Last March, the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) Civil Rights Division released a scathing report about the state of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Among the many problems the DOJ found were "a pattern of stops, searches and arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment." Investigators also noted, "Detentions without reasonable suspicion are routine, and lead to unwarranted searches and arrests without probable cause."
It was not the first time NOPD had received such a warning. "A previous DOJ investigation noted almost 10 years ago that some NOPD officers could not articulate proper legal standards for stops, searches or arrests," the report states. And this, the DOJ made clear, was not the opinion of civil liberties groups: "Throughout the department, and among other stakeholders in the criminal justice system, we heard broad and emphatic consensus that officers have a poor understanding of how to lawfully execute searches and seizures." [Emphasis ours.]
This longstanding pattern of inappropriate — if not unconstitutional — arrests is what Police Chief Ronal Serpas drew upon when he began releasing the arrest record of every person murdered in New Orleans. Not their record of convictions, but merely their previous arrests — for offenses major and minor, some stretching back decades. Serpas said the records show how many people murdered in the city were involved in a life of crime (and, presumably, to reassure law-abiding New Orleanians that our city's obscenely high murder rate is not a threat to them).
Last week, after mounting public outcry and national headlines, the Landrieu administration and NOPD reversed Serpas' policy and announced that NOPD would henceforth release monthly aggregated data on the records of murder victims. It was the right move.
Civil rights groups, as well as families and loved ones of the victims, had objected to the practice for several reasons. First, an arrest is not a conviction. The presumption of innocence does not go away just because an arrested person has died. Second, a murder victim's criminal history is irrelevant unless he or she was killed in retaliation for a previous crime. Third, the policy presumed that all murder victims are either bad people or blameless citizens who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The truth is never that simple, as in the case of Harry "Mike" Ainsworth, the Algiers resident slain Jan. 25 while trying to foil a carjacking. He was the 19th person murdered in New Orleans this year, a Good Samaritan who paid for his heroism with his life. Ainsworth volunteered with the NOPD and was by all accounts a force for good in his community.
He also had an arrest record, and not a short one.
Somehow Ainsworth's record didn't come up at a press conference held that afternoon by Serpas and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. It surfaced the next day — not by NOPD press release, but by the nonprofit journalism organization The Lens. A police spokesperson said the department had always planned to release Ainsworth's record, under NOPD's policy, but cops were busy constructing a composite sketch of his killer instead. A subsequent release carried the Good Samaritan's list of arrests, which further inflamed many New Orleanians.
Days later, the NOPD's curious policy went national, with stories on CNN and the Associated Press about New Orleans' habit of releasing the arrest records of anyone murdered within its borders. Quite a message for potential visitors, particularly in a month when national media noted the uptick in New Orleans murders in 2011 and wondered whether the city could be made safe for Mardi Gras. To visitors, the message appeared to be: If you get killed here, we're going to release every bit of dirt on you we can find. Some message.
It's encouraging to see the department and the administration willing to change a bad policy. We applaud that decision. We also hope the anticipated consent decree between DOJ and NOPD uses the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a model in one critical way. Under the LAPD's consent decree, which was put in place 2001-2009, data was collected about every officer in the department, from use of lethal and nonlethal force to individual driving records.
If data about murdered New Orleanians can help stem the crime rate, as Serpas seems to think it does, then scrupulous monitoring and accurate data about the members of a troubled police department should do the same.