City leaders have worsened New Orleans’ crime woes, commission says
2 years ago The Times-Picayune 0
Despite working more collaboratively and efficiently, New Orleans’ police and prosecutors are making little headway against a rising tide of felony-grade violence because of city government decisions that have hobbled their performance and endangered the community, the Metropolitan Crime Commission said in a new report released Monday (May 22).
“Police and prosecutors are applying their resources more efficiently and effectively, but community safety has not improved,” the non-profit watchdog organization said in its 2017 Orleans Parish criminal justice system accountability report. “The critical shortage of NOPD officers has not improved over the past four years. … The department lacks the manpower to timely respond to calls for service and adequately address the high rate of crime.”
The MCC report traces New Orleans’ current crime predicament back to the desk of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, first elected in February 2010. Landrieu’s two-year police hiring freeze, along with timid recruitment efforts in the two years that followed, allowed the department’s manpower to wither by 25 percent, from 1,546 officers in 2009 to 1,165 at the end of 2016.
“The misguided decision in 2010 to freeze police hiring for years created the critical NOPD manpower shortage that continues to adversely impact public safety,” the report said.
City Hall officials did not respond to requests for comment on the criticisms within the report.
Landrieu previously has defended his first-term policing strategy as the only reasonable response to what he said was a $100 million budget deficit inherited from predecessor Ray Nagin’s administration. But MCC president Rafael Goyeneche said in an interview that the ramifications of allowing the NOPD’s atrophy are likely to be felt for many more years unless Landrieu and his successor invest in the retention of veteran officers.
“I think the police department and the district attorney’s office are doing everything in their power to enforce the felony laws of Louisiana, and what they’ve accomplished collectively is a significant step forward in improving public safety for all citizens,” Goyeneche said. “I think the numbers would be even better if the police department wasn’t still trying to climb out of the political hole that was created during the hiring freeze.”
One of the most startling statistics in the MCC report is that the number of arrests made by the NOPD plummeted 44 percent between 2013 and 2016, as the effects of the department’s manpower shortage and the federal consent decree became more pronounced. In the same sample period, the percentage of arrests made for serious felony allegations climbed from 19 percent in 2013 to 28 percent last year.
“We appreciate the work the Metropolitan Crime Commission has done with this report to highlight the efforts we have made,” NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said in a statement. “It reflects our success at making more violent felony arrests and getting dangerous people off the street — and our commitment to being tough on crime and smart in our efforts.
“We’re not just making arrests for the sake of making arrests, we’re focusing our efforts where they can have the greatest impact.”
The MCC applauded a sharp reduction in arrests being made for out-of-parish traffic attachments and other minor offenses as a wiser use of the NOPD’s limited resources. But Goyeneche said the department’s relative inability to make proactive narcotics arrests or traffic stops because of manpower shortages is leaving a lot of guns and violent armed drug dealers on the streets.
“What we’re seeing is, despite the manpower crisis, the police department is effectively and strategically using their available resources,” Goyeneche said. “But their inability to cover the broad spectrum isn’t by choice. That’s by a political decision that was made by the mayor when he took office. And we’re still trying to dig out of that hole and haven’t really made any progress in that respect.”
Harrison said, “Traffic arrests are down as new policies and electronic enforcement allow our department to spend more time focused on violent crime. … There is clearly still much more work to be done. With our new TIGER shooting unit in place, following the model of our successful TIGER armed robbery unit, we anticipate making further progress in getting violent offenders off the street and continuing every day to make New Orleans a safer place to be.””
Goyeneche, an Orleans Parish prosecutor from 1980-86, also decried last November’s City Council decision – later approved by the mayor – to slash District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s budget by $600,000. Goyeneche said he agreed with Cannizzaro’s interpretation that the move was a strictly “punitive” measure by opponents who say the DA accepts too many cases for prosecution.
“They’re saying that when they compare it to what it was under (previous Orleans district attorneys) Eddie Jordan and Harry Connick,” Goyeneche said. “And I think that wasn’t the way police and prosecutors were supposed to work together.”
MCC Director of Research John Humphries Jr. said an unbiased examination of data shows Cannizzaro is “not unique and not overzealous” in his rate of felony cases accepted for prosecutions. Though his felony case acceptance rate climbed for three straight years during the sample period of 2013-15, from 73 to 81 percent, it remained under the nearly 86 percent acceptance rate in neighboring St. Tammany Parish, whose MCC accountability report examining cases from 2013-14 was released last month.
The MCC based its New Orleans findings on an examination of NOPD arrest data from 2013-16, along with courthouse tracking of felony arrest outcomes from 2014. Among the key findings:
- NOPD arrests declined 44 percent, from 30,583 in 2013 to just 17,191 in 2016. The biggest factor has been a 55 percent drop in felony drug arrests by an undersized police force that no longer has sufficient manpower to proactively curb illegal narcotics activity, the report said.
- The number of arrests for violent felonies in New Orleans soared 44 percent in the same period, from 1,263 in 2013 to 1,819 in 2016. Last year marked the city’s highest number of violent felony arrests since 2007.
- Cannizzaro’s office accepted 81 percent of NOPD felony arrests for felony prosecutions in 2015, up from 73 percent in 2013. “Higher felony acceptance rates are a sign of improved investigations and confirm that police are more accurately charging suspects at the time of arrest,” the MCC concluded.
- Cannizzaro’s prosecutors won felony convictions on 44 percent of sampled felony arrests from 2014, with another 24 percent ending in misdemeanor guilty pleas or convictions for a combined conviction rate of 68 percent. Nationwide, 54 percent of felony arrests result in felony convictions and 12 percent are reduced to misdemeanors for a combined 66 percent conviction rate.
- Of the 22 percent of 2014 felony arrests that did not result in any conviction (10 percent of the sampled cases were still open when the survey period concluded), 14 percent were because charges were refused by Cannizzaro’s office, 4 percent were because charges were accepted but ultimately dismissed, and 3 percent were because defendants successfully completed the DA’s diversion program. Only 1 percent of 2014’s felony arrest defendants were found not guilty at trial.
The complete MCC report is available here at www.metrocrime.org.
Goyeneche said felony arrests that had about a 20 percent chance of ending in a felony conviction during Jordan’s tenure now succeed at a 44 percent rate under Cannizzaro’s regime.
“And that’s not just because the DA’s office is doing something different. A prosecutor is only as good as the investigations that are done,” Goyeneche said. “But there is, under Leon Cannizzaro and the various police chiefs, a renewed sense of partnership and a close working relationship. The police department in these charge conferences with prosecutors are being given some direction. And, even with their limited resources, the police department is going back and supplementing some investigations.
“As a result, you’re starting to remove more of the dangerous offenders from the community. That has been building, and the bonds between police and prosecutors have gotten stronger over the last several years. And I think that is a major accomplishment.”
Cannizzaro, in a statement issued through spokesman and assistant district attorney Christopher Bowman, said, “The report clearly shows that the hard work of my office over the past eight years continues to strengthen the city’s ailing criminal justice system. While arrests have steadily declined over the past four years, the report shows that the acceptance and conviction rates of violent criminals have continued to increase.”
Goyeneche, however, pointed out that while much improved, New Orleans’ 44 percent rate of felony arrests to felony convictions still lags behind the national average of 54 percent.
“We’re still not at the national level, and the primary reason is the 6 percent of felony arrests that were accepted as misdemeanors,” he said. “That means that 6 percent of the arrests for felonies were improper. It’s part of a learning curve with the police department, but it’s much less than what it used to be. There is room for improvement, but we have come light years in 10 years. And if the DA’s office was improperly accepting charges, you’d see a much higher dismissal rate and acquittal rate, and we’re not seeing that.”
The MCC also lauded the DA’s office for reducing the median number of days between a felony arrest and a charging decision, from 53 days in 2014 to 37 days in 2015.
“Shorter billing decision times can reduce the time it takes to resolve felony cases and the time suspects are held in custody,” the report said.
Cannizzaro said his office had “improved efficiencies” internally so that it could handle cases quicker, “despite the fact that a higher percentage of the cases we must handle are serious crimes of violence.”
Goyeneche said city leaders continue to send mixed messages to law enforcement personnel and citizens when they profess to wanting more police to handle the surge in violent felonies while simultaneously demanding fewer prosecutions and a reduced jail population.
“It’s the arrests that drive everything else in the criminal justice system,” Goyeneche said. “I’ve told council members, the mayor and some of his administrators, ‘You don’t have the authority or the right to tell independently elected public officials how to perform the duties of their office.’ You can’t tell the district attorney who to prosecute. You can’t tell the judges what bail to set or how to rule on a case. And you can’t tell the sheriff how he operates his jail.
“If you’re upset that there’s too many prosecutions, or that bail is set too high by judges because serious offenders have been arrested, or that there’s too many people in the jail, you do have the authority to tell the police department not to arrest people.”
Goyeneche said it was illogical and petty for the city to give the NOPD an additional $8 million and the Orleans Public Defenders $600,000 more in its 2017 budget, in anticipation of more felony arrests, while cutting $600,000 from the only office that prosecutes such cases.
“The city is saying, ‘We need to give more money to the police department so we can hire more officers to respond to crime,'” Goyeneche said. “But, in the next breath, to say the DA’s office is doing something wrong because he’s accepting too many felony cases that were sent to him by the city’s police department? That’s hypocritical.”