Wild court date for Cardell Hayes: Not guilty plea; dramatic testimony linking Billy Ceravolo, gun in Will Smith's SUV _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Police Department Lt. Jimmie Turner, Jr., who heads the homicide department, walks between Orleans Criminal District Court and the Orleans District Attorney's Office after a hearing and indictment of Cardell Hayes for the shooting death of former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith.

If you want to bump somebody off, New Orleans is the place to do it because chances are you'll never get caught.

Next door in Jefferson Parish most murders do get solved. They might as well put up a sign by the 17th Street canal telling killers they enter at their own risk.

The reasons for the discrepancy in clearance rates are many and complex, and cops working the hairy city streets will always be harder pressed than sheriff's deputies in the placid 'burbs. But there is one conclusion too obvious to require any pondering of socio-economic factors. If it is ever to improve on its woeful performance, NOPD's homicide division will need a shrewd and inspiring leader.

The division's dismal numbers are no doubt partly attributable to the manpower shortage that afflicts NOPD across the board, but morale, insiders say, is particularly poor here because the current commander, Lt. Jimmie Turner, does not fit the bill.

His idea of instilling loyalty is to display traffic signs in his office that point in opposite directions, with the captions “My Way” and “The Highway.” Homicide detectives are traditionally the elite of a police department, and do not care to be treated like children.

A dictatorial style may perhaps be forgiven in a commander with big ideas on how to reduce a murder rate that is pretty much the highest in the nation. But that obviously requires collaboration between cops and prosecutors, as, until Turner threw a mysterious hissy fit a couple of weeks ago, was the norm.

DA Leon Cannizzaro's top aide Graymond Martin was obliged to fire off a furious letter to Police Chief Michael Harrison after a grand jury, instead of returning indictments over a string of gang homicides, had to be sent home. The jurors had nothing to do because Turner told his investigators to ignore an invitation to testify. Henceforth, he declared, homicide detectives would be no-shows at grand jury sessions unless the DA's office issued subpoenas.

Lord preserve New Orleans if its police department can be this dumb. An invitation to testify has long been regarded as adequate, because requiring subpoenas is a colossal waste of time. Prosecutors must apply for them, judges must approve and cops are kept off the street when they could be out solving murders.

Prosecutors run the show at grand jury hearings and know precisely when they will wheel out each witness. Cops invited to testify can thus be given a precise time to show up, whereas subpoenas summon all witnesses when the panel convenes. New Orleans can hardly afford to have homicide detectives twiddling their thumbs for hours on end.

Any animosity between police and prosecutors, moreover, will clearly impede the system. A crucial part of it is the “charge conference” at which NOPD and Cannizzaro's office consider what extra steps may be needed to build a case. Overall, the public interest requires a sense of common purpose that Turner is evidently not inclined to foster. Turner is barely on speaking terms even with his own supervisor, Criminal Investigations Commander Doug Eckert.

Turner's order requiring grand jury subpoenas has now been rescinded following Martin's protest, but whatever the cause of his resentment, it presumably lingers, further complicating the task of improving New Orleans' homicide clearance rate.

Nationwide, according to the FBI, the rate is slightly above 60 percent. Last year Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said his office solved 84 percent of the murders committed there. New Orleans could never match that, but in the two years since Turner assumed command, clearances have dropped. The rate in 2015 was 35 pcrcent; today it is about 19 percent.

Even that may understate the extent of the division's failings. A case is recorded as cleared once an arrest has been made, even if the DA subsequently refuses charges or the defendant is acquitted.

Four years ago, the homicide division had 30 detectives assigned to handle new cases; today it has 18, and a commander evidently at loggerheads with everyone whose helps he needs.

Bump somebody off in New Orleans and you'll have to do something real stupid to get caught. That, with the homicide division in its current state, is called leveling the playing field.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com