By Danae Columbus | Uptown Messenger | May 13, 2021

In New York, Boston, Seattle, Atlanta, Detroit and even Jackson, Mississippi, crime and police reform have emerged as the go-to issues in the many 2021 races for mayor across the U.S.

As New Orleans’ crime rate continues to escalate and the federal consent decree lingers on, it’s expected that the New Orleans contest will fall in line along the same issues. “We have a rising crime problem. Crime in New Orleans needs to be an issue in the New Orleans mayor’s race,” said the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s Raphael Goyeneche.

Announced City Council at-large candidates Kristin Gisleson Palmer and JP Morrell have already signaled their intent to significantly focus on crime.

Statistics from the Metropolitan Crime Commission indicate that shootings have increased 132% from 2019 to 2021; that homicides are up 108%; and that carjacking has increased 173% during the same period.  There have been 179 shootings, 77 homicides and 54 carjacking in 2021 to date.

Numbers are expected to skyrocket during the warm summer months.

Metropolitan Crime Commission

Changes in New Orleans crime rates for the first four months of 2019-21. Source: Metropolitan Crime Commission

That members of the city’s criminal justice system are not on the same page only adds to the problem. Many — though not all — of New Orleans police reform issues have been addressed through the almost 10-year consent decree process. Once this phase of the decree ends, the NOPD will still be monitored in subsequent years on how effectively they implement agreed-upon reforms.

New Orleans has the lowest number of police on the force since 1978. As of March 31,  only 1,150 officers were officially listed, including those on active duty, recruits in the police academy, recent graduates in field training, as well as those on sick leave, vacation or furlough. Goyeneche said he believes that approximately 1,000 commissioned officers are available for desk or patrol duty on any given day.

In 2005 prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had the highest count, 1,700 officers, available daily. He believes that New Orleans is “headed toward a cliff” because of a new state law that takes effect July 1.  Any officer who retires after that date and subsequently accepts a position with another law enforcement agency will not be able to immediately draw his or her pension. “These officers are incentivized to leave by June 30,” he said.

“There are simply not enough officers to patrol the streets, and it’s not because they are sitting in coffee shops,” Goyeneche said.

He believes that the police chief’s hands are often tied. The NOPD recently arrested seven juveniles involved in a violent carjackings. Four handguns and an assault rifle were found in the vehicle. Several were repeat offenders who had recently been arrested and released.

“We are arresting the same people over and over again and the district attorney is not prosecuting many of them. Victims are the law-abiding citizens that should be protected,” he commented.

Goyeneche also said that, because the police chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor, he is not able to speak freely about crime, his manpower needs and how he would prefer to run the agency. “Perhaps we need an elected police commissioner who is answerable to the public and would be able to give a candid, unfiltered assessment as to what is driving the crime problem.”

Former New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison departed for Baltimore at the beginning of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration. Baltimore is the second (behind St.Louis) most deadly big city in America.

According to an April 10 Washington Post opinion column, Baltimore’s problem is due in large part to the city’s chief prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who by policy refuses to prosecute low-level crimes including most drug offenses, trespassing and prostitution.

Though it might be a good strategy in the long run, it could make Baltimore more violent on the short term because criminals know they won’t be prosecuted for some offenses, the editorial explained.

Crime was the “overpowering factor” when Baltimore elected Mayor Brandon Scott in 2020. Responding to a poll during the campaign, citizens indicated they wanted a mayor who could “stop the murders, get a handle on crime, work on making the city safer.” There were approximately 300 homicides a year in Baltimore from 2015 to 2020.

In Mississippi, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba is facing seven challengers. Homicides increased to 128 for the year 2020. Lumumba says he has a vision of Jackson as a city that seeks to solve the problem of crime holistically as a symptom of much deeper issues.

In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently announced she would not seek re-election. Bottoms was being criticized for a lack of effort in combating crime and especially for not hiring enough officers to fill openings. Homicides were up 58% in Atlanta last year.

After a 7-year-old girl was fatally shot in their neighborhood last December, residents of the wealthy Buckhead neighborhood talked about seceding from the city in order to hire their own police force.

After months of protests, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also decided to not seek re-election. A dozen candidates have thrown their hats in the ring. Durkan was criticized for how she handled the self-autonomous zone that was set up by protesters in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The police budget was cut last year. What to do with those funds has yet to be addressed.

Seeking a third term, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has been placed on the hot seat by citizens who are demanding more protection.  He is campaigning on reforming the police and reducing crime.  Detroit has a majority-Black police force. Duggan us being challenged by his former deputy mayor.

The recent subway attacks in New York City’s Times Square have propelled crime into the top issue in that city’s race for mayor. Leading contenders Andrew Yang and Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, a former police officer, were quick to respond to the city’s dramatic increase in violence.

In the first four months of 2019 and 2020 there were 250 shootings in NYC. In 2021, the number has almost doubled to 463.

Yang is advocating that people need to feel safe. Adams is calling for more police.  “We don’t have to live like this,” he told reporters.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, up for re-election himself, said he believes that tourists aren’t going to come back to New York City unless they think it’s safe.

Does Mayor Cantrell agree with Cuomo’s assessment? Is she doing everything possible to make New Orleans safer so that tourism and the economy rebound?

If a serious contender with criminal justice experience would challenge the mayor, voters could benefit from a robust discussion about what it really takes to make New Orleans safe and how to pay for it.

Qualifying for our municipal elections takes place in July.