For criminals on the streets of New Orleans, police officers are looked at more as obstacles to avoid than enemies to confront. And today, with NOPD troop strength hovering near a 40-year low in street cops, those obstacles are less visible and crime remains stubbornly high.
It’s a seemingly obvious point on which everyone seems to agree, from academic experts to the criminals on the street: Fewer cops leads to more crime.
“The drug dealers seem to have no fear of just having transactions right on the street,” said a St. Roch resident about hand-to-hand heroin sales on his block. “Zero. Zero, zero, zero prevention. Zero investigation.”
In the man’s neighborhood, a WWL-TV crew witnessed open drug activity within minutes after driving up.
The resident, who requested anonymity, said he has called the police many times. But among the casualties of the NOPD manpower crisis are the specially designated narcotics units within the police districts.
In a recent keynote speech at a Metropolitan Crime Commission luncheon, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro made the point emphatically.
“Violent crime rates were steadily decreasing,” Cannizzaro told the audience, “until the lack of police manpower overwhelmed the city and the criminals figured out that they could more easily roam the streets with impunity.”
Cannizzaro’s broadside may have come amid a political fight over his budget getting slashed by City Hall, but the statistics back him up.
Since 2010, the number of NOPD officers has dropped from 1,540 to about 1,160 today.
That decline closely matches the decline in narcotics arrests, illegal gun arrests, and even traffic tickets over roughly the same period.
From 2012 to 2017, narcotics incidents recorded by police dropped from more than 1,500 to about 1,100. Illegal gun incidents dropped from about 400 to about 260. And traffic tickets have gone from 69,976 in 2010 to about 45,367 last year.
“The NOPD, through no fault of their own, is purely in a response mode. And when you respond to crime, you don't bring down the crime rate, especially violent crime,” said former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, now a criminology professor at Loyola University.
Serpas should know.
As WWL-TV revealed in an exclusive investigation in 2015, Serpas warned City Hall in a series of emails going back to 2011 about the dangers of letting NOPD troop strength dwindle.
“If we are to stay staffed as we are, we will necessarily have to move to a more reactive model of policing, if not completely reactive,” Serpas wrote to then-CAO Andy Kopplin.
From his professor’s perch at Loyola, Serpas is sounding the same alarm.
“Criminals pay real close attention to staffing. They can see that police are nowhere to be found,” Serpas said. “You can see why arrests have tanked. A pro-active police department stops cars, to reduce collisions, reduce injuries, to find dope, to find guns, and to find warrants.”
Going in the opposite direction from police manpower and arrests are brazen street crimes. Armed robbery has gone from 704 in 2010 to 1,085 in 2015. Assault has gone from 1,321 in 2010 to more than 1,700 last year.
The murder rate has followed a less obvious pattern. After murder hit a three-decade low of 150 in 2014, it climbed to 176 last year.
This year is off to an especially bloody start, with 127 people shot through Thursday, more than a 100 percent increase over last year. The 2017 murder total of 33 marks more than a 150 percent increase over the same period last year.
Analyzing the numbers in a different way, the number shootings and killings so far this year are chilling. On average in the city of New Orleans, there has been one murder victim every 40.3 hours and one shooting victim every 10.4 hours.
LSU criminology professor Peter Scharf said there’s a direct correlation between the drop in narcotics and firearms arrests and the rise in shootings and killings.
“Lose control of the dope and gun trade and you lose control of the murder rate. And that's what happened,” LSU criminology professor Peter Scharf said. “We may have lost any deterrence.”
Statistics are only one way of looking at the city's crime problem.
We obtained a more direct – if anecdotal – assessment from a former drug dealer we will call “Turtle.” Turtle has done prison time for drugs and robbery, but he’s gotten away with much more, a lot of it on his home turf of Central City.
“We know when they (police) ride. We know when they don't,” he said. “The heat is off. The heat is off and they're turned up right now, meaning the criminals. Totally turned up and taking every opportunity they can take.”
We took a ride with Turtle through the neighborhood where he used to sell drugs. His drug of choice was heroin, both as a dealer and user. It took him less than five minutes to spot a major heroin dealer.
“You know, one of the biggest guys selling drugs sitting right there on the porch right there right now, man,” he said. “All this right here is drug-infested. Police can't control what's going on right here. To be honest, the criminals control this.”
Turtle not only pointed out drug activity in the shadow of the 6th District Police Station, officers in marked cruisers drove right by.
“These two officers pull up on the side of us right now. They know what's going on this time of morning right now, in front of this area, they're fixing to pass. Known high-drug traffic area. I used to stand out there, right there myself, sell some dope, right there on this corner. Right where we're passing. And see, they know,” he continued.
Police are quick to say that where there are drugs, there are guns. And where there are both, there is eventually bloodshed. Turtle said that police wisdom is practically a law of the street.
“Until we feel the presence of the law enforcement, the killing keeps going, the shooting will keep going,” Turtle said. “Nobody has a handle on this. It's not in control.”