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How Rising Response Times Are Obfuscating New Orleans Crime Stats
When A Crime Decline Isn't As Simple As It Looks
Reported crime is mostly falling in New Orleans so far early in 2023 including a sizable drop in reported violent crime, but digging deeper into the issue shows that the decline may not be so clear cut. The city’s crime counts are being obscured by rising response times and a deeper dive into the issue may hold valuable insights for cities struggling with this problem across the country.
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Let’s start with the YTD data (below) which shows a lot of green in terms of falling reported crime. Auto theft is up a humongous amount, but we know what is driving that and it’s largely out of the police department’s hands. Murder is down slightly, but shootings (fatal and non-fatal combined) are up slightly from last year’s post-Katrina high showing gun violence to be a persistent problem. Most everything else is down including sizable drops in robbery, vehicle burglary, and aggravated assaults.
Of course year-to-date measurements are problematic this early in the year, but a graph of violent crime incidents rolling over 365 days from the City Council’s crime dashboard shows the same downward trend.
And the graph of carjacking incidents rolling over 365 days is even more encouraging with a sharp decline for the first time since 2020.
The problem, however, is that response times are up and that is skewing crime counts to a bit. The longer it takes for police officers to arrive the more likely an incident will be marked “Gone on Arrival” or “Unfounded” (referred to as GOA from here on out).
Response times in New Orleans have been rising steadily for most of the last 3 years as NOPD has lost officers. The average response time so far in 2023 is 160 minutes, up from 147 minutes in 2022. Response times averaged 161 minutes in January, 155 minutes in February, and 165 minutes in March 2023, up considerably from 139, 133, and 156 minutes on average for the first three months of 2022.
Violent crimes are also receiving longer response times. The average response time to a violent crime incident in January, February, and March 2023 was 79, 67, and 106 minutes, up from 57, 56, and 84 minutes on average in those three months in 2022.
The share of violent crime incidents with a GOA as a result has risen from 26 percent in the first 90 days of 2022 to 32 percent so far in 2023. Interestingly, the share of property crime incidents that were GOA is falling in 2023 despite longer response times which likely reflects a higher share of incidents being auto thefts which requires victims to wait around as long as it takes to make an insurance claim on their car.
Back to violent crimes, rising response times means more incidents are marked GOA. The result is the below graph which shows the number of violent crime incidents by disposition rolling over 365 days.
When we talk about crime stats we are largely discussing the below line which is falling, but the red line shows a growing share of incidents that are not being properly recorded because officers took longer to arrive. Combining the two suggests violent crime is more or less holding steady rather than falling.
Carjacking incidents tend to get faster response times and have been less susceptible to the increasing share of GOA trend. So the decline in carjackings is a real trend as is plainly seen in the below graph of both GOA and Report To Follow (RTF — meaning the officers on the scene believed an incident occurred and needed to write a report) carjacking incidents rolling over 365 days. (As an aside, I’m curious the degree to which auto thefts being very easy to carry out these days has helped drive a decrease in carjackings, but that is for another post).
The same cannot be said of simple robberies — robberies without a weapon — though which are down considerably in the YTD data but much of that decline is due to nearly half of all incidents being GOA so far in 2023 compared to about a third through March 2022. So the data shows a decline in such crimes, digging deeper suggests it is largely a function of longer response times.
Rising response times is not just a New Orleans thing and what is happening here potentially has implications everywhere. Crime underreporting is a substantial issue every year, and if your police department is seeing declining staffing and rising response times then this issue is likely impacting you as well.
Auto theft was the only crime type in 2021’s National Crime Victimization Survey with greater than 75 percent of incidents reported to police. Murders usually have a dead body so nearly all are successfully reported to the police, and the vast majority of shooting victims have to go to the hospital which leads to few such incidents not being reported1.
But reporting rates can vary wildly with other other incident types. For example, only 31 percent of property crimes and 21 percent of rapes/sexual assaults were reported to the police in 2021 according to NCVS. Some incidents are vastly underreported even in the best of times, but longer response times can make a huge difference in this problem getting even worse.
Crime going down seems like a good news story all around, but changes in reporting rates should always be considered in this time of rising response times and falling big city police staffing.
This originally said “few such incidents being reported".” It has been corrected to reflect most shootings being reported.