NEW ORLEANS - While high crime rates continue to plague New Orleans and the undermanned police department struggles to keep up, one NOPD unit is taking the fight directly to the criminals.
Almost one year since it was created, the TIGER squad has successfully applied the heat to some of the city's most dangerous armed robbers.
Created right after Memorial Day 2016, TIGER stands for Tactical Intelligence Gathering and Enforcement Response. It is an elite squad of detectives formed to combat the city’s spike in armed robberies.
Unlike district officers who are bombarded with fresh cases on a daily basis, TIGER detectives are given the luxury of focusing on serial armed robbers and carjackers, no matter how long it takes to build a case.
“If we start at eight in the morning and lock into a case, we might not leave until eight o'clock the next morning,” TIGER commander Lt. Chris Hart said. “We work it until it can't be worked anymore.”
The city granted WWL-TV exclusive access to the unit and some of its officers, offering a rare glimpse of the inner workings and camaraderie of the 25-man squad.
At one recent post-arrest briefing, the squad went over a case given the code name “Rocky.” The target in the case committed a Feb. 11 carjacking in which a New Orleans couple and their young child were carjacked at gunpoint.
The case could have gotten lost in the growing stack of other gunpoint robberies waiting to be solved, but this case was adopted by TIGER.
At the briefing, lead detective Tim Jones explained how the case started with very little evidence other than a grainy surveillance photo of the perpetrator wearing a hoodie. But with picture, Jones and his team were able to use database searches and street contacts to identify a 20-year-old suspect, Cornell Lewis.
On April 10, two painstaking months after they adopted the case, the unit obtained an arrest warrant for Lewis.
But Lewis would not be captured easily. After detectives spotted him in a car, Jones said Lewis led them on car chase through the Ninth Ward which took a dramatic turn when Lewis stopped in the middle of the Clairborne Avenue bridge.
“There was nowhere for him to go, we thought,” Jones said at the briefing. “He bailed out of the car and jumped off the bridge about 40, 50 feet up. Hit the ground, pretty much in a full sprint, running down Japonica.”
Lewis was finally found hiding in a backyard shed. A search of his car yielded a “pistol-style AK-47s, with a fully-loaded magazine and one in the chamber,” Jones briefed the group.
“What we do isn't rocket science. It's just good, old-fashioned detective work,” Hart said.
Hart's description of TIGER's tactics may sound simple, but in addition to getting unlimited time to investigate the city's the most serious robberies, his squad is something of an all-star team within the NOPD. For example, Jones joined the department just four years ago, but he was hand-picked for the squad after proving himself on the street.
“There’s pretty strict criteria about what kind of people come back to the unit,” Jones said. “Self-motivated, Type-A personalities. People who love this job, they love to do it, they love to work.”
“We went after, certainly, the best of the best,” Hart said. “I was looking for motivated guys, guys who wanted to go out there and do work. Because it wasn't going to be the traditional police work”
Hart explained that although TIGER is a citywide unit, it works closely with detectives in the city’s eight police districts to spot patterns that may identity the work of a serial robber or organized gang.
The work in the field, primarily serving warrants and making arrests, can put he detectives in the line of fire. In a controversial Jan. 24 take-down of a robbery suspect, TIGER members fatally shot a man who they say aimed a gun at them during a foot chase.
Arties Manning, the department conceded, was not suspected in any robbery, but was shot when he raised a gun at plainclothes TIGER officers. The case remains under internal investigation.
All members of TIGER are SWAT-trained, but the emphasis is on intelligence-gathering to build airtight cases. That means a lot of time is spent in front of computers: looking at surveillance video, searching databases, writing up warrants.
“When we put together an investigative package on somebody that we targeted, they have a problem,” said Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel, chief of the Field Operations Bureau.
Noel said he came up TIGER when robberies spiked last spring following two unnerving years of steady increases. He modeled the strategy after a similar unit he put together when he was commander of the Second District.
“I think that this represents a culture change in the New Orleans Police Department. A culture of relentless follow-up,” Noel said.
Statistics show that the TIGER's tactics have worked, with the unit boasting a robbery clearance rate more than double the department-wide clearance rate of about 30 percent.
And the focus on serial stick-up artists seems to have put a dent in the city's overall robbery rate.
Robberies are down about 13 percent relative to the same period last year, said WWL-TV crime analyst Jeff Asher. “That's really the first meaningful decline in robberies since they started to go up in 2014.”
Another mark of the unit's success has been the number of confessions they've extracted from suspects. In some cases, the suspects have even offered apologies to their victims, Hart said.
“We've got a high confession rate,” Hart said. “And that has a lot to do with the fact that we have so much intelligence that they kind of work themselves in a corner sometimes during questioning.”
Encouraged by TIGER's track record, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison expanded its mission in March to include non-fatal shootings. He also increased the number of detectives to 17 to 25, hoping that the unit's success continues to grow along with the number of officers.