Oct 132014

Owen Courreges

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.

  13 Responses to “Owen Courreges: More crime shouldn’t automatically mean more cops”

  1. Owen you are right, crime is a big deal. Why is everyone skirting the issue of who the crimes are committed by. We all know who is doing 85% of the crime, but you don’t mention it once in your article. Is the reason simply because you are afraid of being called a racist? Or, is there a law that prohibits you from stating the facts?

    • Mike good point. In New Orleans and America at large we have an education and poverty problem. I agree that the majority of this type of crime (theft/robbery) in Nola/US is committed by people below the poverty line.

      You lost me with the reason for him not mentioning this. Not sure why that would make the author a racist? He probably doesn’t mention this because it’s basically commonly known that America has an education/poverty problem.

      How do we fix it?

    • Mike,

      This isn’t a racial issue. Yes, blacks are overrepresented as both perpetrators and victims, but the numbers aren’t as dramatic as you make it out to be.

      First of all, the percentage of overall crime committed by blacks in New Orleans is probably in the range of 70-80% (at least based on arrest statistics). That’s a solid majority, but then New Orleans is over 60% black. While there is a disparity, it hardly justifies behaving as though crime is best viewed as a racial problem. It’s not.

      Secondly, there is evidence that enforcement is stronger against black youths, leading to higher arrest rates. A 2011 report from the Justice Department found that the racial disparity in arrests was “so severe and so divergent from nationally reported data that it cannot plausibly be attributed entirely to the underlying rates at which these youth commit crimes.” Given the sheer disparity cited, I have to agree.

      Finally, racially-fueled rhetoric is simply unhelpful. It doesn’t reform the NOPD, which is ineffective in large part because it is so distrusted by much of the black community (and for good reason). I want to discuss real solutions, and those solutions don’t involve racial scapegoating.

  2. “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.”

    …because you are discovering crimes that went unreported before, because now there are police enough to respond to those reports. Just because the crime becomes more apparent with more officers does not mean that magically the crime was not there before.

    You need more police.

    • candiduscorvus,

      Balderdash. That’s pure speculation and doesn’t even make logical sense. Violent crimes are virtually always reported, and this occurs regardless of whether a department is understaffed. People who are victims of armed robbery aren’t going to simply forget about it because they think the police are undermanned. That crime will be reported, even if it takes a while for the police to arrive.

      I don’t know where you get the idea that police typically go around “discovering” crimes. With some exceptions, crimes are generally reported by victims. There are issues with documenting and classifying crimes, but that’s an issue that exists irrespective of manpower. Likewise, there may also be an issue with crime victims not trusting the police and therefore not reporting crimes, but that also has nothing to do with raw manpower.

      • Nowhere in your editorial do you say violent crime increased. You say crime increased. Are you saying that the studies you reference mentioned violent crime specifically, or did they simply say “crime”? Most crime is nonviolent, with the specific example of theft. The reporting of theft is an issue that relies greatly upon the presence of police in a community, as it is often directly reported to police officers.

        It’s community policing, where officers go into communities and are visible and make overt efforts to make contact and form relationships with people in their jurisdictions. This always results in a greater incidence of reported crime.

        • candiduscorvus,

          I noted particularly that armed robberies were up while linking to an article showing that most categories of violent crime were much higher. I don’t think anybody could honestly have read my piece and conclude that I was talking about crime in terms of petty offenses.

          As far as “theft” goes, I don’t see how you have a leg to stand on. People aren’t going to insist on there being a beat cop around to report a theft. Unless you have evidence to suggest that reporting of serious crime is in any way related to the size of a police force, I’m going to have to say that I think you’re full of it.

          Trust of the police does play a major role, but simply having more police doesn’t ensure that the community will trust them more. And we already ought to have enough police per capita to respond to calls within a reasonable time and engage the public. As I noted, we already have a high number of officers per capita. So what’s the argument that we need more? You’re certainly not making it.

      • I’ve been mugged and car jacked in the french Quarter. The police didn’t even write a report or follow up with me. They are lazy and uneducated . . . maybe not all of them, I like the police, but sometimes, they just don’t give a shit.

  3. It’s not the amount of cops in the dept., it’s what you do with them and the quality of person. Doubling the ranks won’t slow crime rates when cops refuse to leave their patrol cars, refuse to take victim complaints seriously, refuse to take action when crimes are committed right in front of them, refuse to gather evidence and are unable to build a case against a suspect. Even if they do build a sound case, they depend on the DA and criminal court judges to do their jobs of bringing cases to court and sentencing criminals. Nearly every crime in this town is committed by someone with priors, who, if this were any other city, would be behind bars serving their sentence.

  4. Austin may have a larger overall population but dare I say that New Orleans has a much larger criminal population.

    • Fullstop,

      It’s a mixed bag. New Orleans has a much greater problem with violent crime, but reported property crime is significantly worse in Austin. There might be reporting issues with that, of course, but once you stop believing the numbers it’s difficult to reach any conclusions.

  5. If more police is not a fix, lets go at root causes= poverty and education and follow the $….
    Poverty is a big profitable business with 2 strong arms- 1 takes tax free donations, and the other has badges, feeds 3 meals a day, and cleans up after mg parades.
    Both often act with best intentions, but evolved naturally to profit from short term gains that cause the long term PTSD and desperation that shoots 2 year olds.
    + We are obese and government can’t put lipstick on a pig, so lets start here and expose short term profits that cause long term pain.

    + Go at the 50% of this City that is exempt from Property Tax!!!!
    Best from 5110 Freret-

    p.s. Mr. C- Please keep it up- I may not always agree, but your questions KICK BUTT!!!!

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