Watchdog group praises N.O. rise in serious crime convictions

Consistent collaboration between New Orleans police and local prosecutors is continuing to result in convictions for serious crimes, but police appear to be regressing when it comes to avoiding inefficient manpower use, according to a local crime watchdog group.

The Metropolitan Crime Commission recently released its review of arrests and convictions in New Orleans. The report shows that police and prosecutors are maintaining gains made in felony convictions, even as the city still lags behind the national average in that statistic. Based on the report, roughly 44 percent of felony arrests resulted in a conviction in 2011, down only slightly from the 45 percent in 2010.

The report considers conviction data through 2011 and arrest data through 2012. A full copy of the report can be found at www.metropolitancrime
commission.org.

Executive Director Rafael Goyeneche III said the conviction rate represents a substantial increase from the nadir of 2007, when the conviction rate for felony arrests was only 24 percent. In fact, he said it’s significantly higher than the 35 percent conviction rate enjoyed during the much lauded tenure of Police Superintendent Richard Pennington.

It’s a sign that police and prosecutors are working together to develop the strongest cases instead of protecting their turf, Goyeneche said. Prosecutors are telling officers what type of evidence they need to get a conviction, and officers are willing to go back and supplement their efforts after the initial arrest, he said.

The goal isn’t to simply arrest suspects; it’s to make sure they are removed from society, he said. He pointed to the sweeping indictment of a local gang announced Thursday as proof of the growing strength of that relationship.

“Just because an arrest is made doesn’t mean the investigation is over,” Goyeneche said. “The objective for police is not just to arrest but to convict that individual.”

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman called the MCC’s finding “positive,” noting that although the total conviction rate decreased slightly, the report showed increases in the conviction rate for violent crimes and weapons violations. Bowman said the goal is to move closer to the national average, but growth will be incremental, not the exponential growth that was seen when Cannizzaro first took office.

“The criminal justice system continued to improve in 2011 but is not yet where it needs to be … We continue to work hard to get to that rate,” Bowman said.

But while officials have grasped the need for changes in how cases are prosecuted, Goyeneche said that police seem to have returned to bad habits when it comes to making arrests. The commission’s report found that total arrests in the city increased by slightly more than 1,500 in 2012, and that increase was driven by a spike in the arrest of suspects who weren’t even wanted for crimes in New Orleans.

Goyeneche said the commission began tallying arrests and convictions by type of crime because it wanted to get a better understanding of how effectively police and prosecutors were using their resources. In the past, police have made thousands of arrests annually, but they were often arrests for minor crimes both inside and outside of New Orleans.

The focus on minor arrests forced officers to spend hours transporting and booking suspects into jail, which naturally reduced the time they could be patrolling the streets, Goyeneche said.

Now, under Serpas, police more frequently issue summonses for misdemeanor, or minor, offenses, while arrests for felony, or serious charges, have remained relatively constant.

In 2012, while police continued to avoid large numbers of misdemeanor and traffic arrests of local residents, there was a spike of more than 3,000 arrests for those individuals wanted on warrants from other parishes, the report notes. In fact, those arrests made up a greater percentage of total arrests in 2012 than they have at any other point in Serpas’ tenure.

That’s troubling, Goyeneche said, because arrests for out-of-parish warrants often are of middling import. Most of the individuals who are arrested are wanted for municipal, traffic or misdemeanor violations, he said. They often sit in jail for a few nights then are released because the law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction where they are wanted refuses to expend the manpower to collect them, he said.

“In the vast majority of the cases, the other parish that they’re wanted in is going to refuse to pick them up,” Goyeneche said. “It’s really counterproductive. It’s wasteful of the officer’s time and the city’s money.”

He noted that New Orleans police are facing historic manpower shortages, although Serpas announced recently that several classes of new recruits are expected this year. If a department has manpower issues, then it’s important to avoid tying up an officer on an arrest that has little benefit to New Orleans, or to society in general, Goyeneche said.

“At a time when the biggest crisis facing the New Orleans Police Department is its manpower, they have essentially squandered thousands of hours of their most precious resource, which is their manpower time.”

In a prepared statement, Serpas wrote that officers use their discretion when determining which suspects to arrest on out-of-parish warrants and which to release. He wrote that hundreds of suspects were released, and their home agency notified they were in New Orleans.

However, Serpas said that criminals are “generalists,” and therefore an arrest on a misdemeanor or seemingly minor crime could remove a serious criminal from the streets. He also touted the report’s news about conviction rates and said it’s proof that the department’s overall strategy is working.

“We will continue to encourage the release and notification to other parish of minor traffic and misdemeanor warrant violators we encounter, and continue to support and train our officers to make decisions based on the circumstances they confront,” Serpas wrote.