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Nov 212016
 
Third District Commander Gary Marchese walks through the Third District station (via Youtube)

Third District Commander Gary Marchese walks through the Third District station (via Youtube)

Last Thursday night I attended the NOPD 3rd District NONPACC meeting. NONPACC stands for New Orleans Neighborhoods & Police Anti-Crime Council, and serves as the monthly after-hours meeting between citizens and their police district command. Out of the many public meetings you can attend in New Orleans, I continue to find NONPACC meetings among the most informative and important. Depending on the Commander sitting at the table, they can also be among the most accessible meetings for citizens. 

Patrick Armstrong

Patrick Armstrong

The reason I feel this way is due in no small part to former 3rd District Commander Gary Marchese. While I am a relative new face at these meetings, having attended for less than a year, it was easy to see that Marchese had invested the time and effort building a positive atmosphere among the longer-term attendees. Understanding law enforcement policies and procedures can be heavy lifting if someone isn’t patient enough to explain things to you, and Marchese was great at patient explanations. If he didn’t have an answer immediately, Marchese was always good about finding out and getting back to you. Even on the hardest of questions, the Commander didn’t get flustered or frustrated with the folks who were asking, and there are a lot of hard questions the NOPD gets asked. I know I added my share.

But you build community trust in law enforcement by answering those hard questions honestly, and working through the hard answers together. Marchese never shied away from that, and it showed at 3rd District. He retired from NOPD earlier in November, and I hope the hardest question he has to answer from here on out is “would you like to see the dessert menu?” Congratulations on your retirement, Commander, and good luck with whatever is next.

Back in 3rd District, next up is Commander Jeff Walls. As Jamal Melancon reports in Gentilly Messenger, Commander Walls transfers into 3rd District after serving as Commander in the 8th District and a long career in the NOPD.  There was a good turnout Thursday to meet the new Commander, congratulate him on his appointment, and find out if he would continue the positive community engagement and rapport we’ve come to expect. Would he have the same patience and willingness to talk openly with attendees?

He sure did on Thursday.

It was only one meeting, but Commander Walls demonstrated his experience with command by answering some hard questions and discussing some tough issues. I know I added my share to the conversation. After the regular round robin of updates on specific crimes in the neighborhood, I added two concerns I have following the Presidential election. This is where national policy can have tremendous impact on local outcomes.

The Presidential election means the Department of Justice will have different priorities with regard to nationwide criminal justice reform. I expressed my personal concerns that this could put the consent decree between Justice and the NOPD at risk. While I know delivering on the reforms have been tough, I’ve seen the successes with my own eyes.  The result of Constitutional, community policing appears to have a positive effect on both the department and public safety and the reports from the consent decree monitor and US District Judge Susie Morgan consistently back this up. I expressed hope the reforms would continue even if Justice no longer required them.

Additionally, the next 48 months in America could see spontaneous protests take place anywhere at any time. Last week, NOPD was criticized because a few individuals took advantage of a larger protest to spray graffiti and break some windows. While that isn’t good, I am far more concerned with the safety of officers, peaceful protest participants, and the 1st Amendment than I am with something that can be fixed with a little paint and elbow grease. Glass is far cheaper to repair than the court fees involved with civil litigation at taxpayer expense, the medical costs that follow an unnecessary violent confrontation, or the hourly cost of asking law enforcement to process a bunch of arrests. We’ve seen in the news what has happened in other cities when things spiral out of control, and we’ve seen right here in New Orleans how capable NOPD is of making space for protests while keeping the larger community peace. I believe in the NOPD’s priority to not escalate the situation, and expressed support for the same priorities going forward.

The answers I heard from Commander Walls were more reassuring than anything I’ve seen on the national news since last Wednesday. As demonstrated in the consent decree reports, NOPD and the City of New Orleans have already invested considerable time, effort, and resources into reform efforts, and they are expected to continue no matter who is in charge at Justice. Commander Walls offered to include a consent decree compliance section in the NONPACC report next month. He then walked through the process on how the NOPD responds to protests to protect lives and property without violating civil rights or escalating a confrontation unnecessarily. It ain’t a perfect plan, but it sounds a damn sight more realistic and safety-conscious than what we’ve seen in other cities over the last 2 years.

If you’re interested in finding out what that plan is, or otherwise speaking directly to NOPD command about criminal justice issues in your neighborhood, you have ample opportunity to do so. As demonstrated by former Commander Marchese and continuing under Commander Walls, community engagement with your own government works. We get a chance to see it working every month in 3rd District.

Patrick Armstrong lives in Mid-City and has been a NOLA TrashMOB volunteer for 3 years. His views are his own and do not reflect official positions of any organizations or groups he is a part of. He posts inane musings on Twitter @panarmstrong.

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