By Danae Columbus | Uptown Messenger | April 8, 2021

It probably was a case of mistaken identity that could have turned deadly for Jhamal Shelby Jr., a soft-spoken St. Augustine High School star athlete and honor student.

One recent afternoon after practice, Shelby drove to his father’s home in New Orleans East. Before he could park his car, a young man jumped out of a nearby vehicle and began shooting. Eighteen shots were fired before the perpetrators fled the scene.

One bullet visibly grazed the side of Shelby’s head and damaged his eyesight. His vision is still blurry and will require treatment by a specialist.

Shelby didn’t immediately realize that he had most likely been followed home from St. Aug. “I never expected to be shot in front of my dad’s house,” he said. But that won’t stop him from returning to school when the doctors allow or from graduating this spring.

A second team All-District cornerback who also plays baseball and runs track, Shelby already has six collegiate offers on the table and is waiting on more.

“He’s such a great kid,” said his father, Jhamal Shelby Sr. “I just don’t understand why anyone would want to hurt him.” Though New Orleans police officers arrived on the scene quickly, no arrests have been made in the case.

According to data from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Shelby is one of 107 shooting victims this year in New Orleans as of April 1. Shootings are already up 37% in 2021 and 118% since 2019.

Shooting isn’t the only category of crime that is exploding. Carjackings are up 213% over a three-year period, with a 40% increase in 2021 over last year. Armed robberies are also up 6% in 2021, with 113 victims identified. Auto thefts have increased by almost 20%, with 923 vehicles already stolen.

The New Orleans Police Department officially reports 51 homicides have already occurred in 2021, a one-year increase of 42% and a three-year increase of 96%.

Clearly, living and working in New Orleans is more dangerous now than in recent years.

“People have become desensitized to the day-to-day gun violence that is going on in our community until it happens to someone in their family,”  said Tatanya Taylor, Shelby’s mother. “No one is safe anywhere.”

Even if the shooter and his accomplishes are eventually arrested, it is unlikely that they will spend any real time behind bars. If, like Shelby, they are 17 years of age, they will not be tried as adults, as per District Attorney Jason Williams’ new directive.

If the perpetrators are a few years older, the DA’s office could release them without a cash bond. Even if they were habitual offenders, the DA’s office might negotiate a plea deal that would result in very short sentence.

Until the offenders are picked up, they are free to commit other crimes. Meanwhile Shelby and his parents anxiously wait to find out whether the damage to his eye is permanent.

When District Attorney Williams released statistics from his first 30 days in office, the 400 cases dismissed because they “did not merit the resources of his office and the criminal justice system” sent a chilling message to victims. Add to the mix the DA’s decision not to invoke the habitual offenders’ statute poses danger to the public, Goyeneche said.

“’In the interest of justice’ is not a legal definition in Louisiana law,” said the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s Raphael Goyeneche, referring to the DA’s reason for dismissing hundreds of the cases.

“Williams has created a number of absolute policies that are problematic,” he said. “It’s never right to deal in absolutes. It was wrong when DAs Harry Connick and Leon Cannizzaro did it.” Goyeneche worked as an assistant district attorney under Connick.

He believes that the current backlog at Criminal District Court exists not only because the court has not been conducting jury trials for the past year but also because the judges “haven’t been very efficient or effective in managing their dockets.”

Williams’ new policies seem to suggest that the city is safer when offenders are quickly released. “Williams’ actions fly in the face of logic and common sense,” Goyeneche continued. “Offenders are represented by counsel. Williams’ clients are the law-abiding citizens of New Orleans.”

Goyeneche is also concerned that Williams has decided never to try juveniles as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime. “Discretion is important. A decision on how to try a juvenile needs to be made on a case-by-case basis based on facts, evidence and the defendant’s criminal history,” the crime watchdog said. “Only then can you determine what danger they might pose to the community. Some are a greater risk than others.”

Though Williams and NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson announced a detente of sorts Wednesday (April 7), skeptics aren’t sure how long it will last. “I don’t want to see the DA and the police become adversaries in the middle of this crime wave,” Goyeneche said.

“We’re already exceeding year-to-date figures in many categories of crimes, and last year was one of the worst years in a decade. It’s important to the public that the DA and the NOPD coordinate and work together,” Goyeneche said.

The pattern of arresting and charging suspects then refusing or dismissing cases does not send a good message to the citizens or the police. What incentive is there for police officers to continue the hard work of chasing after criminals and completing all the necessary paperwork only to have the cases pled down or dropped entirely?

Though overtime has returned, many police officers are still chafing over the recent furloughs and other issues. Seasoned NOPD officers have been leaving the force “at an alarmingly high rate.” Opportunities for detail work at local businesses dried up during the pandemic. The overall number of officers in the force is still insufficient to handle the volume of crime.

The NOPD still hasn’t recovered from the hiring freeze former Mayor Mitch Landrieu put in place after Hurricane Katrina. “We lost more police officers than we hired last year,” said Goyeneche. “Now we have fewer officers but more calls for service.”  Today’s offenders are emboldened as the number of victims constantly increase.

Yet there are many positives.

“It’s very clear that the NOPD is on the cusp of substantial compliance with the federal consent decree. If not for the pandemic we would have achieved compliance earlier,” he said. “A wind-down period will take place over the next two years. The real test will come in the years following to determine if the cultural changes instituted become the accepted norm.

“The city of New Orleans and the NOPD invested 10 years in the consent decree. There’s been a lot of clean-up done. We now have new expectations, a new normal. The NOPD needs to use data to remain in compliance. That’s how we’ll determine how successful the consent decree has been,” Goyeneche concluded.