By Peter Finney Jr. | Clarion Herald | March 29, 2022
Overlaid on a map of the city of New Orleans, the color-coded circles with skull-and-bones on Rafael Goyeneche’s computer screen are a nightmare canvas of 21st-century homicidal pointillism.
In 1994, the city of New Orleans’ murder spree, fueled by drug warlords, produced 424 homicides, the highest in modern history.
In 1995, a Catholic priest, Father Karl Petersen, was gunned down while walking his dog on the sidewalk near his rectory at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in the Marigny.
Fast forward a quarter century, and the disregard for human life bursts off the computer screen, visible through the growing number of circles on the reports of violent crime – homicides, shootings, carjackings and armed robberies – faithfully released every week by Goyeneche’s New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission (metrocrime.org), a non-partisan watchdog group.
Carjackings, like the one that dragged 73-year-old grandmother Linda Frickey to her death in Mid-City on March 21, like the one last June in which a 60-year-old Xavier University graduate, Portia Pollock, was stabbed to death while getting into her car to drive to work, simply add a few more circles to this canvas of shame.
The suspects in each killing had lengthy, violent rap sheets.
Frickey’s and Pollock’s senseless deaths prompt us to pose the question: Why exactly are we allowing this?
Two innocent victims, one white, one black, leading to two more yellow (First District) circles.
Goyeneche, a graduate of De La Salle High School and Loyola University New Orleans Law School, says the 309% increase in carjackings in the city of New Orleans since 2019 is shameful enough.
But for those citizens who think carjacking is motivated largely by the money that the carjacker might receive at a chop shop, Goyeneche says, incredibly, that is not the primary motive.
“A lot of people think that, but those cars are just being used for transportation,” Goyeneche said. “If they run out of gas, they don’t put any money into gassing them up again. They just go carjack another car. They use the car to commit other crimes. The cars are usually recovered within a matter of days.”
Goyeneche said the two-year spike in carjackings is in part due to the changing dynamics of criminal opportunity in the 24 months of the pandemic.
“Carjackings are a byproduct of COVID,” he said. “Before COVID, armed robbery was the most prevalent form of robbery. But when the bars and restaurants and people were hunkered down because of COVID, the targets weren’t at the bars or in the French Quarter or going to restaurants. So, the offenders shifted. Predators follow the prey.
“The purpose of a robbery is to get somebody’s wallet and maybe their cell phone. They recognize if they carjack somebody, they’re getting their wallet, their cell phone, their car and the guns and electronics that may be stowed in the car. In 2020, we saw carjackings emerge in a way that we had never experienced before. The prevailing thought was that we would see that diminish when things reopened. Well, that hasn’t happened.”
Goyeneche said there is no simple solution to the carnage except for passionate citizen involvement, holding elected officials and the criminal justice system to accountability by using the information his organization pumps out daily.
It was no coincidence, Goyeneche said, that the spike in drug-fueled murders of the mid-1990s was slashed when then-New Orleans Police Superintendent Richard Pennington created a multi-agency gang task force – a partnership between local, state and federal policing – to identify and capture the leaders of the most violent drug gangs.
“When Pennington was hired as chief, he said, ‘If I can’t reduce the number of homicides by 50%, I need to be fired,’” Goyeneche said.
A growing sense of urgency once again, 25 years later, is upon us, he said. Since 2019, homicides are up 97%, shootings up 156% and armed robberies up 49%. Carjackings (309% increase) are exploding.
From the policing perspective, Goyeneche said the NOPD had between 1,250 and 1,300 officers in 2019; today, the force is down to about 1,000, all while the city “is supposed to have police staffing of about 1,500 officers.”
For the last two years, the Metropolitan Crime Commission has called for pay raises to help with recruitment and retention. On the day Linda Frickey was dragged to her death, the department welcomed a class of 18 police cadets; meanwhile, 40 officers had left the force from January through March.
But that’s just one spoke of the criminal justice wheel. After investing millions of dollars in crime cameras around the city, the City Council in 2020 voted to ban the use of facial recognition technology that would help police identify potential perpetrators.
Goyeneche said the facial recognition would not be enough to make an arrest, but it would “allow police to focus on a suspect to see if they could develop probable cause to go before a judge to get an arrest warrant.”
As for the criminal justice system, Goyeneche said he has heard the argument that “no one wants to see marijuana smokers arrested and held in custody.”
“But what the public doesn’t realize is that the police department, for probably five years or so, hasn’t been arresting marijuana offenders,” he said. “They’ve been issuing summons in lieu of making arrests.”
Goyeneche hopes the statistics his agency has provided about the large number of inmates sprung from jail on “701 releases” – a circumstance in which a felony suspect is released because the district attorney has failed to bring charges within a prescribed period of time – has led to a recent tightening of those rules.
Public scrutiny and public outrage are the only things that will compel action, Goyeneche said, noting, sadly, that in the most recent elections, the district attorney and the Orleans Parish sheriff were elected in low-turnout runoffs after receiving the support of no more than 18% and 12% of registered voters, respectively.
That kind of voter apathy has to end, because it is the only thing that will protect others such as Linda Frickey and Portia Pollock.
“I tell this to people all the time: ‘You’re the power, and you don’t realize it,’” Goyeneche said. “This is not a divisive issue. It’s not about race; it’s not about political affiliation; it’s not whether you are blue or red, rich or poor or black or white. It’s a universal, uniting fact. Everyone wants to feel safe. And it’s not unreasonable for the electorate to expect the executive, legislative and criminal justice officials to use their tax dollars and take into consideration the safety of the people. If you don’t care enough to go vote, then you’re going to get what you’ve always received.”
That is, murder, to avoid having to pay for a tank of gas.