Criminal Justice

To fight violent crime, New Orleans may need to get the lead out

Could lead contamination lie behind New Orleans' crime wave? (Flickr creative commons)

In one of his many fine recent columns on crime, Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry wrote (my emphases):

[New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal] Serpas and his predecessor have both struggled to explain why things are particularly bad here. [Former Superintendent] Warren Riley wondered if there isn’t something in the water. Serpas hasn’t said anything so bizarre, but he likes to cite a federal report that says our homicides are different, that they are more likely to grow out of arguments between acquaintances than they are in other places.

Here’s two quick thoughts on that passage, which I’ll sketch briefly and then explain at length, in reverse order. By the end we’ll have solved the crime problem.

1) Perhaps Riley’s suggestion that there is “something in the water” wasn’t so bizarre. Let’s take his claim metaphorically,  rather than literally. Maybe he was saying that there are unknown public health factors that contribute to crime here, rather than specific crime-inducing pollutants in our tap water. Perhaps there are pollutants on our windowsills and in our playground soils that are highly associated with crime. And perhaps these pollutants contribute to our “unnaturally” high homicide rate as well as the type of homicides we are more likely to suffer here.

2) Everyone “struggles to explain” why the New Orleans streets are so lethal. But our local “murder mystery” is part of a much larger one. Crime rates have plummeted throughout the nation over the past 20 years, but no one can explain that trend, either. Don’t we have to understand the national movement toward less crime before we can explain why New Orleans isn’t part of it?

We forget that 20 years ago, violent crime was a major national issue. Conservative pundits noted that crime had risen markedly since the late 1960s, about the time American culture went to pot (in their view). The era’s moral relativism had led to more working mothers, undisciplined fathers, latch-key kids, drug-fried brains, welfare dependency and broken cities. Suburban teens tried gateway drugs and listened to nihilistic heavy metal on their Sony Walkmans, while urban males were recruited by crack-dealing gangs who blasted equally nihilistic rap from boom boxes.  Coarsened values (divorce, abortion) plus soft justice (prison furloughs, too little capital punishment) made for a dangerous brew.

Twenty years ago, these cultural worries were buttressed with “alarming” demographic prognostications. Minority neighborhoods had higher crime and higher birth rates. Ergo, much of the country felt it was “doomed” to become bloodier as it became browner. (Though the political-correctness police forbade “honest” discussion of these troublesome trends.) So if you thought crime was bad in 1992 (like most did), the trend lines indicated it would only worsen.

To everyone’s considerable relief, this cranky view of America’s cultural trajectory turned out to be wildly wrong. During the next 20 years, homicide rates in most cities plummeted like a lead brick.

The statistics are mind-blowing. True, homicide rates rose in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s and remained elevated through the early ’90’s. The U.S. homicide rate was identical in 1974, 1981 and 1991– 9.8 per 100,000 U.S. inhabitants — with little variation in-between. But then, in 1994, the national rate began a sustained drop. By 2000, per capita homicides had fallen to their lowest level in 35 years (5.5 per 100,000 people) and remained low through 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, and The Great Recession (2007-2009). Even as unemployment doubled, the rate continued to fall, all the way down to 4.8 homicides per 100,000 in 2010. Preliminary F.B.I. reports suggest that violent crime dropped again in 2011. Today, in many cities, homicides are down to levels not seen since the ”halcyon” 1950’s.

Put another way: there were at least 56 million more people in the U.S. in 2010 than in 1991 (including many millions of illegal immigrants), yet there were 10,000 fewer total homicides (14,748 versus 24,700). That’s amazing.

The dramatic, sustained decrease in crime is one of the most important unsung stories of the past 20 years. Reduced crime has undoubtedly boosted our national economy by hundreds of billions of dollars. And a whole generation has grown up without any sense of “crime wave” hysteria. Candidates for national office hardly even debate the topic anymore.

What a wonderfully safe time to be alive, right?


Unfortunately, New Orleans hasn’t shared in the national good fortune. Our city remains a tragic outlier from the broad trend toward less violent crime. The homicide rate remains very high here, while nearly everywhere else it’s on the wane.

As DeBerry noted in his column, New Orleans did see progress in the 1990’s, when homicide rates were cut in half.  But that drop was from apocalyptic  levels (86 per 100,000 New Orleanians in 1994) down to a merely horrendous rate (still 7.5 times the national average). And even those improvements were fleeting. The slaughter  steadily increased in the years before the Federal Flood in 2005, and then quickly returned to high levels as the city repopulated.  Last year, homicides rose in the Crescent City to 58 per 100,000, while they dropped in most other urban areas– even in cities with much higher unemployment. Killings in New Orleans have spiked even higher in recent months, and everyone is on edge. Even if things “stabilize” around here, this tourist-driven town will still seem increasingly dangerous compared to its ever-safer host country.

Local leaders have pantingly demonstrated their concern, of course. We’ve seen a nauseatingly familiar flurry of activity: legislators have militated for the National Guard to return. City Council members enacted a curfew for teens in the French Quarter. City Hall suggested higher bonds for violent gun offenders. The NOPD is set to try the “Milwaukee model” of crime fighting. Young people have rallied around the #nolalove hashtag to maintain hope. There have been neighborhood meetings, demonstrations, speeches, task forces, summits, outrage, grief, prayer, frustration … Perhaps the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” billboards of the 1990’s will soon be resurrected. One gets the feeling that protests and calls for resignations are not far off.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu claims we need to fight the “culture of death” in the city by attacking the “root cause” of crime. Accordingly, he plans to “fight the crime surge with an emphasis on mental health, education and employment, as well as more patrols and targeting hotspots.” This fits in with Landrieu’s “let’s solve all the problems at once” approach. Still, that’s a lot of long-term “roots” to tackle at once.

And do we truly know what the roots of crime actually are?

We sure act like we do. Everyone has strong opinions about crime reduction in New Orleans. But nobody can tell a persuasive, comprehensive story explaining why homicide rates have plummeted nationally. We don’t really know. Sure, crime fell in Milwaukee, but it also fell in a hundred other cities that used different approaches.

That’s what makes the national trend so interesting. It flouts our old theories about the causes of crime, and it confounds our (caricatured) cultural narratives of the past forty years. Let’s be open to the idea that we know much less than we think we know about the causes of crime, both nationally and here in New Orleans.

In a Wall Street Journal piece titled “Why Crime Keeps Falling,” noted political scientist James Q. Wilson evaluated the main explanations for the national crime drop since the early ’90’s. Does low unemployment explain the crime reduction?  Wilson says no. What about high incarceration rates? No. Better police strategies? Maybe. The large shift in drug use from cocaine to marijuana? Maybe.

Then Wilson refers to a very intriguing “medical explanation” for the reduction in crime, only to give it short shrift and end his peroration by tossing a chunk of read meat to culture warriors  who share his right-wing views:

At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling… because of a big improvement in the culture. The cultural argument may strike some as vague, but writers have relied on it in the past to explain both the Great Depression’s fall in crime and the explosion of crime during the sixties. In the first period, on this view, people took self-control seriously; in the second, self-expression—at society’s cost—became more prevalent. It is a plausible case.

While I understand Wilson’s desire to give a conservative explanation for the national crime mystery, this vague pap about cultural improvement just doesn’t wash. Not even Wilson’s  fellow travelers will buy into the idea that American culture suddenly shifted towards “self-control” during the Clinton years. And if it did, where was this control during the dotcom and housing bubbles, two of the most fevered market manias in recent history?

Tattoos and blogs are ubiquitous, savings rates are low and skivvies-revealing trousers even lower. Yet, after weighing the evidence, Wilson contends our culture has turned away from “expression” and towards responsibility. He says it has shown a “big improvement.” That’s his explanation for the dramatic crime reduction during the years from Kato Kaelin to Snooki. So let’s take another look at thought No. 1 mentioned at the beginning of this post: the “medical” explanation Wilson mentions so glancingly. Here’s what he wrote:

A 2007 study by the economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes contended that the reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the 1990s in the U.S. and might bring about greater declines in the future. Another economist, Rick Nevin, has made the same argument for other nations.

A tantalizing theory that might explain “over half the decline in violent crime” has generated remarkably little ink. A 2007 Washington Post piece was an exception:

The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. It offers a unifying new neurochemical theory for fluctuations in the crime rate, and it is based on studies linking children’s exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives.

What makes Nevin’s work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to 90 percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but the research linking lead to violent crime is deeply intriguing. Perhaps lead poisoning is a major contributor to New Orleans’ stubbornly high homicide rate.

Lead is a neurotoxin that poses serious health risks, especially to children. Lead can permanently impair cognition and damage the nervous system. But lead exposure is also linked to behavior problems, namely impulse control. That seems to be  in line with the federal study which noted that more homicides in New Orleans arise out of “heat of the moment” arguments than in other places. The idea that high lead exposure in childhood reveals itself in reduced impulse control later on has intuitive appeal.

We already know that there are elevated lead levels in New Orleans. According to a 2007 study:

Before Katrina, over 50 percent of children living in the inner city neighborhoods of New Orleans (disproportionately neighborhoods of color) had blood lead levels above the current guideline of 10 micrograms per deciliter. Childhood lead poisoning in some of New Orleans black neighborhoods was high as 67 percent.

Last year, the city closed three playgrounds due to lead levels, and remediated eight more. And we know there are tens of thousands of old houses here, many blighted, that contain lead paint. When the outer coats of safe paint rub off, lead dust collects on the house and ground. Old wooden windows rub off layers of paint, and sometimes dust windowsills with lead that our children touch (and ingest).

Other research indicates that lead in the soil is a better predictor lead poisoning than neighborhoods with old houses. The idea is that residues from lead gasoline emissions contaminated soils over time, mostly in heavily-trafficked city-centers.  Children play in this soil, and become poisoned.

As the nation removed lead from gasoline, paint and household products, starting in the 1970’s, there was tremendous improvement in children’s blood lead levels. And by the mid-1990’s, crime rates were cratering.

Unfortunately, a lot of inner cities still have high residual lead concentrations. One study claimed that “the quantity of lead in New Orleans inner-city soils is about the same as that of the lead-smelter community of Trail, [British Columbia, site of the largest zinc-lead smelter in North America].” And unlike the cities in the rust belt and the Northeast, the climate here allows for year-round access and exposure to contaminated soils.

I know the lead-crime theory is a “liberal” notion. It doesn’t push our buttons about free will and retributive justice. It doesn’t appeal to our basic assumptions about the “roots” of crime. We’d prefer to blame bad parents rather than toxins in the environment. We’d like to think our children are being neglected by their parents, not poisoned. Remember though, if we want to blame the parents in New Orleans for their criminal offspring, then we have to credit the national drop in crime to a widespread case of good parenting everywhere else. (Gotcha!)

Lead removal may be expensive, but there are already a ton of good public health reasons to reduce our exposure. There’s growing evidence linking blood-lead levels and cognitive development, a factor in employability. And if there really is a strong connection between lead and crime, as economists like Nevin claim, then reducing our children’s exposure to lead will pay for itself very quickly. (Unfortunately, Congress recently cut funding for lead prevention programs.) Clearly, we shouldn’t halt our other initiatives to reduce violent crime in New Orleans. But let’s also learn more about its correlation with lead exposure. At minimum it  demands more attention; it might even explain the puzzling drop in national crime at a time when the New Orleans homicide rate remains stubbornly high.

So let’s test our children, as well the soils they play in. Perhaps if we get the lead out of their blood, 20 years from now there will be less hot lead flying about our bloody streets.

Thanks to Editor B., whose posts about his daughter’s blood-lead levels moved and informed me.


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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Wow, you nailed this one like a coffin maker.

    in order for your lead theory to take flight you need stats on New Orleans’ crime rate going back at least a couple of generations, considering how long this lead has been on the ground here. Parents and grand parents should exhibit a similar tendency towards violent crime. Yet, I would argue that is probably not the case, based solely on some of the older folks I’ve know in the city.

    A chemical correlation could be more easily argued by citing the advent of Crack Cocaine in New Orleans circa 1980. Things really changed after that.

    I would like to mention the PANO letter in all this.
    Pre Federal Flood New Orleans had no police dept. Period. They were a well armed junta, exhibiting what NOPD Chief Slurpy likes to call “Sophisticated Gang Behavior”. They were at best feral lawmen.
    Given such a culture, I’m surprised most New Orleanians could even recognize a real police dept.
    I mean really. Those bitches struck on Mardi Gras!
    Anyway, this letter from the rank and file has me, well, rankled. I am NOT used to feeling sympathy for the NOPD. But, alas, there it is in black and blue. And their response today to Chief Slurpy’s Wonk Parade response to their letter struck me between the eyes, to wit: there just ain’t enough goddamn officers. Slurpy has a fetish for statistics –and he don’t care where he finds them! Statistics solve crimes! Oh, and errah, crime cameras!

    Don’t git me started…

    I think I’ll have to hang this comment on the Ladder beneath your lede 😉

    Thanks yous

  • Great column, Mark. More of an out of left field analysis than left wing but compelling.

  • Mark Moseley

    Thanks for the kind feedback, A. And yes, I’d agree that the notion is pretty “out of left field.”

  • Good intentions, good theory, and good read. Well done.

  • alli

    Great article, Mark – I’ve heard this theory before (and thought it credible) but this is a great layout of evidence and support. Among all the discussions about crime in this town, everybody says “do something,” but I’ve racked my brain about what anybody could be doing and haven’t come up with much. Lead remediation is something we could be doing!

  • This is all very interesting. Thank you for taking the time to research and present it here. I think this is a topic worth exploring further but I am skeptical for a few reasons.

    The first question that comes to mind is, is there a corresponding set of statistics correlating a rise in violent crime with a rise in lead exposure prior to the supposedly miraculous decline the data appear to indicate over the course of the single generation for which they are available?

    Just the act of asking this question brings to my mind a number of problems one might have getting to a meaningful answer. One would have to make, I assume, some educated guesses about historical lead levels. But since our understanding of our current level of exposure is as limited as it is, I wonder how useful such a guess could be.

    For example, I’m struck by this theory you present that lead in the American “rust belt” could be less destructive than it is in New Orleans due to climate. Why not compare New Orleans, then, to places whose unfrozen urban cores also allow “year-round access and exposure to contaminated soils”? One premise of your article is that New Orleans’ violent crime rate is exceptional in relation to the national average. Are warm, urbanized areas such as Houston, Atlanta, Birmingham, Los Angeles, also outliers to the national trend? If not, what is it about their lead that renders it less murderous than ours?

    Also violent crime statistics are difficult numbers to comprehend as methods of collection and classification vary greatly over time and across jurisdictions. I’ll explain.

    According to the tables you link to here, the number of forcible rapes has jumped from 9.6 per 100,000 in 1960 to 27.5 in 2010. Did the number of rapes really triple over that period? Or did societal pressures dissuading women from reporting such crimes or the police from taking them seriously lessen more dramatically.

    Rape is the most obvious such example but other crimes are reported differently by police departments over time as methods of collection and points of emphasis change due to societal, technological, or political demands.

    As we in New Orleans know, crime stats can be a hot button issue and the methods by which they are reported can be controversial.

    That said, it’s difficult to argue with a drop in the national murder rate over the past decade. One supposes that those numbers are more difficult to fudge. On the other hand, we live in a city whose police department has no qualms about burning a body or two and whose DA isn’t above suppressing evidence or bending the truth when given the opportunity, so who really knows?

    There’s more but suffice to say I’m skeptical of this hypothesis, in part, because I’m skeptical of the data on which it’s based.

    I also pause at the presentation of the lead theory as a “‘liberal’ notion.” I’m not so sure about that. In my mind a “liberal” theory of crime prevention tacks more closely to the “solve many problems at once” approach you gently rebuff the Mayor for. A heightened crime rate is a symptom of many socio-economic dysfunctions which interrelate and affect the human… rather than merely the chemical… environment from which we draw nourishment. The rub here is, of course, that tacking “all the problems at once” is difficult if not legitimately beyond the scope of what City Hall or NOPD can be expected to overcome.

    “Liberal” or not, this lead theory looks suspiciously to me like a “magic bullet” (lead bullet?) theory where the policy implication is that we need focus our attention on but one simple inorganic item. That just seems wrong to me.

    But none of this is to say it isn’t useful for us to talk about the correlation between our twin urban ills of murder and poison. If a link between the two exists even if only in the public imagination, the political concern over the murder may engender action against the poison. A virtuous result even if not an entirely “reality based” theory.

  • I’m glad to see someone raising this question again. The research of Dr. Howard Mielke (now at Tulane) is worth a look.

  • Well, if we’re going to entertain an idea as absurd as lead poisoning then I’ll add the ‘Freakonomics’ theory to the list: It claims Roe v Wade is the main reason crime dropped across the country in the 90s. Basically, thousands of unwanted children from the 70s and 80s were never born so they weren’t around to cause mayhem in their teens and twenties (the 90s). It also explains why crime dropped in cities across the nation at the same time even though they were all using different crime-fighting methods.

    Overly simplistic theories aside, I think searching for big external factors is just another way to avoid personal responsibility – blame someone or something else to explain what’s wrong. In that sense, the lead argument is comically liberal/progressive because it removes all burden of guilt for one’s behavior. The lead made me do it! Then of course you can continue to misbehave because it’s not your fault, an EXTERNAL factor is guiding you.

    No one wants to hear that Nola has a problem that cannot be measured – like culture. It’s easier to blame crime on lead poisoning than to do tough love and face being called a racist or an Uncle Tom for enacting the “Y’all gonna cut this shit out NOW” policy. And as long as we fear it, the beat goes on…

  • Has anyone done a similar study of the correlation between violent crime and cat ownership? Perhaps it’s time.

  • Mark Moseley

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Jeffrey: good points. There are many tricky elements to the lead theory– among them, the “lag factor” between childhood exposure and the purported lack of impulse control in early adulthood that leads(?) to crime. Worse yet, I complicate things with my notion that if the theory accounts for widespread variations (between nations) and over time (the past 30 years), then shouldn’t it also account for regional variability as well, namely, here in N.O.? So rather than a demonstrative proof, this post is more an attempt to be suggestive. There’s plenty of remaining questions, and you raise some of them.
    Still, I’m pretty sure that there’s something fairly “big” out there that we’re missing with these trends. (Sure there’s variability over jurisdictions and time with the crime stats… but the significant downward per capita trend over time is hard to argue with.) You correctly picked out one of the weakest parts of the post. A skeptical editor had wondered about all the old cities in the northeast and rust-belt with high lead content, and that line you picked out about the weather was basically pulled from my rear as a way to address that. Still, I don’t think it’s ludicrous to think that weather and long winters might raise or lower lead exposure levels, especially if playground soil is a big culprit, as Mielke has claimed. But that came from my head, not from any reports that I read. However, I would submit that New Orleans’ density as a city in the decades when leaded emissions were most concentrated (60’s/70’s) as well as its age and old housing… makes it perhaps significantly different than newer, less concentrated sunbelt cities like Atlanta or Houston, that have grown (outward) substantially since lead had been removed from gasoline. I dunno– that’s a thought, anyway. The renovations and demolitions of old housing since the Federal Flood pose an interesting newer variable, as well.

    I think I adequately qualified the lead theory in the post. It could be a big factor, but it’s not presented as an easy solution or “magic bullet.” It certainly fits in with a liberal theory of crime prevention, but lead is obviously not a “root cause,” per se. Again, explaining the post 90’s drop from a liberal perspective is almost as confounding as doing it from a conservative cultural viewpoint. Which root causes suddenly began improving in the 90’s, and why? Or, to flip the query around (as this Soc. Prof does here what root causes suddenly worsened in the sixties through the nineties, and why?

    As I say, there’s enough demonstrable health reasons to remove lead from playground soils and houses, whether or not the association with crime is causal.

    (And I did enjoy that Atlantic article. Wouldn’t surprise me, either. Cats are rather disgusting little creatures.)

    Pistolette: Thanks for the comment. I’ve heard the Freakonomics abortion theory, but it’s largely based on miscalculations ( I’ve not heard similar refutations of Nevin’s or Reyes’ work, though they may exist.

    So, in your view, was it “tough love” and “cut this shit out NOW” policies that led to the national crime drop since the nineties?

    Editor B.: I should do a follow-up with Mielke. I linked to some of his work in the “Other research indicates” link above.

  • Bro Keith “X” Hudson

    If you look at the “Original Criminal” and stop trying to create a “boogey-man” you might can put a finger on it, but until you do, you’ll forever be trying to figure out why.

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