New Orleans Coming Home: A National Panel Hearing on Law Enforcement in the Reconstruction

New Orleans Coming Home

October 24th, 2007

Hearing Flyer

The Role of Law Enforcement in the Reconstruction

October 24th, 2007

Juan Alvarez* witnessed his best friend, a man he called his brother since they were both kids, shot to death on a street in Uptown this past June. He chased the shooter for blocks and wrestled him to the ground, struggling with him until a police officer pulled up. The police officer arrested them both, transported them in the same squad car, and held in the same jail cell. Police needed a translator and enlisted a Border Patrol agent to serve as one. Before being released, Alvarez was transferred into federal custody. This young man, who watched his best friend be murdered before his eyes and holds the critical information to prosecuting this violent crime, now sits in a cell, hours away from New Orleans and awaits deportation.

Our jails are overcrowded with non-violent offenders and pre-trial detainees, many of whom have not yet had charges accepted. This dreaded 701, or “DA time,” means innocent people can spend weeks or months in jail without being formally charged, losing income, employment, and housing while they languish in Orleans Parish Prison.

There are countless more examples of how, rather than focusing on violent crime, New Orleans’ criminal justice resources are spent arresting non-violent residents. School children are arrested by security guards, residents of public housing are charged with trespassing while walking to a neighbor’s house and immigrant workers who are helping rebuild our city get robbed by the officers they turn to for help when employers don’t pay them. All residents of New Orleans should be concerned that during the reconstruction of our city post- Katrina, this is the type of policing that has spiked dramatically. And this policing disproportionately occurs in poor communities, particularly communities of color.

Yes, there is a public safety crisis in New Orleans – but it’s not, as many people argue, because there aren’t enough cops on our streets, in our neighborhoods, and in our schools. It’s actually the opposite. In New Orleans post-Katrina, poor and low-income communities encounter police in ways that don’t increase public safety and in ways that actually make peoples’ efforts at rebuilding their lives more difficult, if not impossible.

This is not a new phenomenon. The NOPD has a poor record and reputation that cuts across all racial lines. In fact, a 2006 report authored by Safe Streets/Strong Communities found that two-thirds of those surveyed rated the NOPD’s ability to improve public safety “poor” or “very poor,” with only 11 percent reporting that NOPD’s ability to improve public safety was “good” or “very good.”

We are not living in a safer city with more police – we are living in a city in which poor people and people of color face obstacles that mean they are more likely to have a harmful encounter with law enforcement when they try to access education, employment, housing, and healthcare. This ultimately pushes people into a higher level of poverty and a more vulnerable environment as they try to survive and provide for their families. A single parent, a public housing resident and someone who is low income, faces more danger of becoming homeless, losing her children and losing her job with every encounter she has with police, even when she is seeking help.

But solutions to this counter-productive policing do exist. Recognizing that the best solutions are local and community-led but also recognizing that national organization offer helpful models of best practices, our organizations – Safe Streets/Strong Communities here in New Orleans and the Center for Constitutional Rights – have partnered to have a necessary conversation about policing in our city this upcoming Saturday.

The hearing – “New Orleans Coming Home: A National Panel Hearing on the Role of Law Enforcement in the Reconstruction” – will examine the ways that the increase in law enforcement has hampered the ability of residents to access housing, education, employment, and other public services post-Katrina while making us all less safe. At this hearing, we’ll be joined by various prominent human rights experts as well as current New Orleans residents and survivors of Hurricane Katrina who have experienced first-hand the ways that the NOPD is disrupting their ability to rebuild their lives.

Today, two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated our city, New Orleans may be open for business and tourism, but the policing means it is closed to families. This Saturday, let’s begin a dialogue about what we can do to make New Orleans a safe place for all of our residents.

Norris Henderson is the Co-Director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities. Vincent Warren is the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

*Not his real name