Law vs. Order in New Orleans

  • Share
  • Read Later
Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

New Orleans Police subdue a man in July 2006.

When the New Orleans City Council chamber is packed with a standing room-only crowd of citizens who have taken an afternoon off to sit in on a four-hour session — in the middle of Mardi Gras season, no less — you know it's no ordinary meeting. And indeed, this week's hearing of the council's criminal justice committee was, as a Times-Picayune reporter aptly put it, more like a visit to the principal's office for the city's two leading crime fighters.

On the hot seat were New Orleans Police Department superintendent Warren Riley and New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan, whose respective departments have lately been at odds over how to deal with the city's post-Hurricane Katrina crime wave. In 2006, even with a drastically reduced population, New Orleans had 161 murders, four times the national average. In the first 10 days of 2007, at least eight people were killed.

Even worse, last year about 3,000 suspects, mostly drug offenders, were released from jail or bond obligations under what's come to be known as "701," shorthand for the Louisiana statute that prevents suspects from being held more than 60 days without formal charges being brought against them. And in January alone, the number of 701 releases soared to 580. Prosecutors say they aren't getting police reports in time to bring charges, or that the reports are incomplete and unable to withstand the rigors of a trial. For their part, police counter that the D.A.'s office is demanding more work than is necessary to bring offenders to trial, and playing politics by bringing first-degree murder charges against four cops who allegedly opened fire on a group of pedestrians in Katrina's chaotic aftermath.

Citizens, and the council members who have been flooded with angry calls and e-mails, are fed up with the finger pointing. "We are here because we are in a crisis," a stern council member Oliver Thomas told the pair. "Whatever it takes to work it out — you know, move in next door to each other."

That's not likely to happen. Even though Riley and Jordan downplay the friction between the two organizations, the tension was apparent at this week's meeting. "I think that was confirmed," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the nonprofit watchdog group Metropolitan Crime Commission. "People who were at that meeting who hoped to walk out with a sense of hope were disappointed. If there is a disconnect between police and state prosecutors, the only winners are the criminals."

New Orleans' criminal justice system was broken even before Katrina, and things have only worsened since. The police department has lost 420 officers in the last two years, Riley said, 25 this year alone. Of the 1,392 currently left on the force, about 100 are out with injuries. With a housing shortage and lackluster salaries to offer, it's been tough to get new recruits. About 300 National Guard troops and 60 state police were dispatched last summer to help police get a handle on crime, and will remain in the city until at least June. And the city's crime lab remains closed after being inundated with floodwater — a major factor, both Riley and Jordan agree, in the delay in getting trial-ready evidence to the D.A.'s office, since lab testing has had to be sent out to other jurisdictions.

Attrition in his department is so severe, Jordan said, that this month's new assistant district attorney is likely to be next month's senior employee. And in what sounded to many in the council chambers like a version of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse, Jordan testified that pre- Katrina evidence — salvaged, cleaned up and stored in a criminal court basement — is now being tampered with by rats. "Apparently, the rodent problem over at the basement is very serious at this time," he said dryly, to a few groans and chuckles from the assembled crowd.

The council, pushing for timetables and deadlines, did manage to extract a few commitments. Riley agreed to have officers undergo intensive report-writing seminars led by state prosecutors; Jordan endorsed the idea of placing prosecutors in police precincts around the clock, so reports could be reviewed in a matter of hours, not days. And he agreed, sort of, to accept the results of field drug testing kits as evidence in some cases to prevent 701 releases, rather than the more time-consuming but superior lab tests.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has lent staff and resources to the U.S. Attorney's office here, and police are trying to nail as many suspects as possible on federal charges, thereby bypassing the struggling state system. A new crime lab is scheduled to open within weeks, which should speed up the process of bringing formal charges against accused criminals.

But there are deep-seated problems that will be much harder to overcome, including a widespread mistrust of police among many citizens and the unwillingness of witnesses to come forward, fearing, with good reason, that they will become targets of retaliation. As council members pointed out, the streets are home to many young people whose family lives, perhaps shaky to begin with, have been dislocated and disrupted by Katrina.

Goyeneche, of the MCC, was encouraged by one aspect of this week's hearing: "the fact that the citizenry is engaged so deeply in the criminal justice issue, and is putting pressure on officials to do something." Last month's anti-crime march on City Hall was a dramatic start, he said; this week's public flogging of the city's top crime fighters was a sign that, just maybe, that level of engagement will prove to be more than a passing thing.