By Matt Sledge | | June 15, 2022

The New Orleans Police Department has moved patrol officers to 12-hour shifts and hopes to lure cops from other agencies to reduce 911 response times and stem violent crime, Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said Wednesday.


Five months after Ferguson faced a grilling during a carjacking surge, he and several criminal justice system leaders, including District Attorney Jason Williams, spoke to the City Council at a moment when reports of some types of violent crime are falling. Yet as the chief admitted, the hopeful trends don’t include homicides, which are up more than 40% over last year.


As the department struggles to recruit and retain officers, Ferguson painted a picture of a force doing the best it can under trying circumstances. “Despite fewer officers on the streets, we have reduced the number of violent incidents while increasing the number of arrests,” he said.


Hopeful numbers

In the more than two years since a cyber-attack crippled the city’s information technology, the Police Department has yet to restore a public crime data dashboard. However, Ferguson presented statistics suggesting that major violent crimes have dropped since his last visit with the council in January.


The number of major, violent crimes reportable to the FBI declined from 404 in January to 295 in May, according to the NOPD. Meanwhile, the number of arrests for such offenses has increased from 63 to 96.


Yet even while some types of crime reports may have dipped, Ferguson acknowledged that one major category remains far too high. Homicides in New Orleans are up 46% this year compared to last year and 132% compared to 2019, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission. There had been 135 homicides as of June 12.


“The major exception is … homicide. Again, not unique to New Orleans, but nationally,” said Ferguson. “There are numerous reasons for high homicides such as social inequities, educational disparities and job disparities.”


Longer shifts, quicker responses

During his last appearance, several council members lobbed harsh words at Ferguson for failing to present a plan to stem a spike in carjackings and shootings.


On Wednesday, Ferguson began by stating that his plan consisted of six points: identifying violent offenders, expanding the use of specialized proactive teams, fine-tuning his patrol deployment, improving intelligence sharing with other agencies, deputizing employees of other city agencies to handle quality of life issues and expanding the NOPD’s use of technology.


One recent shift has involved moving officers to longer, 12-hour patrol shifts so they spend less time on roll call and more time responding to 911 calls. Ferguson said the NOPD has already seen response times speed up by 8%.


Yet Ferguson threw cold water on a suggestion from Council President Helena Moreno to combine NOPD districts. He said he prefers to have officers confined to smaller geographic areas that they know well.


“I think right now, what people are really concerned about is response times to calls for service,” said Moreno. “We are certainly not in a perfect world right now.”


The hiring of two civilian recruiters has produced results, Ferguson said. According to Ferguson, the share of people who go from applying to be an officer to taking a civil service test has increased 50%.


Muted critiques

While Ferguson faced a barrage of questioning in January, council members offered fewer and more muted critiques of his leadership this week. Earlier this month, in response to a call from at-large Council member J.P. Morrell for Ferguson to resign, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a statement that she was standing by her hand-picked chief.


On Wednesday, Morrell called on Ferguson to make sure that even senior officers are responding to 911 calls.


“It’s an all hands on deck moment,” said Morrell.


Meanwhile, Morrell and Moreno both said the NOPD needs to increase the number of tasks that are handled by civilians. Right now the department has roughly 1,000 commissioned officers, and there seems to be little chance that will grow this year. The NOPD has a single class of 19 recruits in its training academy that won’t graduate until September.


Moreno said that a report from the firm AH Datalytics found that NOPD officers spend less than 10% of their time responding to violent crime calls. When Ferguson said that the department gets 911 calls for everything from violent crime to broken trash cans, Moreno responded, “Let’s have a civilian respond to the broken trash can.”


The NOPD is following through on one of the issues raised by Morrell at the January hearing. Ferguson said the NOPD has finalized a curriculum for a shorter training course for lateral hires from other departments in Louisiana and hopes to start wooing officers from other departments by the end of the year.


Surveillance idea meets defeat

Ferguson made a second appearance in front of the Criminal Justice Committee hours later Wednesday to request passage of an ordinance that would allow the NOPD to use surveillance technology like facial recognition.


Faced with fierce criticism from activists, the NOPD developed policies that it says would place strict limits on use of the technologies. The department says the policies were designed to prevent racial profiling and have received approval from federal monitors overseeing the NOPD’s 2012 reform agreement.


Ferguson said the surveillance technologies would be a “force multiplier” at a time of dropping officer headcounts. Opponents from the Eye on Surveillance group noted that the number of violent crimes has risen even as the city has been blanketed with crime cameras and urged the council to focus on addressing root causes of crime instead.


Morrell and Moreno said that the ordinance failed to include the safeguards detailed in the internal policy, and that it might allow non-police agencies to conduct surveillance.


The ordinance, sponsored by District D Council member Eugene Green, failed to win support from the committee.


DA touts faster charges

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams also gave a presentation where he touted his agency’s faster charging times and shift to jury trials.


Earlier this year, Williams came in for heavy criticism about the number of defendants who were being released because the District Attorney’s Office could not decide whether to formally charge them before a statutory deadline.


However, this year the office is on track to miss 24 charging deadlines compared to 885 last year. Not all of those blown deadlines result in actual physical releases from jail, because defendants are often held for other reasons like new charges. So far this year the blown deadlines have resulted in only one genuine release from jail, which was due to a lack of victim cooperation, according to Williams.


Williams shared numbers he said showed his prosecutors’ focus on violent crime: that they had secured 125 guilty pleas and won convictions in 17 trials for defendants charged with murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery. To date, the District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 24 trials, Williams said, putting prosecutors on track to try more than 90 cases this year.


But to continue at that clip and to boost prosecutors’ ability to screen cases, Williams told the council he would need approximately $100,000 to enhance DNA efforts, hire additional prosecutors dedicated to case screening and purchase cloud-based technology that would allow his office to communicate and share files with other law enforcement agencies.


Staff writer Jillian Kramer contributed to thi