Despite a surge in reported crimes in New Orleans, a depleted police force logged fewer arrests in the first half of 2014 than in preceding six-month periods, extending a steady slide that has seen criminal bookings dive by more than 30 percent in four years, according to a report released Wednesday by the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Traffic scofflaws and drug dealers appeared to be the biggest winners, according to the MCC data.
Arrests on traffic violations were down by nearly half from 2010 as the NOPD — smaller by several hundred officers — narrowed its sights to the city’s violent crime woes, MCC President Rafael Goyeneche said.
“Police don’t have the resources to devote to traffic. They’re dealing with the bigger issues,” he said.
The result was an 11 percent uptick in arrests for violent felony offenses in the first half of 2014, while arrests for felony weapons, drug and property crimes all declined from the prior six months, the report said. Felony drug arrests took the biggest tumble, a nearly 20 percent decline.
All told, police made 2,791 felony arrests in the first half of the year, 18 percent fewer than in the same period four years earlier. Back then, sworn police manpower stood at 1,525 officers. It now is below 1,100, with fewer than 1,000 officers actively working, according to the NOPD.
The latest NOPD crime data, meanwhile, show that the numbers of murders, rapes, robberies and assaults reported in the city over the first nine months of 2014 surpassed the total for all of 2010.
Only the number of murders, the bull’s-eye of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s anti-crime strategy, has declined.
The NOPD has yet to release crime numbers for the fourth quarter. But the first three quarters of 2014 showed a 26 percent rise in reported crimes against people and a 13 percent increase in property crimes over the same period in 2013.
Goyeneche described the latest report as a largely positive assessment of a police force that is better deploying its limited resources on the city’s most pressing crime troubles, while working more closely with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, with impressive results.
Cannizzaro’s office accepted more than three-quarters of felony arrests for prosecution as felonies, while logging what the report described as a record-high felony conviction rate.
“They’re laser-focused on the most serious offenses,” Goyeneche said. “That still doesn’t do anything for the people in the community who dial 911 and the police are slow to, or never do, arrive. But that’s the result of political decisions that were made and imposed on the Police Department not to hire for essentially five years.”
Goyeneche sees a direct relationship between the flagging arrest numbers and a hiring freeze that Landrieu put in place five years ago to help plug a yawning city budget deficit. An all-out recruiting campaign launched in late 2013 has gained steam, but the new hiring spree has yet to stanch the bleeding from steady attrition of officers.
Landrieu has budgeted money for five new police recruit classes this year. That same goal last year produced just two academy classes, however, and the mayor has come under mounting criticism from a crime-weary public.
A recent spate of media ads and demonstrators have taken the mayor to task over the frequency of violent and brazen attacks in the French Quarter and around the city as patrol staffing in the city’s eight police districts continues to wane.
The MCC report also found a different, post-arrest trend: a growing lag time for prosecutors to decide whether to accept or refuse a charge.
The median waiting period for Cannizzaro’s office to make a decision has grown to 52 days, up from 44 days in 2012, the report found. That eight-day difference translated to at least 18,000 additional jail days — at the city’s expense — for felony suspects who sat behind bars until those decisions were made, the MCC’s figures show.
The report found some of the biggest delays were in drug and property crime cases in which defendants are more likely to post bond. Goyeneche said it was unclear whether police or prosecutors were likely at fault in the delays — the former by failing to quickly submit reports, or the latter by sitting on cases.
The situation is a far cry from the days when prosecutors regularly failed to make those decisions before the constitutional time clock ran out, often forcing the dismissal of cases, Goyeneche said.
Still, “the whole thrust of our report is that police and prosecutors are joined at the hip, and in this together,” Goyeneche said. “Some of the inefficiencies in the criminal justice system are the result of the Police Department and the DA’s Office not focusing on this issue, and it’s starting to creep up.”
Cannizzaro took a positive view of the added time for his office to make charging decisions.
“I’d like to think it is because there is more of an emphasis on trying to make a better case in this office,” he said. “It may take us a bit longer to get the evidence, to get that additional witness. There’s going to be a natural delay in the accepting of the case, but I think we’re going to produce a better product in court.”
The report showed that Cannizzaro’s office accepted 77 percent of felony cases — an increase from earlier years. Another 10 percent of those felony arrests were accepted as misdemeanors, the report said.
Getting police officers to make misdemeanor arrests or issue summonses where appropriate is “really a simple fix” that will cut down on unneeded jail stays, Goyeneche said.
Cannizzaro, however, said he didn’t have a problem with a police practice of “charging high,” or erring on the side of making a felony arrest.
“I know there has been a push, especially with those concerned about the crowded conditions in the jail, to encourage police to try to charge down,” Cannizzaro said. “I’d still rather the police make their call. Most important to me is that they gather all the information.”
Some of the decline in arrests is a good thing, Goyeneche said. For years, he has pressed for the NOPD to stop booking people on minor out-of-parish warrants and attachments that he said usually prove a waste of officers’ time. Those arrests continued to slide in the first half of 2014 but still made up nearly a third of total NOPD arrests.
“It’s not just jail beds,” Goyeneche said. “It relates to police being available for calls for service for serious crimes.”
The report can be found at metrocrime.org.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.