Fighting crime in New Orleans has long been an effort by committee, an amalgam of local, state and federal agencies forging a united front against violence. The partnerships form the backbone of law enforcement, allowing authorities to share intelligence and limited resources.
But the latest crew to join the cause — a little-known task force created by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry — has raised eyebrows among city leaders and rankled some officials, who say Landry has failed to coordinate his investigative efforts with the New Orleans Police Department and Louisiana State Police.
Some critics see the effort, which has coincided with social media posts from Landry sounding the alarm about New Orleans street crime, as a nakedly political stunt.
While New Orleans officials haven't been shy about asking for help in policing the streets of the Crescent City — often going hat in hand to State Police — the Attorney General's Office has never received any such invitation. But that hasn't stopped Landry from crashing the party, thereby raising questions about the Republican attorney general's law enforcement authority in a city governed by Democrats and under a strict, court-ordered police reform plan.
The unusually public power struggle has pitted Landry against Mayor Mitch Landrieu, an increasingly familiar posture for a first-term attorney general who rarely shies away from a fight.
"New Orleans is still in the state of Louisiana, the last time I checked," Landry said in an interview, bristling at the mention of Landrieu. "He doesn't have the authority to kick me out."
The conflict came to a head last week, when Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, in a pointed letter, invoked the city's home rule charter and bluntly warned Landry that he lacked the authority "to engage in active law enforcement in New Orleans."
"He's putting the lives of my police officers and the lives of state troopers at risk," Landrieu told The Advocate on Friday, referring to Landry. "He doesn't seem to understand that policing is a partnership."
The dust-up highlights the pugnacious — and often controversial — approach Landry has favored in his first year as Louisiana's top law enforcement official.
The attorney general has clashed repeatedly with Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, over everything from coastal lawsuits and state contracts to the amount of control Landry has over his budget. He has accused the governor of "legislating through executive fiat," echoing his criticism of what he assails as the overreach of President Barack Obama's administration.
In an interview in his Capitol office, Landry insisted this tension has benefited the state, even if his penchant for conflict lacks a recent precedent. A former one-term congressman from New Iberia with Tea Party ties thicker than his Cajun accent, Landry said he has sought to reduce his office's fiscal footprint even as he expands its reach.
"I believe in the checks and balances that our (state) constitution and the U.S. Constitution" guarantee, Landry said. "My job is to make sure that I stay inside my wheelhouse, and everyone else should stay inside theirs as well."
That said, Landry has made moves to redefine the reach and mission of his office. Among the first changes he made was a rebranding of his office's investigative arm, which now is known as the Louisiana Bureau of Investigation and takes on some work that has traditionally fallen to police departments and sheriff's offices.
Landry said that move was the "brainchild" of Shane Guidry, the chief executive officer of Harvey Gulf International Marine, who is a close friend and financial backer of the attorney general's. (In an unusual arrangement, Guidry is also a high-ranking employee of the Attorney General's Office, though he draws a minimal $12,000 salary.)
Landry said he also has diversified his office's top ranks.
"We placed Chris Hebert in charge of gaming, the first black to hold that particular spot. We probably have an unusual amount of women in the office if you look at it proportionally, and those women enjoy positions at all the levels from the executive all the way down," Landry said.
Critics charge that Landry regularly oversteps his bounds, whether he's railing against illegal immigration and so-called "sanctuary cities," challenging the Obama administration's plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants or dispatching LBI agents to apprehend carjackers in New Orleans East.
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A common refrain — which Landry denies — is that he already is running against Edwards for governor in 2019.
"He promised he would take the office in a different direction, and he definitely has," said David Caldwell, a former assistant attorney general whose father, former Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, was unseated by Landry in 2015. "You've got somebody at the top now that doesn't have any experience, and the real police know that."
'A different way'
Some current and former law enforcement officials offered praise for Landry, saying he has won their support by taking a proactive approach. Unlike Caldwell, Landry was never a prosecutor, but he worked for a time as a deputy sheriff in St. Martin Parish.
"He's doing things in a different way, but he's within his territory," said Mike Knaps, a former Baker police chief who serves as a legislative committee member for the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police. "There are a lot of people who don't like (former Maricopa County) Sheriff Joe Arpaio out in Arizona, but he acts within his authority."
In an interview with The Advocate, Landry recited a host of accomplishments in his first year in office, including identifying cost-saving moves within the office and improving relations with the FBI, which he said had chilled during Caldwell's tenure. He said he also accelerated payments to survivors of slain police officers and firefighters, including some families who had been waiting for years for the state benefits.
While he did not rule out a run for governor, Landry, 46, said he remains focused on his current job. He said he "despises people" who use one political office as a stepping-stone to the next.
"I don't get up every morning and say, 'How can I get to the fourth floor?' " he added, referring to the governor's office in the state Capitol, 18 floors below Landry's. "I like my job."
But critics have derided Landry's recent focus on violent crime in New Orleans as proof of his ulterior motives. The role of attorney general, they note, traditionally has been to prosecute criminals in the courtroom, not arrest them in high-speed pursuits.
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Last week, Landry touted the work of his violent crimes task force in a news release, boasting that his agents worked "tirelessly" over a three-month period to effect 11 arrests. The collars stemmed from drugs and stolen vehicles, but the news release noted that "the task force also assisted the NOPD on three armed robbery arrests and two armed carjacking arrests."
Caldwell, the former assistant attorney general, described the news release as "comical," saying the prior administration would have been embarrassed by numbers that paltry. "I hope nobody pulled a muscle making all those arrests," he quipped. "This is very obviously a ploy for (Landry) to put a feather in his own cap, and it's not helpful to law enforcement."
Landry also has taken to social media in recent days to draw attention to New Orleans crime, noting on Twitter, for instance, that it took just hours for the city to record its first murder in 2017.
"Another life lost. 14 hours into the New Year... RIP #MakeNewOrleansSafeAgain," Landry wrote, riffing on President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
He also published a short video highlighting New Orleans crime statistics and boasting to constituents that he is "taking action." But despite Landry's tough talk, his task force has yielded modest results. Of the 16 arrests that Landry's office said his group made or contributed to from October to December, four were for marijuana possession.
The NOPD made 5,463 arrests in the same period, or about 321 for each arrest by the AG's task force.
Landry said that after announcing a task force to police special events in the French Quarter and CBD in July, he quickly realized the crime problem in New Orleans was much larger. He has sent his agents elsewhere, to areas like the predominantly black neighborhoods of New Orleans East. "Why are their lives any less important than some tourist on Bourbon Street?" he asked.
His office says the task force typically has between five and 16 agents "on the ground at one time, depending on manpower and circumstance." That includes five agents from the LBI, who are supplemented by officers from other agencies.
The Attorney General's Office employs about 500 people in total.
The most dramatic incident to involve Landry's task force so far was a Dec. 2 pursuit of two alleged armed carjackers from New Orleans East to Algiers. The NOPD said officers and task force agents pursued a stolen car across the Crescent City Connection to the 4100 block of Copernicus Street, where the vehicle crashed. Two teenagers were arrested on the scene.
For Landry, the incident is proof that his agents can make a mark in cases where NOPD officers are hamstrung by what he called a "hug-a-thug" federal consent decree. He said NOPD policy would have prevented officers from embarking on the pursuit. "It places virtual handcuffs on the NOPD," he said of the department's sweeping reform agreement with the U.S. Justice Department. "That is not going to take violent criminals off the street. It has a plethora of problems."
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Scanner traffic, however, suggests that while Landry's LBI agents may have initiated the chase, NOPD officers were on the road right beside them. Both agencies surrounded the crashed car, according to an NOPD news release sent out the same day. Mention of the LBI has since vanished from the version of the release on the Police Department's website.
The chase highlights the vastly different terms under which NOPD officers and the task force agents operate. The Department of Justice investigation that sparked the consent decree goes into detail on how dangerous and volatile vehicle pursuits can be. The consent decree implemented strict safeguards in response, including requiring the approval of a supervisor for chases.
Landry's troops operate under looser standards, according to the attorney general, which allows them to pursue more criminals. But Harrison, the police superintendent, said in his letter to Landry last week that "any policing conducted within New Orleans must strictly comply with the mandates of the consent decree."
Susan Hutson, the city's independent police monitor, said the consent decree, which was prompted by notorious incidents like the Danziger Bridge shootings, should be observed by other agencies operating in the city. "The people of New Orleans want their police to operate under the standards and high level of training required by the consent decree," she said.
To create the task force, Landry has drawn from a wide range of agencies well beyond the parish line. His office said members come from the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office and the Hammond, Slidell, Ponchatoula and Thibodaux police departments.
But several other agencies have expressed reluctance to participate in the task force. State Police met with Landry on Monday but haven't committed to detailing troopers. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand — who co-chaired Landry's transition team a year ago — rejected a request from Landry's office to provide access to its criminal information databases.
Despite the criticism from locals, Landry said he has no intention of backing out of New Orleans. Harrison said in his letter that the city's home rule charter appoints the NOPD as the chief law enforcement agency for the parish. But Landry said the state constitution gives him "broad criminal investigative powers."
Landrieu said he was "happy to have anybody’s help, so long as they police appropriately and under the guidelines." But he added that he would not stand for an outsider "ripping and running" or "playing Barney Fife."
"The mayor is not the one with a badge," Landry said. "He’s not in New Orleans East or Gentilly and those areas, and when he goes, he clears the streets. He doesn’t like the fact that his city has become more dangerous than Chicago, and he’s been in charge of it for seven years, and now somebody wants to do something about it. I’m sure it irritates him."