Dec 092016

Metal detectors at the entrances to the French Quarter? I can only imagine what Santa Claus and his merry elves are going to think when that wish letter makes it to the North Pole. I reckon they’re going to take another hit off the ole eggnog and talk about just how crazy they all think we are. It never fails to surprise me the mental gymnastics some folks will do to avoid coping with a serious public safety issue directly. There are real answers to our real problems that don’t involve some TSA checkpoint to get onto Bourbon Street.

Patrick Armstrong

Patrick Armstrong

Have you ever participated in an online comment thread about crime in New Orleans? If you have, you’ve probably figured out why we still have such a crime problem in New Orleans. Most of the solutions offered in those internet think-tanks include a lot of science fiction and fantasy that are equal parts unaffordable or make a mockery of civil liberties. That’s before we get to the dark conspiracy theories about all the things NOPD command and the Mayor’s Office are supposedly doing instead of fighting crime.

I don’t find any of that helpful. Back in reality, the reforms at NOPD are turning our local police force into one of the best in the Southeast, even while nobody seems to know about it because crime still exists. But there’s the secret: crime will still exist regardless of the police. Officers are called “first responders” for a reason, they mostly respond to crimes after they happen.

I can’t write this enough times, but it is almost impossible to prevent crime from a police standpoint. You’d have to hire some superheroes for that. Too bad Supermam, Batman, and Wolverine aren’t available to get on contract. Guess that’s something else to put on the wish list for the holiday tree, but I think all we’d get from Santa are action figures.

What would be on the reality-based wish list for preventative public safety, though?

There is a great case to be made when neighbors know each other and get engaged in strategies to make their local communities more crime preventative and crime resistant. Neighborhood watch groups are a proven method. Calling in for your neighbor who is afraid to have their name associated with a police report is another. Crime cameras record evidence when there normally wouldn’t be any, giving police a chance at investigation. Further still, working with the city to shut down nuisance businesses that serve as catalysts for crime, but that’s a long term hyperlocal strategy. Like with the police, there’s only so much to be done at the community level.

We need real focus on the policy-based problems that create criminal recidivism in our community. If you want to prevent crime, prevent recidivism. Right now, our criminal justice system is terrible at this, and it has nothing to do with the NOPD. It also wouldn’t be helped by metal detectors or superheroes. My public safety wish list would include: 

A bigger, better trained, and better equipped police force. Especially when it comes to crime scene investigation. Better evidence collection leads to more likely identification of the right suspects.

We need a well-funded and well-equipped District Attorney’s office, to take that good evidence provided by the NOPD and develop strong cases to prosecute.

We need a well-funded and well-equipped Public Defender’s office, to make sure all those arrested of crimes are provided an honest day in court as provided in the Constitution. This makes sure our criminal justice system has arrested and is prosecuting the right suspect.

We need an Orleans Parish Prison that prioritizes Constitutionally based incarceration of suspects and defendants, that spends money incarcerating individuals suspected of violent crimes rather than non-violent offenders or mental health patients.
We need a functioning re-entry program for individuals convicted of crimes, even for violent crimes, so they are less likely to be recidivist and commit more violent crimes after they’ve served their time.

We need a functioning juvenile justice program for juveniles convicted of crimes, even for violent crimes, so they are less likely to be recidivist and commit more violent crimes after they’ve served their time.

Because people are going to commit crimes. If we want to get a handle on crime in New Orleans, we must make sure we aren’t spending our own tax dollars on a system that simply creates more violent, more desperate criminals. 

Speaking of tax dollars, the money for all this needs to come from revenue streams beyond “higher property taxes.” You know that is what city leaders are going to say, but that isn’t really true. This is New Orleans, there’s plenty of money being made here – it just isn’t staying here. Fixing that should be the highest priority of any citizen or official involved in finding fixes to the crime problem in this town.

It won’t be easy. It requires speaking to state legislators, Republican and Democratic, so that major policy changes are made in Baton Rouge. The Industrial Development Board (the folks who can give tax breaks – or “payments in lieu of taxes” – to luxury apartment developers) also needs to hear from citizens. If we want a functioning criminal justice system, big developments and private projects MUST pay their taxes or the bill will only be handed over to homeowners and renters. 

After all, New Orleans watches an absurd amount of tax revenue leave the city into state agencies for tourism. Lee Zurik has been reporting on these astronomical figures. I’m cool with having a nice Convention Center, but I’d prefer a highly functioning criminal justice system. The only individuals who can make changes to this are at the State capitol, and I think it is time New Orleanians start asking. 

Another policy that can be changed at the state level is the insurance requirement for all non-emergency auto accidents to require a police report. Every state legislator from New Orleans should be demanding modifications to that law so that civilian investigators can do this work while sworn officers can spend less of their time working for auto insurance companies and more time investigating crimes. Jeff Asher reported on this in the Gambit.

“NOPD has responded to nearly 30,000 traffic incidents and non-injury traffic accidents this year (through mid-July). That translates to roughly one in every 7.5 calls for service. Each incident takes about 40 minutes from the time an officer is dispatched to the time the task is completed, meaning NOPD has spent nearly 800 days (more than 19,000 hours) of manpower handling these types of non-emergencies.”

Those were numbers from mid-July. Imagine how many more days NOPD has spent on non-emergency auto-accidents since then. Just do a little quick math in your head, 1600 days’ worth of investigating non-emergency auto accidents is almost 4 ½ years worth of work every calendar year. Before he retired, NOPD 3rd District Commander Gary Marchese told me those are just the hours spent investigating non-emergency auto accidents, they didn’t include any time the officers spent in depositions or in court.
So if you’re a New Orleanian concerned with public safety, know that there are plenty of things on the public safety wish list that we don’t have to send to Santa Claus and his elves. We can get it all right here at home, any time we want to start asking our state legislators the hard questions.

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.

  One Response to “Patrick Armstrong: Public safety wish-list”

  1. Concur. Police cannot stop a crime from happening, but they are a critical part of putting the criminals in jail and that helps prevent future crimes. That’s where the major breakdown has been in New Orleans.

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