Citing opposition from Mayor Mitch Landrieu, state Attorney General Jeff Landry has quietly abandoned his much-hyped effort to fight crime in New Orleans using a special task force of state agents.
The task force generated at least 16 arrests and a heap of controversy over its short lifespan.
The most recent criticism came earlier this month, after the task force had been disbanded, when a federal judge said Landry’s agents had no authority to make arrests in Orleans Parish.
Landry’s task force was launched with a news conference before the 4th of July weekend last year, but it is not clear when it stopped patrolling the city. The Attorney General’s Office could not give an exact date or the total number of arrests the unit made before it closed up shop.
The end of the task force comes as the city continues to struggle with rising rates of violent crime. Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the entire saga represented a missed opportunity for a city with a shorthanded police force.
“I think that politics maybe took precedence over a more low-profile type of offer to help with the (New Orleans Police Department). And I think that ruffled some of the political feathers that control the NOPD, meaning the mayor,” he said.
Landry, a conservative Republican, pulled the plug after Landrieu, a Democrat with a very different political philosophy, alleged the attorney general's unit was putting officers at risk by failing to coordinate with the Police Department.
Meanwhile, the federal judge overseeing the NOPD’s reform agreement with the federal government also had taken an interest in the new sheriff in town.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan said at a June 13 hearing she believes the Attorney General’s Office does not have the legal authority to make arrests in New Orleans.
The attorney general may have stopped sending his troops into the city, but Morgan promised she would spring into action if he returns.
“It's clear to me that the AG's Office has limited statutory authority to investigate crimes in certain areas, but it doesn't have the ability to make statewide arrests for violations of state law,” Morgan said.
“I will continue to do what I need to do to make sure that the integrity of the policing in the city of New Orleans is maintained," she said.
Landry — who has been openly critical of the reform plan the judge oversees — declined an invitation to send a representative to the court hearing.
In a statement, his spokeswoman pinned the blame for the end of the task force solely on the mayor.
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“The mayor has consistently inserted politics, made incorrect claims of non-coordination by our office, and impeded our ability to help. As a result, we have curtailed our activities significantly in the New Orleans area,” Ruth Wisher said.
“We are not under the jurisdiction of the court or the consent decree,” she added, referring to the reform agreement.
The task force began last year as a security force deployed on the fringes of the tourist-heavy neighborhoods of the French Quarter and Central Business District. Later, Landry said its mission had been expanded to include crime-fighting in areas such as New Orleans East.
In one incident in December, agents working for the attorney general pursued a carjacking suspect across the Crescent City Connection into Algiers. However, most of its few collars were for drug offenses.
Despite its paltry results, the special unit — which was bolstered by officers from outlying forces like the Ponchatoula Police Department — became a rhetorical football.
Landrieu critics like District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the Police Association of New Orleans all backed the task force, citing the city’s rising crime rate.
Landrieu shot back, accusing the attorney general of “playing Barney Fife” — the bumbling deputy sheriff on TV's "Andy Griffith Show" — and putting NOPD officers at risk.
As the war of words escalated in January, city lawyers investigated the attorney general’s power to make arrests in the city. They concluded he had none. His agents had authority to investigate only a limited set of crimes, including child pornography and health care fraud, the city said.
In February, the legal dispute spilled into Criminal District Court, where a public defender argued an arrest made by an Attorney General's Office agent was illegal.
Orleans Public Defenders staff attorney Rachel Lindner said a judge should throw out the arrest of Lydell Jones, 37, on an allegation he sold fake drugs to a plainclothes agent in the French Quarter.
But lawyers for the attorney general argued his agents do qualify as cops under state law. They cited in part the state definition of false personation of a peace officer, which includes attorney general's investigators, along with livestock brand inspectors and forestry officers, in a long list of peace officers who can be wrongly impersonated.
The city's sheriff, its district attorney and the head of one of its two main police unions …
Judge Robin Pittman ruled the arrest was valid. Lindner, the defense attorney, signaled her intention to appeal, but the case ended with Jones’ guilty plea first.
At least two more cases involving arrests made by task force agents remain open, meaning the legal question still could come into dispute.
Outside of court, both the city and Attorney General’s Office maintain they are open to cooperation. City Attorney Rebecca Dietz said in a statement the city would welcome “lawful assistance.”
Landry has continued taking potshots at the mayor. In a tweet targeted at Landrieu on June 16, he said, “the citizens of #NOLA are being victimized by crime but you are in DC playing politics.” But his spokeswoman said he is still open to helping the city.
“We would embrace the opportunity to offer our resources in the fight against the crime epidemic in New Orleans if the mayor would be willing to accept it,” Wisher said.
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