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How America’s Murder Capital Is Using Innovation Strategy To Reduce Violent Deaths

New Orleans is no longer the top murder city, and that achievement is partly thanks to a deep data dive taken by an innovation team that knew nothing about crime or policing.

How America’s Murder Capital Is Using Innovation Strategy To Reduce Violent Deaths
[Top Photo: Flickr user Infrogmation]

City governments all over the country like to talk about how they’re innovating or how they can better innovate. But many examples of this are relatively low-stakes. Few people will live or die by whether a bureaucracy can process 311 complaints more efficiently.

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Not so in New Orleans, where, over the last three years, an innovation delivery team has helped make important headway on one of the city’s most pressing problems: its notoriously high murder rate.

New Orleans has stood at the top of the national murder charts many times in the last two decades, including every year between 2008 and 2012 for cities larger than 250,000. But by 2013, murders had dropped to 155 people, the lowest numbers seen in New Orleans since 1985, and a 20% drop from the year prior. If the city stays on-track for even fewer murders in 2014, it would be four years in a row that murders have declined.

Flickr user Derek Bridges

New Orleans is still a relatively violent city, but its recent progress in reducing murders can be at least in part attributed to NOLA for Life, the city’s murder reduction strategy launched by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the spring of 2012. And behind the crafting of that strategy was the work of the city’s Innovation Delivery Team, an eight-person group created in 2011 with funding from a $4.2 million grant from the foundation Bloomberg Philanthropies. Finding new ways to tackle violence and murder was one of its two mandates.

The innovation delivery method was developed by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Nesta, the U.K.’s innovation foundation, as one model to increase the ability of mayors to develop bigger ideas that address the major challenges facing many cities today. Modeled on the work of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as well as other cities around the world, it basically involves a team of in-house consultants at a City Hall tasked with analyzing data and bringing in global expertise to brainstorm and implement new approaches to tackling intransigent local problems. In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies funded five cities, including New Orleans, to trial the approach.

In New Orleans, the first thing the team did was collaborate with the police department to look at recent years’ murder data deeply, analyzing the circumstances surrounding each and every murder in a way that no one had before. It turned up unexpected results.

“The biggest thing that went against common belief is that a lot of our violence was related to groups and gangs,” says Charles West, who was appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to lead the New Orleans innovation delivery team. “We were always told that we didn’t have a gang problem. But we had gangs of significant size, and people just weren’t talking about it. More than anything, there wasn’t a specific form of policing strategy for groups and gangs.”

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Next the group turned to experts and outsiders to help further map out the challenge and brainstorm. It studied strategies used in other cities like Memphis, Chicago, and New York. It flew in people like a University of Cincinnati professor who helped the police audit the data and attribute every gang-related murder to a specific group. It held focus groups with young men who were at-risk for violence, asking them what they thought. In the end, the team had a laundry list of 130 different programs and initiative that it could consider, says West.

West says that narrowing down its options meant focusing on the ideas that would have the most direct impact: “If you have someone on the table who is coding, you don’t stand there and talk to them about a healthy diet. You focus on the things that are going to save that person’s life at the moment,” he says.

The NOLA for Life initiative took shape, which importantly included a multi-agency gang unit that stepped up prosecution of crime. West says prior to the unit’s formation, there was one gang indictment in the history of Louisiana. Today, there have been nine. “In a very short period of time, that unit got up and started doing something differently.”

Of course, it’s not revolutionary for a city to form a task force or look at data. West says what was different was the structured approach, the level of coordination across city government and even outside of it, and the mandate of the mayor to know that ideas will be heard and implemented.

Even officials from the Department of Sanitation eventually found that they could play a role in murder reduction (It can train and hire released prisoners to earn commercial driver’s licenses, giving them employment and preventing re-entry into crime). “Everyone has found a place in it … and everyone is accountable,” says West.

Today, with the Bloomberg grant winding down, New Orleans is transitioning to allocating city tax dollars to funding the team’s work, so it can continue to tackle challenges, which includes a new focus on increasing economic opportunities for African American males. And Bloomberg Philanthropies itself just announced the opening of $45 million in funding to expand the approach. It has invited more than 80 U.S. cities to apply for funding ranging from $250,000 to $1 million annually over three years.

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“Mayors are creative and innovative by necessity, because citizens require mayors to act. We can reduce the risk of innovation and we can increase the likelihood that innovation creates bold, measurable results,” says James Anderson, director of government innovation with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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