Helicopters, gunshot spotters and massages: City Council brainstorms ways to bolster NOPD

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NOPD Commanders Ronnie Stevens and Paul Noel (from left), Deputy Chief Bob Bardy, Chief Michael Harrison, and spokesman Tyler Gamble confer prior to a hearing before the City Council on Friday. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

NOPD Commanders Ronnie Stevens and Paul Noel (from left), Deputy Chief Bob Bardy, Chief Michael Harrison, and spokesman Tyler Gamble confer prior to a hearing before the City Council on Friday. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

A rapid-pursuit helicopter. Advanced audio technology to triangulate gunshot locations. Free meals and massages for police officers.

With armed robberies up four percent citywide this year — a point brazenly driven home by holdups at three recent Uptown restaurants — the New Orleans City Council said Friday they are ready to try nearly anything to help the police stop them.

In a special meeting of the City Council criminal-justice committee, the City Council members said that while they are concerned about crime trends in the city as a whole, the recent restaurant robberies have undermined residents’ sense of safety.

“The sense is that violence is around every corner,” said City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, opening the hearing.

At Guidry’s request, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison gave a presentation on the overall state of the police department. Many of the points he made — such as the high solve rates for armed robberies, the new program to reduce false-alarm calls, or the dozens of new officers who have been hired this year — were repeated from a news conference Harrison and Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave Monday, announcing the arrest of one Uptown armed-robbery suspect mere hours before the Monkey Hill robbery shocked the city again.

When Harrison concluded, the council members started with their own suggestions.

  • Councilman Jason Williams asked whether the law prohibiting police officers from working private security details at bars should be changed. Harrison said it’s a common rule across the country, that creating contractual relationships between individual police officers and bars is generally frowned upon.
  • Williams also suggested a development of a phone app that would, when activated, automatically call 911 when separated from its user. Harrison said the city is already using its first app in conjunction with the French Quarter patrols, and the trick is to integrate the app with the city police dispatch.
  • Another technology being considered by the department is microphones embedded in utility poles designed to “hear” and locate gunfire, Harrison said. It is generally more accurate in rural areas than urban areas (the NOPD actually tried and discontinued a pilot shot-spotter program in the Sixth District years ago), but Harrison said it is worth exploring again.
  • Councilwoman Stacy Head asked about loosening state laws that require a sworn officer on the scene of every fender bender, no matter how minor, suggesting that the laws are the work of insurance agencies and lawyers that want police to do their investigative work for them. Harrison agreed that NOPD should have more discretion over which traffic crashes to send police to, and pledged to work toward changing the law next year.
  • Councilman Jared Brossett asked if home-ownership incentives were available to make living in the city more attractive for officers, and Harrison replied that local banks already have those programs in place.

Some of the most aggressive questioning came from Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, in whose district the Cafe Atchafalaya robbery took place.

“What we’re doing isn’t good enough,” Cantrell said. “You’re doing great, working hard in the field, but we’re in a crisis.”

  • First, Cantrell asked if the department has a helicopter to search for suspects after a robbery. Harrison replied that the department has access to a helicopter for surveillance operations, but does not own one permanently. Harrison said the cost would be “millions,” not just to buy the helicopter but to maintain it and staff it, and that police cars usually arrive on scenes faster than helicopters because they are often nearer.
  • Cantrell also asked about stricter gun control, noting that she’s seen guns discarded by fleeing suspects with magazines “as long as my arm,” she said. Harrison agreed that the NOPD generally favors strong gun-control measures.
    “We’re in favor of every initiative that takes guns off the street and out of the hands of violent criminals,” Harrison said.
  • Cantrell suggested using the extensive overtime pay available to the department while it is understaffed to bring in sworn officers from other jurisdictions for additional patrols. Harrison said he was open to the idea, but wasn’t sure about the legalities that would be involved. Cantrell insisted that, since many of those same officers already assist the NOPD during major events like Mardi Gras, the legal hurdles can’t be too high.
  • Cantrell also asked about what other incentives officers could receive, like free meals at New Orleans restaurants, or free massages at local spas. Harrison said that those would likely be considered gifts of value discouraged by ethics rules for police officers.
  • Cantrell asked about curfew violations, and Harrison said the department already enforces curfew laws. But every curfew case, he said, takes an officer away from his patrol to deal with the youngster, Harrison noted.

Guidry concluded with her fear that the next restaurant robbery could devolve into a shootout sparked by an armed patron with a vigilante streak. Harrison agreed, noting that just because a person has a right to carry a weapon does not mean they have the training to use it effectively, or the judgment not to when they are outgunned.

“I would hate to be in a restaurant when someone decides to take on a robber, and instead could hit me or somebody else,” Guidry said.

Other than the media, the City Council chambers was nearly empty for the Friday-afternoon hearing. The lone speaker from the audience was Dyan French Cole, the activist known as Mama D, who questioned the flurry of activity over robberies when the murder count in the city is up by 15 percent — including a fatal shooting in her Seventh Ward neighborhood Friday morning.

“A 20-year-old died. He didn’t get robbed, he didn’t get his wallet taken,” Cole said. “He was murdered in my neighborhood this day.”

To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.

Live Blog City Council hearing on violent crime – Oct. 2, 2015

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