Though the city experienced a 17 percent drop in the number of violent crimes last year, New Orleans remains the nation's most murderous city by a wide margin, according to the FBI's annual report on national crime released Monday.Violent crime decreased 2.5 percent nationwide in 2008 , the second straight year of decline.
The FBI's analysis also pointed out positive trends in other categories. For example, violent crime was down 4 percent among cities with populations between 250,000 and 499,999. Violent crime in the South was down 2 percent.
The numbers the FBI uses are those reported to it by law enforcement agencies across the country. The agency issues the data alongside midyear city population reports provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the FBI report uses an outdated estimate for New Orleans, one that has been successfully challenged by local officials.
The FBI's report uses a figure of 281,440 for July 1, 2008. But earlier this year, the census bureau, in response to the city's challenge, raised that figure to 311,853.
That's still not enough for some local officials. Police Superintendent Warren Riley has repeatedly said he believes the estimates fail to take into account some new arrivals to New Orleans, among them thousands of undocumented laborers.
The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which helped city officials prepare their census challenge, put the city's population for the first half of 2008 at 324,357.
Regardless of which estimate is used, New Orleans has by far the nation's highest per-capita murder rate.
Using the highest of those population estimates, the city last year recorded 55 murders per 100,000 residents. The number used by the FBI notches that up to 64 murders per 100,000 people.
St. Louis has the nation's second-highest rate, about 47 murders per 100,000 people. Baton Rouge, meanwhile, has the seventh-highest rate, with about 30 murders per 100,000.
The ranking is a sore point for local leaders, who have sought to portray the homicide statistics as an aberration that masks improvements in overall safety. Mayor Ray Nagin recently boasted in his State of the City address, for instance, that violent crime has fallen 75 percent since 1994, the year the city recorded its highest number of murders. However, the city's population decreased by more than a third since that period.
In fact, there have been significant reductions in reported crimes of late, though skeptics note that counting such crimes accurately is trickier than counting murders. Overall, crime in New Orleans in 2008 dropped nearly 7 percent when compared with 2007, according to NOPD figures. Property crime was down 5 percent.
The murder rate this year in New Orleans remains similar to last year's. As of Sunday, 80 murders had been tallied. That's two fewer than for the same period last year, said NOPD Officer Garry Flot.
Riley did not respond Monday to requests for comment.
John Penny, a criminologist at Southern University of New Orleans, said the city has variables that make its crime situation different from those of other cities.
"Since Katrina, many people can't find housing, jobs, employment, and even though the school system has said it has improved, we still have too many people that are uneducated, " he said.
Penny said that though crime across the nation, as well as in New Orleans, is down, violent crime remains high locally.
"Still, any drop in crime is good news to hear, " he said.
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Brendan McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3301.