With over 275 COVID-19-related deaths in New Orleans already, including two members of law enforcement, we must go further to improve public and officer safety. While the New Orleans Police Department has reduced arrests, it has resisted using the summons, a strong alternative that could better protect all of us, including our men and women on patrol.
Across the country, police are contracting COVID-19 at alarming rates. Putting someone in handcuffs and transporting them to the jail multiplies the chances of infection for the officer, the detainee, everyone at the jail, and the community at large. To respect our officers’ sacrifice, we must minimize unnecessary arrests.
Yet New Orleans law enforcement is still arresting significant numbers of people for nonviolent offenses. Court Watch NOLA found that out of those receiving a bail hearing in Magistrate Court recently, 32% were arrested exclusively for nonviolent offenses. Individuals were arrested for offenses including marijuana possession and failing to return a rental car.
NOPD’s unnecessary arrests primarily impact African-Americans, who are most likely to die from coronavirus. In Municipal Court, which hears traffic offenses and the lowest-level crimes, 77% of those held in jail awaiting a bail hearing were African-American. About half of our officers are African-American and also face elevated risk.
Our city has a powerful alternative: For many offenses, officers can safely give the accused a summons, a paper ticket that requires them to appear in court. Issuing summonses would allow officers to avoid handcuffing the person and taking them to jail. Police departments across the country are allowing officers to issue summonses to protect their officers and community, and police unions are supportive.
Yet, NOPD internal policy prohibits police officers from issuing summonses in most state felony or misdemeanor cases. Officers can face discipline if they fail to make an arrest where there is probable cause. Superintendent Shaun Ferguson says he encourages officers to issue summonses wherever possible, and that is commendable, but his written orders prohibit officers from doing so in the majority of cases. A letter signed by 40 community groups has asked him to change this internal policy. He should act quickly to keep New Orleans safe.
The Office of the Independent Police Monitor has offered to help NOPD review arrest, summons, ticket, and stop/frisk data and assist the department in its crisis decision-making. This data transparency will also help NOPD build community trust by showing that officers are avoiding arrests where a viable alternative exists. This trust will benefit public safety long after the COVID-19 crisis wanes.
Officers in Detroit and New York have been devastated by the virus. Our officers are already starting to test positive. We must act before it is too late.
Independent Police Monitor