It’s a favorite talking point of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, says the New Orleans Times-Picayune: Their city is the nation’s murder capital, but other than that, it’s a reasonably safe place. It’s significantly less dangerous, they say, than Orlando, perhaps the most popular family destination, which had a violent crime rate 35 percent higher than New Orleans in 2011. New Haven, Ct., Little Rock, Ar.; Springfield, Il.; Amarillo, Tx.; St. Petersburg, Fl.; Boston; Chattanooga, Tn.; and hundreds of other cities are all more dangerous than New Orleans.
More than semantics are at stake. Countless tourism dollars and economic development chances ride on the city’s reputation as a safe place to live and do business. Crime stats are held out as an objective indicator of how safe visitors and residents should feel. The city’s crime numbers are so counterintuitive that many criminologists find them hard, if not impossible, to swallow. They regard murder as the most reliable category because killings are almost always reported and are thus hard to manipulate. A high murder rate typically signals high levels of other crimes, especially violent ones. Several criminologists say crime data for New Orleans dating back many years suggest that either the city is fudging the numbers, or that New Orleans residents are less apt to report serious non-fatal assaults than residents of other murder hotbeds. Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at University of Missouri-St. Louis, finds it “hard to believe New Orleans would be so out of sync with so many other comparable cities – my city of St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, other impoverished cities.”