By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer
Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas defended his department’s approach to stemming homicide in New Orleans before a meeting of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee this afternoon.
The number of homicides rose by 14 percent during Serpas’ first full year in command from 175 in 2010 to 199 in 2011. He also came under fire from Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Councilwoman Susan Guidry for releasing the arrest records of homicide victims — a new practice which has caused considerable controversy in recent weeks.
“It’s a practice I have a problem with,” Hedge-Morrell said. “I would strongly encourage you to stop.”
Guidry echoed criticisms offered recently by others in the community.
“Sometimes that criminal arrest record is long ago and not relevant to the situation, and sometimes they’re not convictions,” Guidry said.
Serpas countered by saying 82 percent of homicide victims in New Orleans in 2011 had prior arrest records, and that every homicide victim in the city last year was unemployed. He also said most homicides in the city are “black males killing black males.”
And he said his release of arrest records is having another affect.
“Well, now the community is talking about it,” Serpas said.
Hedge-Morrell conceded that issues with a lack of education and community support for poor black men are legitimate, but she urged Serpas to release a report on the aggregate statistics, and not release arrest records on each homicide victim just after they have died.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter, and Landrieu’s Health Commissioner Karen De Salvo joined Serpas in addressing the committee. They said reducing homicide is not just Serpas’s responsibility and that it must be part of a “data-driven,” “evidence-based,” “collaborative,” “population-based” approach.
Delivering a 40-slide presentation, the trio highlighted the administration’s new initiatives, such as the mayor’s strategic command to reduce murder, Operation Ceasefire, and the “Saving Our Sons” initiative, as well as a midnight basketball league in partnership with the New Orleans Hornets.
Guidry and Hedge-Morrell engaged in the discussion, but also responded with skepticism, with Hedge-Morrell asking Serpas what she should say to her constituents who are scared of the escalating violence.
Serpas said beefing up the homicide department to 32 officers and working with the administration on its existing initiatives should be enough to turn things around, but added that his officers need to focus on improving their interactions with the community. He also said 2012 is likely to be a better year.
“We had to rebuild our infrastructure in 2011,” Serpas said. “We’ve built the building blocks for this department, and I expect to have a better 2012.”
Hedge-Morrell pushed Serpas to say whether he needs more officers. When the department had 1,600 officers in the 1990s, it had a better handle on homicide, Hedge-Morrell said. But Serpas said he thought he had enough officers to do the job.
Michael Cowan, chairman of the New Orleans Crime Coalition, said he had “full faith and confidence” in Serpas, Landrieu, and their approach to stemming homicide.
“Our murder rate in 2011 was 50 below our 30 year average,” Cowan said. “We have to deal with this in a factual way.”