A study released by the local Metropolitan Crime Commission contained this startling figure: Within the city of New Orleans during the first half of 2009 there were 29,172 arrests. “What!” we exclaimed while re-reading the numbers to make sure we had not misread. But, no, what we saw was correct. Worse yet, the report stated that the number showed a 2,000 arrest increase over the last half of ’08. Put in sobering terms, the average was 159.8 arrests per day.
As much as we love New Orleans, those figure might have sent us packing for the Rockies until we read the following sentence: “The biggest increases were seen in ‘Other State’ arrests and traffic arrests.” As defined by the study, which was entitled “Orleans Parish Criminal Justice System Accountability Report,” arrests classified as “Other State” included detaining individuals with warrants from other parishes. Those arrests accounted for 10,205 of the total with 4,000 coming from Jefferson Parish. Of those arrests, 6,500 (64 percent) were released from Orleans Parish Prison without having to post a bond. In most cases the parishes didn’t think enough of the warrant to go through the trouble of extradition. A staggering 80 percent were released from jail in one day or less.
Think about this: In the first half of 2009 the New Orleans Police department made over 10,000 arrests of people wanted by police in other jurisdictions but that, in most cases, the other jurisdictions didn’t even bother to go and get.
Fortunately, those were rarely hardened criminals who were being sent free. In many cases they were wanted for traffic issues, most frequently for such heinous crimes as unpaid traffic tickets. Those are the individuals that New Orleans’ police are spending much of their time collaring.
Of the city’s own traffic violators, the police nabbed 4,483 suspects – most of whom were wanted for charges such as driving with a suspended or invalid license.
There were some necessary traffic arrests during that period; 625 people were arrested for driving while intoxicated and taken to the clink where they belonged, but that is indeed a small percentage of the arrest total.
This all points to there being something wrong with the system. We agree with the MCC’s conclusion that: “The criminal justice process begins with arrests, and the arrest strategy of the NOPD appears counterproductive to achieving optimal results. Only 14 percent of arrests were for new felony offenses, which has been an impediment to criminal justice system performance.”
Considering that even if Jefferson Parish would want to gather all the arrestees under traffic warrants, there isn’t enough jail space to hold the culprits anyway. From arrest to processing can take and an hour and a half of a police officer’s time, meanwhile real criminals are lurking in the streets.
To this discussion we add our own personal observation that the number of traffic warrants issued is bound to increase because of the presence of traffic cameras. Many times violators don’t even know they did anything wrong until a letter arrives a few weeks later. Because the out-of-state company that operates the cameras needs to make a profit, tickets are expensive and beyond some people’s ability to pay them. Local government officials in need of ways to build their budgets also see the tickets as good sources of income. The cameras have more to do with budget balancing than with public safety. And now we know that a ticket triggered by a camera on Causeway Boulevard may ultimately take a policeman from doing his job in Central City. We are only half joking when we suggest that the overall public good would be better served by deploying former Sheriff Harry Lee’s nutria shoot SWAT team to blast the cameras.
Criminal justice is complex and there’s much to be interpreted, and misinterpreted, through statistics. Numbers or not, we do know that crime is less likely to occur when police are free to pursue the real criminals.