As I concluded some small talk with a friend this morning, he turned to go but then whirled around and said, “Interesting report by The Lens yesterday.”
He didn’t have to elaborate. I knew he referred to the article about New Orleans Police Department’s delay in issuing a statement on Mike Ainsworth, the Good Samaritan who was shot while he tried to stop a carjacker in Algiers on Wednesday. Ainsworth died shortly after being shot in the chest, on a lawn in front of his two sons. NOPD procedure is to publicize the arrest history of homicide victims, and The Lens story noted that Ainsworth had prior arrests and a guilty plea.
So I pre-emptively emphasized to my friend that the crux of the Lens story was about the delay in the release of the victim’s arrest record, not the arrest record itself.
“Oh,” my friend said. “So it was about the absurdity of the NOPD policy? Before, I was like, ‘Who cares if years ago the guy did drugs?’ ”
And that’s precisely the point. My friend doesn’t care. I don’t care. But the NOPD does care, and they want you to care about a dead man’s arrest record.
The afternoon the news broke about Ainsworth, former mayoral candidate James Perry tweeted “Chief Serpas, does the victim have a record?” Perry wasn’t trying to disrespect the victim. Rather, Perry’s question highlighted an absurd practice by police Superintendent Ronal Serpas. I was surprised it didn’t gain more traction.
Then The Lens story came out, and not long after that, the NOPD sent out their release, detailing Ainsworth’s record.
Often, charged emotions in the wake of terrible circumstances leads to careless reading. Some Lens commenters attacked reporter Karen Gadbois for her story. Another tweeted that the story made him “want to take a shower.”
Like my friend, they didn’t seem to recognize the larger context of the story: the police department regularly releases this information about murder victims’ arrest history. Before the body has been buried – sometimes before it’s even been taken from the scene – officials want everyone to know a murder victim’s specific arrest record going back 25 years.
Serpas claims sharing this data helps “educate us all on what we need to look at to fix the problem.”
His department has said that law-abiders’ personal safety would most likely be “absolutely fine” if they don’t have an arrest record. However, in the case of Ainsworth, there was a delay to “educate” the populace about his record. Ainsworth, a white man who had previous drug-related arrests, had been deemed a hero. The NOPD statement released the victim’s arrest history only after The Lens published a story about the delay.
The NOPD accounted for the delay by saying they had been focused on getting a composite sketch of the killer out to the public. This made me wonder: does the sketch artist handle the press releases, as well?
Serpas says, “We put these things to the public so we can understand the gravity of the case.”
I think a homicide case, by nature, carries a sufficient amount of “gravity” on its own. Informing the public that the victim had been arrested for pot back in the 1990’s won’t do much to help that.
On its Facebook page, ProjectNola reprinted the police press release about Ainsworth, but omitted the arrest record to show respect to the family. They asked their readers to air their views on the NOPD policy, and the response was overwhelmingly negative. I’d wager that a scientific citywide poll about the policy would yield similar results.
A blanket policy that publicizes a homicide victim’s arrest record isn’t educational. If the police want to make the point that being arrested increases one’s chances of being killed, then I’m sure they’ll have plenty of opportunities in front of microphones over the coming year to make that basic point. They don’t need to do it in a press release every time someone is shot to death, deepening the family’s grief. Far from enhancing our appreciation of the gravity of the case, this practice subtly blames a dead victim, and surely divides the community more than it educates it.
Let me be clear: Ainsworth’s impulse to risk his life to stop a crime was heroic, and it’s tragic that he died, especially in front of his sons. Media reports have repeatedly called him a Good Samaritan, which is appropriate. I’m sorry he was killed and don’t care that he has a record.
However, I think we would do well to remember that the original Good Samaritan parable pointed to larger lessons, beyond just helping someone. Recall that the parable was Jesus of Nazareth’s answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
In Biblical times, Samaritans were a hated people, so Jesus’ choice of hero in the parable was no accident. The Good Samaritan who helped a beaten traveler was an unlikely hero. (Maybe he had prior arrests — who knows?) The point was that we should regard everyone as our neighbor.
So, dividing our fellow New Orleanians into categories of “arrested” and “not arrested,” in a bizarre attempt to soothe minds about the city’s gruesome murder rate – is a profoundly un-neighborly policy. It divides us further by making distinctions based on arrests that might have occurred a quarter-century ago. The implication is that those without records don’t have to worry so much when Samaritans, er, those with arrest records are gunned down.
But the Ainsworth case shows the folly of the NOPD’s practice. Everyone does care that he was killed, and nobody cares that he had prior troubles. That the NOPD seemed to drag their feet on the Ainsworth press release is unsurprising. The case revealed the absurdity of their policy in stark relief, to the entire community. And The Lens story nailed them on it. Instead of justifying their policy with half-baked explanations, they should take this opportunity to rescind it.
In short: unless a victim’s arrest record has a direct bearing on the specific circumstances of their demise, the NOPD shouldn’t publish it. The arrest information divides us more than it “educates” us. Nor should it soothe our minds about the violence in New Orleans. The city’s alarming murder rate is a concern to all of us. It would be un-neighborly to think otherwise.
This is a make-or-break year for the NOPD under Serpas. New personnel are in place, and new crime-fighting strategies are being implemented. The city is on edge because the homicide rate remains intolerable, though, it hasn’t been comforted or informed by the connections the NOPD has drawn between victims and arrest records. Instead, the NOPD’s policies have divided us as we grieve.
That, in my mind, is the proper context in which to view the recent Lens story.
Superintendant Serpas, please immediately halt this failed and insulting policy.
Those interested in making a donation to the Ainsworth family may do so at any Whitney Bank, or they can mail donations to Whitney Bank, 501 Verret St., New Orleans, LA 70114. Please make checks payable to “Benefit Harry Michael Ainsworth.”