Lara Nicholson et al., Daily Advertiser, January 2, 2022
Chlanda Gibson was in her bed last April when she heard loud pops outside her window.
She had fallen asleep while waiting for her son, 17-year-old Roddrick Cook, to come home after going out with friends. When she went to check on the noise, his friends knocked on the backdoor for help — one with a gunshot wound in his leg.
Cook was nowhere to be found, and as police investigated, Gibson sat in the back of a police cruiser, where she spent five dark hours wondering what had happened to him. Then she was given the devastating news: Her son, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound high school football player who dreamed of going to the NFL, had been killed that night.
Gibson’s son still sits on the long list of Baton Rouge murders that remain unsolved. That list includes more than half of the city’s 121 homicides in 2021 as murder rates continue to soar nationwide.
The national surge in homicide rates stems from a variety of political and socioeconomic factors, trends to which Louisiana has proven far from immune. The Baton Rouge area, Shreveport, Alexandria and Lafayette all had record numbers of homicides in 2021, and it looks like New Orleans passed a post-Katrina high of 208 murders that dated back to 2007.
As the killings stack up, clearance rates — the percentage of cases closed — has shriveled in some cities, and even cities that are solving most of their murders are struggling through staffing shortages to keep up.
The number of murders increased by 30% nationally in 2020, and the national average for homicide clearance rates dropped nearly 10 percentage points, to 51.3%. The Murder Accountability Project, which analyzes FBI homicide data collected from local agencies nationwide, said that was the worst single-year drop and the lowest murder clearance rate on record.
In Louisiana, the average clearance rate saw a drop of 9.7 percentage points in 2020, to 50.6%, according to data compiled by the accountability project, and some police departments experienced lower numbers.
The New Orleans and Alexandria departments solved fewer than one-third of their homicide cases in 2020, the project’s website indicates, while Lafayette’s department solved about 35%.
Some of these clearance rates bounced back in 2021, with Lafayette solving 24 of its record 25 murders and Alexandria 29 of its 34. But other departments still struggle.
The Baton Rouge Police Department achieved a clearance rate of 62% in 2020 but solved only about 46% of cases in 2021 as East Baton Rouge Parish broke its homicide record for the second consecutive year. The New Orleans Police Department’s homicide-clearance rate was recently running at about 50% of cases.
Shreveport had 90 homicides in 2021, though a few might prove to be justified, said Sgt. Angie Willhite, a police spokeswoman. She estimated that about 60% of the cases had been closed. She said her department would not have a final tally until the FBI approves its year-end report.
‘We’ve got all of the problems’
New Orleans crime analyst Jeff Asher said there is no clear cause for the homicide rate skyrocketing, though the COVID-19 pandemic, attitudes toward police in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and increased firearm usage are all contributing factors.
Louisiana has long had one of the highest homicide rates in the country, Asher said, thanks to poverty, low education, violent tendencies from mass incarceration and widespread gun accessibility.
Shooting deaths in particular — which are prevalent in Louisiana, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — tend to be the hardest type to solve, Asher noted. There are typically fewer witnesses, more premeditation and less evidence since the assailant is further away.
And these obstacles have been further exacerbated at police departments by low funding, an embattled public image and staffing shortages nationwide due to COVID-19.
NOPD has had more than 130 officers leave the department in 2021 through resignations, retirements, terminations and deaths, Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said at a City Council meeting last month.
One factor consistently stunting homicide investigations in other cities is a lack of witness participation, according to law enforcement officials. For instance, in poor communities with outsized concentrations of killings, people are often reluctant to speak to police out of fear of retaliation from perpetrators or gangs operating in the area.