No, you’re not imagining things. Violent crime in New Orleans is definitely getting worse.
Alas, the NOPD’s proposed “solutions” aren’t getting any better.
Just this month, the so-called “brown paper bag bandit” robbed two people in separate incidents two days apart – both within spitting distance of Trinity Episcopal Church. Those robberies especially stuck with me because they occurred with a couple of blocks of my house.
Other robberies have been even bolder. Just a couple of weeks ago, two armed robberies were committed three days apart on Carrollton Avenue, a busy thoroughfare if there ever was one.
The epidemic has afflicted businesses as well. Around Hollygrove and Gert Town, there have been at least eight convenience store robberies since July. NOPD Second District Commander Paul Noel responded by advising businesses to lock their doors at night (No, I am not kidding. He suggested that retailers buzz everybody in.)
Put simply, crime is absolutely dominating the postings on Uptown Messenger with no ebb in sight.
The statistics reflect the spike. In the first half of the year, armed robberies were up 37 percent across the city, reaching 479 compared with 350 in the first half of 2013. Judging by the headlines, it’s going to be even worse for the latter part of 2014.
Set against this backdrop, one would hope for some creative solutions from the NOPD. Alas, the tired refrain from the top brass is simply that we need more cops.
“There is no question that putting more officers on our streets is a major part of the solution,” NOPD Interim Chief Michael Harrison said back in August. “That is why we are working aggressively every day to recruit, hire and train more police officers until we reach our goal of 1,600 officers.”
There are a lot of problems with this reasoning. To begin with, the research is – at best – mixed on the issue of whether tweaking the numbers of police actually reduces crime.
In 2000, Ed Maguire, an American University criminology professor, joined with a colleague to review 27 studies that attempted to show a link between crime rates and police staffing. Nearly half of the studies showed no correlation, and of the remainder, most showed a positive correlation – meaning that crime actually increased with higher staffing levels.
Nevertheless, the NOPD’s constant demands for more police is par for the course. “I have visited a lot of police departments in my life,” Maguire told the Washington Post. “I can’t remember ever visiting one that didn’t say they needed more cops.”
So if staffing levels aren’t the issue, what is? According to Maguire, “it’s really what you do with your cops that counts.”
“There are wasteful ways of using police, and there are efficient ways of using police.”
According to a report from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux released this May, the problem is the NOPD is not staffing levels, but a poor allocation of manpower.
“NOPD does not have enough officers assigned to platoons and answering calls for service,” Quatrevaux concluded. “However, alleviating the shortage of officers answering calls for service does not necessarily mean that the department needs additional force strength.”
Quatrevaux’s report argued that the NOPD is wasting resources by assigning too many sworn police officers to desk duty and other tasks that could be easily performed by civilian employees at a far lower costs. Furthermore, Quatrevaux observed that the NOPD did a poor job of prioritizing calls, with near a quarter of calls lazily labeled as “complaint – other.”
According to Quatrevaux, “the steady drumbeat for a larger police force and claims of a police force in ‘crisis’ continue in the absence of verifiable evidence documenting NOPD’s personnel and operational needs.”
This brings us to the 1,600 officer figure that the department keeps throwing about. Where did it come from? Nobody seems to know.
The NOPD is always telling us that we need more police, but they’re reluctant to actually put that in perspective. Given the rhetoric, you might think New Orleans’ number of police-per-capita is unusually low, or that the NOPD is under-funded. Neither is true.
Two years ago I wrote a column that looked both into funding and per-capita staffing, and I concluded that “in terms of the raw size of the department, the NOPD is overstaffed if anything.” Compared with other cities in the region, the NOPD is very well-staffed.
To put this in greater perspective, the target of 1,600 officers would make the NOPD roughly the same size as the Austin Police Department. Austin has a population of approximately 885,000 people. New Orleans has a population of roughly 379,000.
The bottom line is that the NOPD needs to come up with some very compelling data to convince me that we need a police department as large as a city more than twice our size.
Alas, when armed robberies are rampant and Uptown Messenger begins to look like a crime news feed, it’s easy to blithely accept demands for more police. However, that’s an old sawhorse of ill-managed departments. Instead of reforming internal dysfunction and putting an end to wasteful practices, the NOPD is simply demanding more money for more officers.
The people of New Orleans need to be asking the NOPD to learn a new tune. This one isn’t cutting it, shattering into discord when placed in any kind of meaningful context.
Violent crime is worse. That’s exactly why we need better solutions.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.