I am requesting a meeting with CM Ramsey to give her one last chance to reverse this process. If she declines, this is going to James Gray, Jason Williams or Jared Brossett. I will also want to know: why do all male Council Members’ names begin with “J”? Talk about conspiracy!
These meetings interfere with freedom of the press, and I don’t want to have to sue. We will try to settle this amicably, but If they force me down the suer route, where I might have to rub shoulders with addicted plaintiffs and their lawyers, I will sue them for that, too!
Okay, let’s start the story. I went to the police Town Meeting Wednesday afternoon, set up by Nadine Ramsey at the St Jude Center on North Rampart. The focus was on the 8th District, which inevitably zoomed in on the French Quarter. Now, my problem is this: police and security are all very well, but NOLAscape has a business to run. Non-profit, unfortunately, but still, business is business. Satire and mockery of folly, lies and evasion are our stock in trade, and municipal government has been its traditional source. And we can’t bloody do it right if this Council and the cops keep avoiding all these standard government key performance areas!
I used to be able to go to a Council committee session with Jackie Clarkson, Hedge-Morrell and Stacy Head and come out laughing, cheerful, full of material for a few NOLAscapes to get ’em rolling in the aisles and coming back for more. Now what? Do I have to turn to Jindal-watching for black comedy? David Vitter and family values? Republicans, fachrissake!
Standing room only at the St Jude. The hall was so full, you were probably there too; but okay, let’s do some reporting.
After a concise introduction by CM Ramsey, Police Chief Ronal Serpas took the mike. On TV the big chief generally looked a bit chilled and smug to me, but not here. He hit the issues square on – equipment, recruiting challenges, training and induction courses, rebuilding the training facility in East New Orleans. A few highlights were: 200 new cars on order. Recruiting drive starting to generate results – they have not recruited for several years, so the program took some time to click in. The reasons for attrition with no recruitment had been budget, the Chief said. There was no choice, but now we are past it The Consent Decree limits trainees to 30 people per entry class, which Serpas approves, because like school, larger classes might adversely affect results. Personnel and recruitment were probably the most interesting subject to most. Statistically, attrition through retirement, leaving for various reasons and dismissals should lead to a reduction of up to 137 officers a year, so you need a fairly active program just to tread water. People with military experience and qualified police officers from other locations can place out of some of the induction training, so they are trying to recruit them. (If you want to see a presentation of these facts with more detail and charts and tables, watch the police section of Council’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting of 25 June 2014.)
Chief Serpas spoke the longest. Have to admit, he was a skilled, clear presenter, and when he opened for questions, I was further surprised to see that he was a good listener. Some of the questions went on a bit, but the Chief seemed not just to be managing to wait them out, but actually listening to the end, and answering to the point.
The outlook that Chief Serpas presented sounded positive and promising. What we do not know is how much it corresponds to reality. One thing sifted through, confirming something Ms Ramsey said last week – Serpas does not see youth outreach as part of the force’s mission. Some police forces do, but NOPD is leaving that to others, especially the NOLA for Life organization.
Not everything was upbeat for the District Eighters. Most people believed the complement of 150 officers in 8 were down to 100; Serpas said it is lower than that – about 90. So with three shifts and seven days, there will be fairly busy times that the NOPD complement is down to about 20. Allowing 4,000 residents, about 7,000 employees and an average of almost 25,000 visitors a day in just the French Quarter part of 8, that’s pretty thin. The State Police supplement helps until Labor Day.
Serpas posed another interesting question: State Police Highway Patrol manages the Interstates everywhere but in New Orleans. Highway Patrol takes over again on the other side of the 17th Street canal, but on this side, for some reason, NOPD is supposed to handle it instead of the highway specialists. It takes police off city patrols, and replaces the specialists with regular beat cops. They have been asking Baton Rouge to change this for years. This seems a pretty goofy way to run an elevated highway; perhaps we should all get on Baton Rouge’s case about this one.l
A challenge from the audience was that NOPD is clogging up the works with arrests for petty infractions, taking officers off the streets and slowing the pipelines. Chief Serpas said in fact the opposite is the case, that arrests are down 38% over the last four years . I smell a rat here, but not enough to try to stomp all over the presentation. If staffing and budget have been down about 27%, and now 40% in District 8, you would expect a significant drop in arrests on the basis of limitation, without a strategic plan. Shall we give him a pass, though, because most of us would have done the same?
There were some brief statement from Commanders Walls of the 8th and Sandifer of the 1st.
Then District Attorney Cannizzaro was up. He surprised me too. The DA is a vigorous speaker. Stalking back and forth in front of the panel’s table, he warmed up with a few of the expected prosecutor’s gripes about courts letting people out. Two things struck me particularly. People caught with illegal guns can be treated as first-time offenders. Carrying a pistol illegally is never anybody’s first crime. Everybody knows it but the court treats it as a first and let’s people out. And statistically, people convicted of an illegal gun offense are twice as likely as the average to commit another crime within a year of release, and five times more likely to commit a violent crime within 12 months. Five times more than who exactly – I’m trying to work that out, but we get the idea.
The District Attorney also said that his policy is to bear down hard on violent criminals, going for tough sentences, but to take it easier on non-violent crimes. He said a lot of those arrested were drug addicts or people that needed help more than incarceration.
So pretty good stuff, and if this Council and these appointed and elected officials keep this up, I am going to have to learn to write straight stories and apply for a job at the Times-Pic.
Isn’t this really just another political trick to keep important columns like NOLAscape from telling the truth? They want us all to get bored and sign up to the Access Press.
An audience member asked, What can we do to support? Serpas replied: this. Attendance at these meetings and citizen interest is a big step. He said there are more of these Town Halls in progress now since Nadine Ramsey got traction in Council District C than in the whole city in the past five years. One thing at least the Town Hall meetings are doing – the police leaders and the District Attorney are standing up and making commitment before hundreds of us, we the hoi polloi, and we will remember later if they don’t get it done, if the words are empty.
Here’s the thing though – where it gets tough to join it up. Underneath this local festival of justice and promise, we’re trying to keep afloat in a society that incarcerates over two million people, an enormous percentage of them on charges that are a product of the lunatic War on Drugs, a government creation, sentenced on plea bargains because real justice is stacked against these people. The felony term will put most of them on the other side for life, and they serve as an example to their children and others of what they might expect in an American future.
The country is in a wave of militarized policing. The Pentagon is giving surplus tanks to urban police forces. Police in riot gear channel Roman legions. So what is going to happen? Will the good words of Chief Serpas and DA Cannizzaro bring justice, security without loss of freedom, progress? Will the renewed police NOPD be part of our society, or will it be part of a continent-wide mechanism of containment and suppression?
You get to think about that, while I go for a drink.
An anecdote I heard today: one of the leaders of French Quarter/New Orleans Advocates, the new civic group centered in the FQ, asked the Commander, “What can we do to help?” That is FQA’s general attitude: get stuck in. The officer was taken aback. He said other downtown groups just complain at them: “The Police have let us down,” and the usual yada yada. The Krewe of Kvetch. The FQ’s grim old Watchdogs, howling at the moon.
Look, guys, something has to be fun. The Cyberstalking defense?
“In closing, I would like to remind the jury that he says he didn’t do it.”