ city hall, which has a modernist grandeur that is somewhat the worse for wear. The paint on the walls is scuffed and the carpets are faded and bubbled up in places, so that you need to watch your step.

West is at the head of the table, and he goes around asking his staff to report on the latest numbers. They look over a series of charts and graphs comparing 2014’s numbers to 2013’s, and to the average from 2010 to 2013. As of September 30, the citywide count was running just about even with the previous year’s—113 lives lost to homicide. Murders in “hot spots” that are receiving special attention under the NOLA for Life program were at 41, also about the same as 2013.

One page breaks down shooting trends. Shooting victims so far this year? 405. Shooting victims in hot spots? 154. There’s a note at the bottom of the page: “The number of shootings presented in these graphs are those that are known to NOPD. Shootings that did not strike an individual are not included.”

When, shortly before this meeting, I ask Charles West about the role that Louisiana’s lax gun laws might play in the murder rate, he looks at me, then at the press officer who is showing me around. There’s a brief, awkward silence, and then the press officer explains: “We don’t really speak to gun laws when we talk about NOLA for Life.”

I am only present for the first few minutes of the stat meeting. At one point, a couple of people quietly mention that no shootings were reported over the previous weekend, a noteworthy occurrence.

The new approach has given longtime observers of the issue reason for cautious hope. “Is it working? I don’t know that you can address that, because it’s still in an infancy stage,” says Williams. “I can confidently say that as a council member and a resident of New Orleans and the father of a young black man and woman, I am ecstatic that the mayor is taking on this issue. It’s a major cultural shift in our community.”

About 19 hours after the stat meeting I attended, George Carter’s body would be found on Piety Street. A few weeks later, a convenience store clerk would tell police that a person he identified as Carter had been in the store during an armed robbery the night before he died. As of press time, the investigation was ongoing and there had been no arrests in the case.

*****

One of the centerpieces of NOLA for Life’s strategy is the Multi-Agency Gang Unit. Before NOLA for Life, West explains, the role of gangs in New Orleans was poorly understood. One of the first steps in the I-Team’s process was a gang audit, and it revealed the extent of gang presence in the city’s neighborhoods, where they are heavily involved in the drug trade, and heavily armed. The MAG Unit uses sophisticated data analysis as one of the tools to break up those gangs.

Jeff Asher is a crime analyst brought on by the department to help translate the gang data into arrests. He explains what he does with a fresh-faced enthusiasm, often describing his work as “neat” or “cool.” He is especially eager to describe what he is able to do with a high-powered software program used by the police departments of New York City and Los Angeles, as well as the CIA, FBI, and Department of Defense.

“Essentially, you take the program and you hook up the fire hose that is your data stream, and you connect the two,” he says. “It enables you to, in one place, look at a large majority of the data that the city is collecting.”

That includes arrest records, traffic stops, jailhouse phone calls, and myriad other data points from local, state, and federal databases. Asher uses all of this information to create complex maps of possible associations every time someone is killed. He starts with the victim and branches out from there, looking in particular for any gang affiliations.

These are small-time local groups, not the national or international gangs that plague some other cities, but the MAG Unit has been able to leverage these affiliations against accused criminals in court, says Asher.

“The chief weapon that we’ve used is these racketeering indictments,” he says. “The goal is to take large swaths of gangs, tie them together through these really intense, very lengthy, detail-oriented investigations, indict them—and use the strategy to break the gangs.”

According to Asher’s numbers, gang-related homicides dropped from 25 percent of the city’s total to 5 percent between 2012 and 2013, although they have since edged back up to about 8 percent.

This sort of data-driven approach has been a major culture shift for the NOPD, which has suffered from chronic understaffing, and whose pervasive corruption earned it a consent decree mandating reform from the U.S. Justice Department in 2012.

“The first challenge was that there wasn’t another analyst trying to do what I was trying to do in the NOPD,” says Asher, who came to the force after working in Washington, D.C., for the federal government. “I had to introduce this type of work to the whole department, from leadership to officers on the streets. It’s a different language. You look at the language over and over again, and eventually they learn it and are able to speak it.”

The extent to which that has happened, says Charles West, is an indication of how deeply the I-Team ethos has penetrated the culture of governmental institutions in New Orleans that have been exposed to it. “Jeff himself is a good example of how the more statistically rigorous approach to the work has been fully adopted,” says West. “There is now a new ongoing level of sophistication of analysis that he provides.”

With the Louisiana Superdome in the background construction workers work on a street project in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

The innovation-team model has been enough of a success in New Orleans that the city is now allocating funds to bring it to bear on other challenges facing the city. Working with the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the government is also raising funds dedicated to continuing NOLA for Life.

Still, there are those who remain skeptical about whether NOLA for Life has really been responsible for a dramatic downturn in New Orleans murders. Peter Scharf, a criminologist with the Institute for Public Health and Justice at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center, has been studying violent crime and recidivism in New Orleans for decades. And he advocates for exactly the kind of multifaceted approach that NOLA for Life represents. But he warns against oversimplifying when it comes to interpreting the data, pointing out that it is notoriously difficult to tease out the root causes of murder reductions.

“I’m a fan of NOLA for Life,” says Scharf, speaking in late October. “But whether or not the murder rate is down is a question. We’re now at 131, last year ended at 156. We only need 25 more to exceed that.”

There are of course a variety of potential explanations for why the numbers in any given year may dip, including economic factors. And for the people in New Orleans who are most at risk to be victims or perpetrators of homicide—young African American men with few prospects for gainful employment—the temptations of street life can be overwhelming.

“In the absence of a knowledge economy or one that feeds on a knowledge economy, the disincentives to dope-dealing are not great,” Scharf says. “You get out of prison, there’s an opportunity with gun and dope lords. There’s a context of violence and robbery.”

While Scharf praises many aspects of NOLA for Life, he’s reserving judgment on its efficacy for now. “How do you look at the legacy of NOLA for Life?” he asks. “The jury’s out.”

*****

Now fully incorporated into the structure of city hall and funded by a combination of city, private, and foundation dollars, the next step for the Innovation Delivery Team will be turning its focus to lowering the shockingly high unemployment rate in New Orleans among African American men.

That project will be steered by Ashleigh Gardere, a native New Orleanian with a deep background in coordinating philanthropic economic development initiatives. Gardere‘s program was inspired by data, just like the murder reduction initiative that piloted the innovation-team model for the city. One figure in particular got this latest ball rolling: 52 percent. That’s how many black men living in New Orleans are unemployed.

That 52 percent figure comes from the research of Petrice Sams-Abiodun, executive director of the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola University. It was publicly revealed at a meeting of New Orleans top business leaders in 2013, and it galvanized the mayor’s office into action.

Now Gardere is charged with pulling together a full-scale set of programs to put a real dent in the 52 percent, by working with big employers such as the Louis Armstrong International Airport, Tulane University, and the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, as well as social service providers and local nonprofits.

“This work relies on anchor institutions, major employers who are willing to say, I want to commit positions, I want to expand economic opportunity for folks in New Orleans,” Gardere says. “Getting to that yes was huge.”

Gardere says part of her office’s task is also to move forward from the negative connotations of 52 percent. “I actually think it’s dangerous for us to stay in that frame of the conversation,” she says. “The 52 percent needed to be compelling enough to call us to purpose. But now that we are trying to make the connections, it’s important that people get back to that asset and economic potential conversation. Because we’re actually asking people to own responsibility for some of this.”

At its core, the economic opportunity initiative is asking something radical: for mainstream business leaders in New Orleans to start looking at the 35,000 or so unemployed black men in the community not as a liability or a threat, but instead as an untapped economic asset. A lot of these men, the team’s research has determined, are people who have been through the criminal justice system. They may have low levels of literacy. They may have been unemployed for a very long time. How to deliver the message that their lives matter to the city at large?

“Now I’m speaking as a black woman, so certainly they matter to me,” says Gardere. “But part of the conversation our mayor has been having with our business leaders is that they matter to you. Not just around safety. But your own industry’s growth potential is limited as long as you have 35,000 available workers who you don’t have access to.”

For Sams-Abiodun, seeing her research being incorporated into a comprehensive policy initiative is enormously gratifying. “I’m a native New Orleanian,” she says. “And I understand how research and data is used to define people and sometimes not in a way that is positive. What’s exciting from a data perspective is that the data has a life of its own now. That’s when you know the democracy of data is really happening, when so many stakeholders own it. I think the 52 percent is an example of something that has done that at so many levels. Not only are business leaders and government talking about it, even community-based neighborhood people are talking about the 52 percent. So as a city, we all own it now. And we’re going to get to some really viable solutions that are going to bring about change.”

For George Carter and so many like him, the change comes too late. But there are other George Carters out there, and they still have their whole lives ahead of them. Will their city be able to help them fulfill the promise of those lives?

“Everyone is well-intentioned,” says council member Williams. “The part that remains to be seen, and that we’re all hopeful for, is that those services reach the young men and women who need them.”

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