NEW ORLEANS — Some of the problems facing the criminal justice system in this city are frightening and obvious:
• A police department so troubled by corruption and internal lawlessness that the new mayor not only accepts, but invites and embraces federal intervention.
• Four officers convicted in the post-Katrina manslaughter of a civilian whose body was then burned, and the subsequent cover-up; this, followed by reassignment of six other officers, including four captains and a lieutenant, as a misconduct investigation continues.
• More officers facing trial in the “Danziger Bridge” incident that saw six more civilians shot, two fatally, in the post-Katrina mayhem.
This is happening before memories of 1990s scandals — cops running drug rings and, in two cases, being convicted of murder. And it goes a long way toward illustrating why citizens distrust the police and potential witnesses often stay silent, allowing violence to continue.
But other, less sensational, problems have long beleaguered New Orleans’ criminal justice system.
Some might even be surprising. For instance, despite the city’s reputation for winking at various forms of debauchery, police also have a reputation for needlessly jailing people accused of minor offenses.
“The police department has measured success by the quantity of arrests,” says Rafael Goyeneche, head of the independent watchdog group, the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “Never breaking down as to whether or not that arrest resulted in a conviction. And if there was a conviction, what was it was for? Was it for a felony or a misdemeanor?”
The problem he said, is that jail isn’t warranted for all arrests, and can just waste the time of police officers and others.
The City Council recently took steps to ease some of the burden. Getting caught with a small amount of marijuana will no longer mean an automatic trip to jail — and the subsequent bureaucracy that follows for the defendant, police and courts — under a proposal approved unanimously by the council in mid-December.
Prostitution, driving away from an officer, or “interfering” with an officer by refusing to move or leave the scene of a crime or accident are other crimes that can now be handled as municipal offenses with a court summons instead of jail.
Goyeneche said police also have wasted time arresting people in New Orleans on outstanding traffic offenses from other parishes, when the other jurisdictions had no plans to pick them up. Processing those minor offenders can take up a quarter of an officer’s 8-hour day, Goyeneche said, and new police chief Ronal Serpas is ending such arrests.
“It costs that officer just as much to arrest a traffic offender as it does a murderer,” Goyeneche said.
Goyeneche praises Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s efforts to bring the disparate elements of the criminal justice system together to streamline the system. Those include comprehensive study of the parish prison; it led to a plan for replacing the sprawling, outmoded jail with a smaller one.
Landrieu, as he did during his campaign, readily says that of all the problems facing the city — among them blight, crumbling infrastructure and budget issues — crime is the most pressing. Aside from its obvious quality of life consequences for people who live here, it’s also a disincentive for people and businesses to move here, he said in a recent interview.
And, while the police department horror stories are a big part of that problem, he says that’s only part of the story.
“If we can fix that problem, a lot of other problems will begin to be solved because so many people will feel the opportunity to come into the city and do more,” Landrieu said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kevin McGill is a reporter for The Associated Press in New Orleans.