Over the weekend, a police patrol car sat in the parking lot of the Carrollton Avenue Costco in New Orleans, as motorists lined up to fill their tanks.
That citizens cannot feel safe running a routine errand is a disquieting reflection on the political leadership of New Orleans, especially Mayor LaToya Cantrell and District Attorney Jason Williams.
As we peel back the layers on a terrifying crime wave gripping the city, it is increasingly clear that both the mayor and the chief prosecutor fell short in 2021 at their most fundamental job: Working proactively to keep the families of New Orleans safe.
Let’s start with the mayor.
New Orleans had a police force of more than 1,700 officers before Hurricane Katrina, and after the storm, political leaders agreed that the ideal force size for the city’s shrunken population would be 1,600. Now, the police force is the smallest in decades, at 1,069 officers. Recruitment and retention are difficult nationally these days, but the challenges here are acute.
Response times are frightening: On average it takes officers more than a half-hour to respond to 911 calls that are urgent enough to warrant lights and sirens. Officers complain they are hamstrung by the city’s consent decree with the Justice Department, which has improved policing but is stretching into its 10th year with no end in sight. Embarrassingly, the city had to crimp Carnival parade routes because there are not enough cops.
The current shortage traces back to Mitch Landrieu’s administration. The former mayor inherited a budget mess from his incompetent predecessor, Ray Nagin, and on his watch, the force shrunk to around 1,200. Landrieu launched a recruiting drive once the city’s finances recovered, but the diminution of the force belies his claim that his administration tackled the city’s toughest problems during his two terms.
Cantrell has been mayor for four years now, and the situation has gotten worse.
Last year, 150 officers left the force, far more than usual, and the city added only 33 new cops. The losses are so severe that the state’s Municipal Police Employees’ retirement System has classified NOPD as a “partially dissolved” police force under state law.
Belatedly, Cantrell announced last week a plan to spend $18 million through the end of 2023 on retention incentives for hard-to-fill city jobs, including police.
The mayor should have acted earlier, and she could have. The COVID stimulus package passed in March showered New Orleans with money — twice as much per resident as in Baton Rouge, which has similar problems.
In Williams, New Orleanians have a district attorney who has energetically attacked Louisiana’s culture of incarceration. His civil rights division reviewed old cases for wrongful convictions and excessive sentences, fulfilling a key promise to the voters who demanded change.
But Williams neglected the important work of ensuring that arrestees are charged within the time frame set by state law, blowing deadlines in dozens of violent crime cases. He tried to shift blame to the police department, but his predecessor Leon Cannizzaro, working with the same department, somehow managed to meet the deadlines without freeing so many arrestees to return to the streets.
Last week, Williams belatedly vowed to beef up his screening division to clean up the problem. But it turned out one of the people Williams recruited to help screen cases, retired Criminal District Court Judge Julian Parker, has been ineligible to practice law since 2016 for failing to pay bar dues and complete continuing legal education.
Mardi Gras is two weeks away. Tourists are returning to the city in large numbers. There are dreams of transforming New Orleans into a center for medical innovation and other growing business sectors.
But nothing good will happen if our leaders cannot make a gas station safe.