By Matt Sledge | NOLA.com | January 18, 2022
Tensions continued to build on Tuesday between New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson and District Attorney Jason Williams ahead of an upcoming special City Council hearing on crime and following a wave of highly publicized carjackings over the weekend.
Ferguson is scheduled to sit in the City Council hot seat on Thursday before Williams and court leaders are questioned four days later. Ahead of those hearings, Ferguson is blaming the rest of the criminal justice system for failing to hold offenders accountable, while Williams is bemoaning what he calls a low NOPD clearance rate.
The exchange came after a weekend whirlwind of carjacking that included a string of incidents near the Tulane and Loyola University campuses that police believe were committed by the same people. Many types of non-violent, property crimes are down since the pandemic, but carjackings and homicides have shot up.
After 11 violent vehicle robberies between Friday and Sunday in the city, residents were confronted with more violent crime during afternoon rush hour Tuesday. A woman was shot and killed on Interstate 10 East at the Crowder Boulevard exit, prompting police to shut the highway down for two hours as they worked the crime scene.
Williams said the city is in the midst of a “crime surge” during a news conference outside his headquarters on Tuesday, a day after Ferguson held one of his own. Williams said prosecutors are hampered by the NOPD’s failure to follow through with the additional evidence needed to convince judges and juries after an initial arrest.
“The people of this city are rightly frustrated,” Williams said. “What we need is for the chief to understand that their role in the criminal legal system does not end in simply arrest. You gotta have evidence in court.”
On Monday, Ferguson said officers are making arrests but “the back portion of this criminal justice system” isn’t doing its part to hold offenders accountable.
“We’ll continue to make the arrests, but it doesn’t mean a thing if there are no consequences to their actions,” Ferguson said.
The Police Department’s statistics show that armed robberies and carjackings declined slightly between 2020 and 2021, dropping 2.7% to a combined total of 790 last year. But that drop came after a 27% increase between 2019 and 2020 that was driven by carjackings, which shot up during the pandemic, according to City Council data.
Residents of New Orleans East have witnessed the worst of the spike, with a carjacking rate there that recently was roughly 13 carjackings for every 10,000 people, more than double the city’s average rate of 5 per 10,000 people.
New Orleans voters most often listed crime as the city’s biggest problem in an October poll shortly before the municipal elections. The hearing this week is the new City Council’s first attempt to address the issue.
It’s past time, said Marcia McWilliams, president of the North Kenilworth Improvement and Security District in New Orleans East. She said she is filled with fear every time she parks her car.
“They’re running around, carjacking and everything. It’s really sad to me. I am afraid outside of my house, I am afraid inside of my house,” she said. “They’ve just got to do a complete overhaul as it relates to crime.”
The concerns around crime carry political peril both for Ferguson, an appointee of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and Williams, who is a year into a six-year term but needs City Council support for his office’s budget.
The mayor has “1000%” confidence in Ferguson, according to Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell.
Both sides decried finger-pointing, but the two top lawmen gave dueling explanations for the city’s current crime woes. Ferguson said there is a “revolving door” when it comes to his officers’ arrests, with arrestees often released quickly on bail.
Ferguson and Cantrell’s office have pointed to the slowdown in the court system caused by the COVID pandemic. Last year, there were only four jury trials in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. The court has suspended jury trials until March 7 due to the omicron surge.
“That’s a reality,” Tidwell said at a Tuesday news conference. “That’s not anybody’s fault. That’s not pointing fingers. That is a reality that the pandemic created, and it has consequences.”
Williams claimed the NOPD isn’t solving enough crimes. He cited a 30% solve rate for murders, 35% rate for robberies and 8% for car thefts in 2020. Tidwell disputed those numbers, but he said the city wasn’t interested in splitting hairs on the point.
“It’s problematic for me that the chief sees a discussion about the solve rate as an issue,” Williams said. “We should be discussing that so we can fix it, so we can find real discussions with the City Council, with the mayor.”
Meanwhile, Williams also claimed that a proposal from his office for a joint initiative aimed at auto burglaries and carjackings has been sitting on Ferguson’s desk for months. The NOPD said in a statement that it did sign the agreement for 2021 and that this year’s pact is under review.
City Council members and civic leaders have begun sketching out proposed solutions, which run the gamut from ramping up police presence to addressing root causes.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission has proposed pay raises to improve recruitment and retention at the New Orleans Police Department, which has been losing officers since the pandemic started.
An entry-level NOPD officer makes $56,566 after one year on the job. Entry-level sheriff’s deputies make $44,776 in St. Tammany Parish and $44,745 in Jefferson Parish, two jurisdictions where crime rates are not as high as New Orleans, according to the agencies’ websites. It was not immediately clear what the suburban deputies make after one year.
The crime commission has also called on Williams to allow prosecutors to ratchet up defendants’ sentences with the state’s habitual offender law. Williams has banned the practice in his office, saying that it helped give Louisiana the unwelcome distinction of being the most incarcerated place on the planet.
On the other end of the spectrum, Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, a non-profit that advocates for youth in the juvenile justice system, said the city needs to address “root causes of crime” like poverty and racism.
“Youth need community resources, support, and opportunities to learn from missteps to develop into healthy adults,” she said in a statement. “Placing a child in prison causes additional trauma and data proves that system involvement contributes to a cycle of crime.”
Some proposals for the carjacking problem involve beefing up services for the youths who have been tied to stick-up sprees. Newly elected District D City Council member Eugene Green says he wants to improve mentoring for youths incarcerated at the Juvenile Justice Intervention Center, where the escape of four youths last week sparked a city-wide police response.
Ranord J. Darensburg, chief judge of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, said his bench needs more resources to help troubled youths.
“Pointing fingers at other points in the justice system does not represent a solution to any problems,” Darensburg said. “What is necessary is the investment in juvenile court by providing the court with the proper resources and ability to supervise youth that are involved in the courts.”