The New Orleans Police Department has cut way back on arrests for felony drug crimes while keeping the handcuffs loose for violent criminals, according to the latest report card from a local criminal justice watchdog.
Felony drug busts fell 28 percent from 2012 to 2014, dropping those arrests from the top category for the first time since the Metropolitan Crime Commission began tracking felony arrest figures in 2007.
Over the same period, arrests for violent felonies rose by 13 percent while every other felony arrest category stayed level or declined, according to the MCC report released Wednesday.
Overall, the NOPD last year continued on a downward path in terms of arresting people, the annual “Criminal Justice System Accountability Report” found.
Commission President Rafael Goyeneche credited much of the decline to a steady bleeding in NOPD manpower over the past six years. A recruiting push launched by the Landrieu administration in late 2013 aims to stanch the bleeding, but it has had modest results so far.
The total number of sworn NOPD officers has dropped about 30 percent from a post-Katrina high of 1,546.
Also of note in the report is a 49 percent nosedive in arrests for driving with a suspended license or without a license. Those arrests numbered nearly 3,000 in 2012. Last year they fell to 1,506, as NOPD traffic enforcement efforts dwindled.
Goyeneche said the city now has a “responsive” police force manned by officers who are kept busy chasing dispatch calls, with little time to patrol the streets.
Arrests on felony weapons offenses also slid by more than 10 percent over a year.
“The drug (arrests) were made when police officers could be proactive. Weapons and drugs are primarily not going to be call-for-service-driven. The decline in those areas is probably an indication of the manpower crisis,” Goyeneche said.
“What you’re seeing really should come as no surprise to anybody. There are fewer police officers on the streets, and we’re seeing the consequences of that.”
Not all of the arrest declines are a bad thing, Goyeneche said.
Total arrests are less than half of what they were in 2009, when the total nearly topped 60,000, according to the MCC.
Most of those declines have come in arrests for usually minor out-of-parish warrants that create a revolving door at Orleans Parish Prison, as well as for misdemeanors that can be handled with summonses instead of jail bookings.
NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said the overall arrest declines are the result of a thoughtful policy shift.
“For the past five years, the NOPD has adopted policies to use summonses when appropriate in place of arrests. This practice holds people accountable for their actions and allows officers to spend more time patrolling our neighborhoods,” Gamble said in an email.
“Our goal is to continue to reduce the amount of time our officers spend on minor violations, so we can focus on preventing and reducing more violent crime, which is down 8 percent year-to-date.”
Manpower losses may be the primary factor in the decline in some felony arrest numbers, but Goyeneche also suggested another possible factor: uncertainty among officers and a lack of training on new policies set in place under a 2-year-old federal consent decree governing an array of reforms to the force.
The heightened scrutiny may have left officers gun-shy, Goyeneche said. “They’re afraid if they make a decision they may be disciplined for making an imprudent decision,” he said.
The city’s struggles with police manpower have drawn widespread criticism from residents bemoaning slow or non-existent police responses.
That distrust may be starting to show up, as the report found an 11 percent decline in calls for service from 2012 to 2014, even as the number of reported crimes grew. Calls about violent crimes and property crimes still rose by double-digit percentages over the two-year span.
Some of the steeper declines in calls for service were seen in calls about traffic accidents, which have fallen 24 percent in two years; complaints about drugs; and calls reporting prostitution, criminal mischief, disturbances and similar complaints.
“The delays in responding to calls for service are absolutely going to change the way the public chooses to report crime,” Goyeneche said. “If they have a bad experience and police don’t show or they have to wait for hours, they just throw up their hands.”
Goyeneche suggested a survey about residents’ level of satisfaction with 911 may offer a better idea of why calls for service are down.
A report last year from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office said that answering calls for service is not a priority for an NOPD that has too many officers assigned to desk duty or working as supervisors. How long it actually takes police to respond to calls, Quatrevaux’s report found, remains a mystery, since police do not record response times for one in eight calls.
Last week, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison announced a new initiative to cut down on false alarms to 911, through a proposed ordinance to force alarm companies to try harder to reach customers before police are dispatched in response to an alarm.
The report also looked at the outcomes of felony arrests. It largely praised District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office for driving up the percentage of felony arrests that lead to felony convictions.
Cannizzaro’s office continues to accept three of every four felony arrests to be prosecuted as felonies — a rate far above his predecessors.
However, Orleans Parish remains significantly below the 54 percent national rate of felony arrests that result in felony convictions, whether at trial or by guilty plea. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office raised its rate to 43 percent by the end of Cannizzaro’s first term last year.
The difference, according to the MCC report, may lie in the nearly one-quarter of local felony arrests that are reduced to misdemeanors. Some of those reductions are the result of Cannizzaro’s office deciding initially that police overcharged a defendant. In other cases, they are the result of later plea deals.
Goyeneche said Cannizzaro’s office may need to improve its case screening. But Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the office, voiced little concern, saying it’s easier under the system in New Orleans to reduce charges for an arrestee rather than raise misdemeanors to felonies.
“If police believe they have enough evidence to arrest for a felony, they should do that,” Bowman said. “There are enough relief valves” in the system to correct overcharging, he said.
Bowman praised the MCC’s reporting, however, calling it a good checkup on the health of the criminal justice system.
The MCC report can be viewed at www.metrocrime.org.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.