Agencies target 30 local gangs

New Orleans police are linking with a host of federal and state agencies to attack roughly 30 local gangs that officials believe are responsible for the vast majority of the homicides that have made New Orleans the nation’s murder capital.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the new partnership, entitled the “Group Violence Reduction Strategy,” on Thursday, and it is the latest wrinkle in his comprehensive push back against violence dubbed “NOLA for Life.” Flanked by officials from at least eight different agencies, Landrieu said violent offenders need to know that the status quo is not acceptable and that they can either change or suffer the consequences.

“You can get in line, you can flip the script and you can turn your life around or you can face the consequences,” Landrieu said. “We’re going to hold the people who commit violent acts and murder in the city of New Orleans responsible.”

The effort is an outgrowth of discussions officials have had for months with noted criminologist David Kennedy, whose strategies have created marked drops in violence in cities such as Boston, Chicago and High Point, N.C. Kennedy advocates aiming police efforts at a core group of violent offenders who represent a small minority of the total population but drive violent crime trends.

Landrieu said officials have identified about 600 such people in New Orleans and linked them to 39 gangs. Landrieu said about 30 of those gangs are currently active.

For years, law enforcement officials have been reluctant to identify the groupings of New Orleans criminals. That reluctance stemmed from the fact that New Orleans groups tended to lack the rigid hierarchy of more famous groups like the Crips, Bloods or MS-13.

But, it’s long been obvious that criminals groups were operating in the city’s neighborhoods and driving the narcotics trade and violence. The recent murder of a college student in eastern New Orleans was linked to a member of one such group called the “Marley Gang,” and police reports have consistently referred to similar groups such as “D-Block,” “Young Gunnas” or “Seventh Ward Hardheadz.” Landrieu said regardless of the title criminologists give them, these groups are a problem.

“It is absolutely true that we have groups of young men who are organized,” Landrieu said.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said the new partnership will create a dedicated unit within his department that constantly investigates the activities of the city’s most dangerous suspects. The unit will include: six members of the NOPD; a deputy from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office; two assistant United States attorneys; two FBI agents; four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and two prosecutors from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.

The state Department of Corrections, the Louisiana State Police and the United States Marshals Service also will be assisting the unit.

Serpas said the goal is long-term investigations that result in long-term prison sentences. The unit will be conducting multiple investigations at any given time and linking suspects to multiple crimes.

Cannizzaro added that the strategy represents an exciting shift from the norm mainly because it involves prosecutors earlier in the investigations. That will allow them to guide certain activities with an eye towards later trials. In the past, prosecutors often didn’t learn about major cases until the police presented them with an arrest.

“It’s something I have never seen before from a district attorney’s perspective,” Cannizzaro said.

Police departments across the country have tried the model, and a similar albeit smaller partnership exists on the West Bank between the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and several other agencies. The belief is that each agency will contribute a small portion of its resources and expertise to build better investigations from the ground up. Several officials stressed that their agencies have collaborated for years, but this represents a new level of teamwork.

“There is no daylight between any of these organizations,” U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said. “It is going to get exponentially better.”

Kennedy’s approach requires law enforcement officials to do extensive surveillance and information gathering on offenders and then plot a strategy for hitting group members with multiple charges. Cannizzaro noted that one of the strategies will involve using the state’s repeat offender designation to get longer sentences. In addition, federal gun possession charges can come with lengthy sentences for convicted felons, and most of the active offenders have prior criminal histories.

However, Landrieu stressed that his goal is not to put more people in jail; it is simply to reduce the violence. Kennedy’s strategy calls for law enforcement agencies to show select groups of offenders and their families exactly what kind of evidence has been amassed and offer them a chance to change course. Police have already had one such meeting and are planning several more, Landrieu said.

The strategy also calls for help in finding jobs, educational services and other opportunities for offenders. Landrieu said he has another task force to help with those efforts that he plans to reveal later. In addition, he noted that outreach efforts created by Spike Lee are trying to get the message across. But, if people continue on the path of violence, law enforcement officials are ready to take action, he said.

“Our preference is for people to stop shooting, not to put people in jail for the rest of their lives,” Landrieu said. “I think the choices are real and the consequences of each choice are real as well.”