By Danae Columbus | Uptown Messenger | January 20, 2022
Every partner in New Orleans criminal justice system is partially responsible for the city’s spiraling crime rate and every partner must do their job to help alleviate it, Councilman at-large J.P. Morrell said on WWL-TV earlier today (Jan. 20). “People are afraid to leave their homes,” Morrell said. “No one is walking in their neighborhoods.”
The City Council has begun two days of criminal justice hearings, which are already exposing the deep rifts between cops, prosecutors, and judges. District Attorney Jason Williams said yesterday that New Orleanians want and deserve to be safe. NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson countered that no one should question the integrity, character, will and commitment of the city’s men and women in blue.
This week’s very public airing of the bad blood between Williams and Ferguson was as predictable “as the sun rising in the morning,” said the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s Rafael Goyeneche. The two criminal justice leaders had been quietly meeting for months behind closed doors with no success.
The heart of the issue is one facing many cities in America: how to keep citizens safe while enacting criminal justice reforms designed to eliminate cash bail, seek alternatives to incarceration whenever possible, and reduce sentences for those who must serve time. Let’s not forget the long-time inequities in education, housing and jobs that have held back citizens of color; they must be addressed holistically. The third part of the puzzle is finding and allocating the necessary funds to effect change. “The public is demanding it. Public safety requires it,” Goyeneche said.
The majority of New Orleans voters have already spoken that they wanted a reform-minded district attorney and a sheriff with a progressive agenda. How does that district attorney now tell a citizen whose car has been stolen or vandalized repeatedly that the perpetrator — if even caught — will receive a light sentence? How does the police chief explain the scarcity of arresting officers to law-abiding citizens who hit the floor and stay there while gunshots echo on their streets? How do judges and magistrates soothe the broken hearts of families whose loved ones have been ambushed on interstate highways? Who among us believes that everything is going to be all right any time soon?
Mayor LaToya Cantrell must also accept partial blame for the current crisis. She has stayed out of the spotlight, letting City Council President Helena Moreno and other council members set the agenda while pushing her chosen representative, Chief Ferguson, to take the heat.
Crime has been rising steadily during much of Cantrell’s first term. As the city’s chief executive, it was her responsibility to put together a plan long ago. Cantrell could be more interested in amassing social media followers (she has 100,000 on Instagram) than figuring out how to boost NOPD morale to aid recruitment and retention of officers. Cantrell was quick to issue a press release after meeting with Criminal Court Chief Judge Robin Pittman and Deputy Chief Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier earlier this week. Since Pittman’s mother was a recent crime victim, the judge deserved a personal conversation with the mayor.
Each member of the City Council now has a historic opportunity to play a vital role in the city’s recovery. By the end of Monday’s special meeting, all interested elected officials — including Juvenile Court judges — should have had ample opportunity to explain their individual situations. Then comes the hard part: building consensus on solutions and finding the funds to successfully implement them.
Councilman Oliver Thomas, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, will rely on his wealth of institutional knowledge and understanding of what has worked in the past to propose a future course. DA Williams is already suggesting a return of a multi-agency task force that was sometime controversial though highly effective.
It is a disservice to the voters that the public will not be able to participate in person during their early stages of discussion. Social media sites like Nextdoor shouldn’t be the only place citizen voices can be heard. Rest assured that many neighborhood organizations are inviting their council members to address them directly. Councilmember Joe Giarrusso, for example, led a spirited discussion with the Lakeview Civic Association last Saturday. The application process is also open for the City’s police community advisory boards.
Every day brings at least one reported murder, rape, armed robbery, carjacking or auto burglary. A young mother living Uptown who, along with her husband, owns multiple businesses told me last week that several friends her age are thinking about leaving New Orleans. I suggested that we meet for coffee. She responded that her neighborhood wasn’t very safe and offered to set up coffee via Zoom.
Goyeneche said that calling in the Louisiana National Guard isn’t a good solution for the city’s crime problems. “The National Guard would only serve as a visual deterrent,” he said. They are not trained as crime fighters. In addition to the State Police, other federal agencies — including the FBI, the U.S. Marshal Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — have traditionally helped out during Mardi Gras and are thought to have already brought in additional staff. Perhaps they will also be a part of this revived multi-agency task force that DA Williams is counting on. Even Williams has to admit that being soft on crime just doesn’t work these days.
To almost no one’s surprise, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge James F. McKay III retired effective Jan. 3. His announcement paved the way for Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman to seek his at-large seat on the 12-member bench that represents Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. McKay, a Democrat, joined the appeals court in 1998 and served with distinction.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has placed the race on the fall ballot along with statewide and congressional elections. The Louisiana Supreme Court has named seasoned litigator Lynn Luker to fill McKay’s position on an interim basis. A skilled mediator, arbitrator and teacher, Luker has been with Stanley, Reuter, Ross, Thornton & Alford since 2015. She also served as Judge Pro Tempore at Civil District Court in 2014.
Herman, 52, has long planned to run for McKay’s position. A 14-year criminal court veteran, Herman served as chief judge in 2020 and 2021 and led the bench during the pandemic. Along with her Section I docket, she also managed the state’s first mental health court as well as a specialty drug court. A former prosecutor in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, Herman first ran for judge in 2008 and was re-elected without opposition in 2015 and 2020. A graduate of Tulane’s law school, Herman previously served as head of the CourtwatchNOLA program. She is an accomplished athlete and was a nationally ranked tennis player while attending Emory University.
The at-large judgeship is almost tailor-made for Herman. Although there is growing ethnic diversity within the district, voter registration numbers favor Herman, who is known to be a fair and respectful jurist. While it is also often difficult for criminal court judges to raise money, fundraising has never been a problem for Herman. Married to a partner in the Herman Herman & Katz law firm, she has family members with strong ties to other trial lawyers locally and around the country. Herman has a fundraiser scheduled for Thursday (Jan. 27), which is expected to be well-attended.
Herman’s election is by no means fait accompli. Other lawyers — especially those with criminal court experience — will surely qualify. Yet she is expected to remain the favorite in the race. New Orleans’ alphabet of political organizations will soon be lining up outside Russ and Steve Herman’s door.