Promising a “relentless pursuit” of gunmen who recently held up patrons and staff at two well-known Uptown restaurants and a popular bar, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison sought Friday to assuage fears of City Council members and residents about the latest crimes to touch off a panic in New Orleans.
The meeting provided an outlet for council members to vent the fears and frustrations they’re hearing from residents about those robberies and other recent crimes. But they mostly struck a supportive tone as they questioned Harrison, offering a battery of occasionally unusual suggestions for how he might deal with the crimes that have gained recent notoriety and his department’s continuing effort to increase its ranks.
They also sought to put the recent string of robberies in perspective.
“Citizens of New Orleans should not live in fear, and the way to fight fear is with resolve and the facts,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said. “People are being held up as they’re eating at their neighborhood restaurants Uptown. A man was robbed while mowing his lawn in Algiers. The sense is that violence is around every corner.”
Armed robberies are up about 4 percent citywide this year, Harrison said, though there is no obvious explanation for the increase.
“We are using every resource available to track down the suspects in these extremely violent crimes,” he said, promising that investigators would continue with a “relentless pursuit” of armed robbers and other criminals.
The council called Friday’s meeting after gunmen hit the upscale restaurants Patois and Atchafalaya as well as the Monkey Hill Bar in recent weeks.
“Crime at this point in our city’s history is threatening the soul of the city,” Councilman Jason Williams said. “Safety and security are fundamental building blocks that are holding our city together, and we thank you for the work you’ve done so far in that effort.”
The meeting itself yielded no new information on the crimes. Harrison said disclosing additional information could jeopardize the investigations.
He touted NOPD training classes that have just wrapped up or are underway and that will add dozens of new officers to the force.
Even so, the NOPD is now down to 1,134 officers, about 14 fewer than it had when Harrison appeared before the same committee in July to say the force had stanched its long decline. It remains far below the city’s goal of a 1,600-officer force.
Council members floated various ideas — some a bit outside the box — on how to either bolster the department’s ranks or aid in crime prevention. But Harrison shot down most of them.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell wondered whether perks — such as free massages or trips to a spa — might encourage recruitment efforts. When Harrison told her those kinds of freebies would violate state ethics law, Cantrell volunteered to take on the job herself. “I’ll massage some feet” if it would help, she said.
Cantrell also pitched getting a helicopter for the NOPD — Harrison said doing so would cost millions of dollars and likely not help with fighting street crime — and an expanded gun buyback program or new gun controls. Harrison said that while he supports limits on gun sales, the availability of weapons on the black market would hamper the effectiveness of that sort of effort. A state constitutional amendment also likely would bar any kind of local gun control effort.
Councilman Jared Brossett suggested homeownership incentives could increase the number of officers on the force, but Harrison said such programs already are in place.
Brossett also asked about integrating equipment into street lights that would be able to detect gunfire. Harrison said the NOPD is looking into that technology, but it’s not clear it would work well in an urban environment.
As Harrison detailed his efforts to move officers from behind desks to the streets — which he said has added about 30 officers to the streets so far — Councilwoman Stacy Head praised efforts to have automated systems or civilians take reports to free up officers’ time. She also endorsed a proposal to change state law to keep officers from having to respond to traffic accidents where no one is injured but insurance companies require a report.
The Monkey Hill robbery on Monday prompted Mayor Mitch Landrieu to call for the federal government to step in to prosecute what he described as a conspiracy. While police have not formally connected the crimes, Landrieu and Harrison have acknowledged similarities among the three robberies.
Since the Monkey Hill robbery, Crimestoppers, the Louisiana Restaurant Association and others have put together a $30,000 reward for information.
Sensitive to the perception that well-off neighborhoods receive outsized attention from politicians and law enforcement, council members cited other recent crimes elsewhere in the city, including a rape in St. Roch and an armed robbery in Algiers, casting Friday’s meeting as a response to the citywide crime problem and not just the Uptown robberies.
“We’re not prepared, as New Orleanians, to change our way of life,” Williams told Harrison. “We’re not prepared to tell women they can’t wear their wedding rings out. We’re not prepared to stop going to restaurants.
“We need you to close this chapter out,” he continued. “This is New Orleans, and we’re not giving it up to robbers.”