In the security video that shocked New Orleans, infrared distortion turns the skin of patrons at Patois a bluish-gray color, creating a visual sense of unreality that matches the confusion felt by those diners moments later when three men wearing masks and hoodies burst in, robbing the entire restaurant at gunpoint on Aug. 21. That citywide shock was only amplified in late September, when robberies took place in similar fashion at Cafe Atchafalaya in the Irish Channel and then the Monkey Hill bar, only a few blocks from Patois and Audubon Park.
The Mayor called a news conference to announce an arrest in an unrelated spree of robberies and tout the city’s crimefighting efforts, then another new conference a day later after Monkey Hill, joined by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and pledging federal investigation and prosecution of the cases. Local news outlets “flooded the zone” with reaction and analysis pieces, while The New York Times and Washington Post brought national attention to the robbery spree. By the end of the month, the New Orleans City Council held its own hearing on “high-profile” robberies, pitching questions and suggestions to NOPD officials about how to battle the city’s feeling that control was being lost.
The entire discussion, however, provides ample opportunity for an airing of misconceptions about the city, its long battle with violent crime and its police force. While nearly every side of the discussion — frightened residents, embattled city leaders, besieged police officers, and skeptical critics — have made valid and useful points about the issue, the facts frequently get lost in the rhetoric.
So what follows is an attempt to make some sense of the issue, taking the broadest view possible and using all the information that’s publicly available.
Is crime out of control?
From a long-term perspective, even in the medium-term since Hurricane Katrina, violent crime in New Orleans is on a downward trend. Measured in a number of ways, 2013 might well have been one of the “safest” years the city of New Orleans has ever seen. The 156 murders recorded in the city were the fewest since 1985. Likewise, armed robberies in the Uptown area were also at an all-time low — 58 were recorded in the Second District, roughly one per week, and down from pre-Katrina rates in excess of 200 a year, 150 in 2007 and 2008, or an average of 87 in the years 2009 to 2012.
In fact, the overall number of armed robberies in New Orleans per capita was squarely in the middle of the pack for other Southern cities with a far less violent reputation than New Orleans — less than Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, Baton Rouge and Jackson (though still more than Nashville, Mobile or Austin).
There is likewise little doubt, however, that crime in New Orleans has increased in the past two years since that low point. The drop in the murder rate held steady in 2014 — halting its dramatic decline of the previous few years — but is up by about 15 percent so far in 2015. Armed robberies are up 4-percent citywide, department officials said at the beginning of October, and the number of robbery sprees in the Uptown area have hurt the Second District’s totals — with a projection to end the year around 90, back in the 2011-2012 range.
With murders and robberies returning to levels more like 2012, it’s worth noting that even the restaurant robberies are not entirely unprecedented — masked men violently robbed Cooter Browns in Carrollton and Domino’s in New Orleans East in 2013 as well.
Is there a NOPD manpower crisis?
Almost certainly yes. When Mayor Mitch Landrieu hired Ronal Serpas in May 2010, the force stood at 1,540 officers. There were about 1,150 officers on the force in September 2015 — a net loss of about 400 officers, or a 25-percent reduction in the size of the force.
It’s important to note that when measured by number of officers per resident, New Orleans is not grossly out of line with other major cities, and Inspector General Ed Quatreveaux has argued that the problems stem from manpower allocation, not overall staffing. But per-capita comparisons fail to take into account the much higher manpower needs in cities that draw large tourist populations, nor the notion that cities with higher crime rates simply need more officers to investigate them.
How did the city lose so many officers?
The city of New Orleans stopped hiring officers completely for two years, and did so only at a trickle after that. This was not an accident. At the August 2010 graduation of the last class (known as recruit class no. 167) hired under former Mayor Ray Nagin, new NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas predicted that budget issues would prevent the hiring of another class for at least a year.
In fact, Serpas’ dire-sounding projection turned out to be too timid: The next class of 28 officers (168) would not graduate until August 2012. One class (169) graduated in 2013, and one (170) in 2014 — meaning a total of 77 new officers joined the force between 2011 and 2014.
It’s also worth noting that during the hiring freeze, city officials publicly refused to admit that the attrition was creating a problem — with Landrieu himself employing the per-capita argument in January 2012 to justify the size of the force. One of the first men in uniform to publicly link the drop in the number of officers to higher response times was then-Capt. Bruce Adams, speaking to an Uptown community group in January 2012 — and he was promptly relegated to menial administrative work in a trailer in City Park for the next few years.
“Do I think we’re in a state of emergency? The answer is yes,” Adams told residents in that meeting. “I’m not pulling any punches. We need more officers.”
It should also be noted, as documented by Mike Perlstein of WWL-TV, that while Serpas publicly supported Landrieu’s hiring decisions, he began warning Mayor Landrieu of the dire consequences of reducing the force as early as September 2011.
Isn’t recruiting finally on the rise?
Recruiting has undeniably increased in 2015, though it still does not meeting any stated targets. Two classes (171 and 172) have already graduated in 2015, with a third (173) expected to graduate before the end of the year — adding nearly 90 more officers to the streets. But even these numbers aren’t enough to counter a natural attrition rate of 100 or so officers per year, and the year is still expected to finish with slightly fewer officers than it started.
So the total effect of the recruiting efforts is that the bleeding has somewhat been staunched, but the wound hasn’t yet begun to heal. And this is a question that remains largely open — even during a lengthy discussion between the City Council and the NOPD on Oct. 2, no one specifically asked if the city even can increase its recruiting by another 50 percent or so to truly start overcoming the natural rate of attrition and rebuilding the force, or whether that natural attrition rate can be reduced so greatly as to have the same net effect.
In 2013, Serpas promised to hire 150 officers per year, a number both he and his successor have fallen far short of. Thousands of candidates are clearly applying to the agency, so why the NOPD has been unable to meet its announced hiring goals has yet to be fully explained.
Is there a mass exodus of officers from the force?
In 2013, NOPD Officer Troy Pichon took a bullet to the leg in a gunfight with a suspect in Central City in an effort to draw fire off of his partner, Eric Gillard. Pichon was hailed as a law-enforcement hero in the city, but less than a year and a half later was recruited away by the Louisiana State Police.
Departures to other agencies are a routine part of a law enforcement career — just like retirement, or a handful of terminations per cause — and, contrary to some perceptions, there has been no substantial increase in them under the current administrations. In the three years of 2008 to 2010, an average of roughly 130 officers left per year. From 2011-2012, that figure slowed to around 105 officers leaving per year, Serpas said in 2013 — a number that statistics show has held essentially steady since then. So the reduction in overall manpower is not primarily caused by any specific increase in departures to other agencies — it is simply the result of a two-year halt in hiring, followed by several years’ difficulty in restarting the process.
It also should be noted, however, that for every year the department shrinks, a loss of another 100 officers represents a larger percentage of the force departing: The loss of 105 officers would have represented an attrition rate of 6.8 percent in 2010, but of 9.1 percent of the remaining force in 2015.
So while the loss of officers to other agencies is not specifically driving the problem, improving their retention can almost certainly be a part of the solution, which is now recognized by the city. NOPD officers start at less than $39,000, compared to the more than $46,000 offered to State Police Officers, though the city has sought to narrow this gap with recent pay raises after several years without them — with more raises and overtime in the 2016 budget Landrieu proposed this week. The department has hired consultants to help it with retention as well as recruiting, and recruits from smaller agencies just as larger agencies recruit from the NOPD.
It is probably to early to say whether these efforts will reduce the rate of departures. But as part of the collaboration between the State Police and the NOPD, Pichon still appears (in State Police dress blues) on New Orleans crime scenes from time to time, and his former colleagues speak warmly of the prospect of the prospect of luring him back to their ranks eventually.
What is the effect of this loss of manpower?
The reduction in manpower can now be seen in every aspect of the department’s operations. Fewer patrol officers mean longer response times to routine calls. Fewer detectives mean each investigator has to handle more cases, reducing the amount of time that can be spent on each. Fewer overall officers means that even more have to be pulled from every other unit — patrol, investigation and support — whenever a major tourist event occurs that requires a larger presence.
Ranking officers will also point out (in private) that this manpower shortage is perhaps felt most keenly in their ability to do proactive policing. In 2010, Serpas restructured the police districts beyond the traditional patrol units who answer routine calls for service and detectives who investigate crimes, pulling from both groups to create specialized task forces to be deployed in high-crime areas. Each district had three task forces, one focused on drugs, and the other two to patrol proactively either in areas where violent crimes are persistent, or where a short-term crime spree — anything from armed robberies to car break-ins — was flaring up.
As the force shrunk, however, these task force units have been eviscerated. First the narcotics units were centralized with the creation of the major-gang task force — a move that, while reducing the presence of the task forces, was generally accepted as it has been credited with taking some of the most violent criminal gangs in each district off the streets. But last year, the two remaining task forces in each district were consolidated into one of about five officers — which, with scheduling issues,often leaves a “task force” as a single officer or two on proactive patrol in each district.
To wit, the number of guns seized from the Uptown parade routes in Mardi Gras — a task specifically assigned to those district task forces, separate from the crowd control undertaken by so many other officers — fell dramatically in 2015, the same year the event was rocked by a double murder during the Muses parade on St. Charles Avenue.
As a stopgap, Deputy Chief Bob Bardy (a major proponent of the task force strategy when he was commander of the Sixth District) created a citywide task force that he can deploy to some of the most urgent crime trends facing the whole city, a measure the administration has repeatedly trumpeted in response to the robbery spree. When they arrive — as in the case of the Uptown restaurant robberies, or shootings in Algiers — they greatly bolster the number of officers on the ground. But as soon as the problem is resolved, or a new problem emerges elsewhere, they are deployed elsewhere, leaving the bare-bones district to fend for themselves again — and trading what was intended to be a “proactive” force for a reactive one.
Is the consent decree part of the problem, or part of the solution?
In 2012, after a federal investigation requested by new-mayor Landrieu into abuses of authority at the NOPD, the city signed what it now calls “the nation’s most expansive Consent Decree … a broad array of separate tasks and goals detailed in more than 490 paragraphs and 110 pages.” Veteran NOPD officers — even those whose work is hailed by the city as exemplary — rail in private at many of the impositions of the document, starting simply with the crush of paperwork and documentation required for every action they take. In an even more painful example for officers of what the agreement took from them, infamous criticism of the disorganized system by which officers worked off-duty hours for private employers as an “aorta of corruption” led to a new city agency overseeing it with new regulations. As a result, however, many of those private employers and even some neighborhoods simply started using sheriff’s deputies and private security companies instead, costing officers a significant part of their incomes. While morale clearly suffered, it has not, however, resulted in an appreciable increase in attrition.
On the other hand, the consent decree has put the NOPD on the forefront of the constitutional policing movement across the nation. When Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, President Barack Obama and many activists called for all police officers to be required to wear cameras on their body at all times — a policy the NOPD had already created the year before.
Likewise, when Treasurer John Kennedy called for “stop and frisk” policing in New Orleans after the Patois robbery, Harrison firmly rejected the idea. Simply frisking every citizen whom an officer stops is widely understood as an unconstitutional search, Harrison explained, an abuse similar to those that resulted in the consent decree. Instead, police officers search suspects when they have a reasonable belief that they may be armed — and by properly evaluating each incident on its own merits, the department will rebuild trust with citizens that will lead to increased cooperation on criminal investigations, Harrison explained.
“We’re not teaching officers just to go out and stop and frisk people,” Harrison said. “Some stops lead to frisks, but every stop doesn’t. That’s only when we believe a person could be armed. That’s not automatic.”
Why is the city spending so much energy on Confederate monuments instead of public safety?
It’s not. That’s a rhetorical straw man pushed by the monument supporters, but it has no basis in reality. Landrieu has held multiple news conferences about crime issues in recent weeks, and none about the monuments. The City Council held a public hearing on the robberies on Oct. 2, but has spent little time on in the monument debate since referring it to committee back in July. And the two city agencies that have dealt with the monuments, the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Human Rights Commission, essentially have nothing to do with crime in the city.
Is the city excessively focused on robberies of wealthy residents in restaurants, instead of its murder rate?
This is probably a more valid criticism, but also more complex, a matter where it can be difficult to distinguish perception from reality.
Landrieu held a news conference Monday, Sept. 28, on the steps of City Hall to announce the arrest of a teenager accused of committing five robberies with a lever-action rifle. That night, Monkey Hill was robbed, and then Landrieu and the U.S. Attorney reconvened yet another news conference to announce their “laser focus” on that case.
On the other hand, Landrieu has repeatedly responded in public to homicides as well — for example, the 2011 killing of a key witness in the case against Telly Hankton, or the rash of toddlers killed by stray bullets in Central City, the 2015 slaying on the parade route, or the killing of NOPD Officer Daryle Holloway, to name a few. Likewise, in 2013, newly-elected City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell convened a meeting of officials at every level of government to discuss improving the city’s response to homicide in 2013, after the stray bullets ended the lives of two more children.
City Council President Jason Williams said that the Uptown restaurant robberies invoke fear (and the Council attention) because they hold the potential for so much bloodshed, with so many victims threatened by the shooter simultaneously. This is undeniably true, although The Guardian has recently chronicled the fact that New Orleans has had 18 spree shootings (with more than four people injured or killed) since the beginning of 2013, a frequency of more than once every two months.
Finally, violent-crime detectives note that armed robbers and actual shooters are often the same people. For example, the same group of teens involved in the near-fatal shooting of attorney Sandy Kaynor in October 2012 during a robbery attempt were also linked to a murder in New Orleans East the same month. So arresting brazen armed robbers may actually prevent shootings — though of course the converse is true as well, that aggressive investigation of shootings likely helps prevent armed robberies.
And that, perhaps, illustrates the most pervasive myth about crime in New Orleans, that it is one neighborhood’s problem but not another’s, that it’s right to think in terms of “safe” or “unsafe” neighborhoods. District commanders frequently suggest that creating taxes for private security on upscale streets is likely less effective than improving policing in neighborhoods where shootings are more frequent. U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite made this exact same point on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“The safety of the Garden District requires safety in Central City,” Polite said. “This is not an abstraction. It can be achieved, in our community, in our lifetime. So I implore you to move beyond passivity, into a love in action for our city. Get from behind your safe homes, get from behind your safe office buildings, and get out into our neighborhoods and continue to effect change in our world.”
The NOPD is making gains in its investigations of major criminal gangs — earlier this month, yet another major prosecution of the Carrollton-based Taliban gang neared its conclusion with convictions. But Deputy Chief Bob Bardy — a fairly beloved former commander of the police district over Central City — repeatedly told that community that the police will never arrest their way out of the crime problem. Until all New Orleanians invest themselves in ferreting out and remedying the conditions that continue to create criminals, crime may literally remain out of our control.