Criminal Justice
 

Rage over victim’s arrest record should be directed at NOPD

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.

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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.”

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  • http://UptownMessenger.com Robert Morris

    Mark, I thought Karen’s article was on point, but I’ve generally viewed a lot of the commentary on this issue as pretty shallow. For one thing, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the press telling any government agency not to disclose anything. I’ve been in communities where getting anyone’s arrest record from the police was a struggle (even though it’s obviously a matter of public record). Just because they release the record, doesn’t mean we as the publish have to print it, if we deem it irrelevant.
    So while I don’t think it’s the press’s role to tell the government what NOT to say, I realize the policy still creates a problem even if no media outlet printed it: The news releases are still placed wholesale on the NOPD website, meaning each victim’s name will still be Google-immortalized with their arrest records even if the news outlets are being judicious.

    But what would be ideal, and what I think we should be demanding, is an intelligent use of this information by the police. Instead of this one-size-fits-all, know-nothing approach in the name of a false “fairness,” what if they were to release the information only when they deemed it relevant? If investigators believe a man was shot to death because of a drug feud, and he’s been arrested in previous shootings that might leave him with people gunning for him, then police should tell the public that, and show us the charges to back it up. And when a person’s record is clearly irrelevant to the fact that their life was taken — as in Ainsworth’s case — it doesn’t need to be mentioned.

    Honestly, much of the blame for this even mattering falls on us in the press as well. There were 199 murders last year, but I can tell you that there weren’t 199 articles written about individual human lives lost. When the entire media is simply regurgitating NOPD news releases in the majority of murders, what their PIO puts in the release takes on an outsized importance. On the other hand, if we were telling more complete stories that explained why each lost life matters, what the NOPD did or didn’t “release” would matter much less.

  • http://vatul.net/blog/ Maitri

    Ainsworth isn’t the first innocent, for lack of a better term, to have lost his life in this manner and for years now. What about the kids, seniors, friends and relatives who are routinely killed just for being bystanders? What about their records? This is absurd as is the argument that “the high murder rate is ok as long as it’s just gangsters killing each other.”

  • Shawn

    Had this been a case involving and obviously innocent black hero, would The Lens have been upset over the delay in releasing any arrest record? If this has been an incident such as the Curtis Mathews ( killed in retaliation for his brother’s testimony against Telly Hankton) murder, would The Lens have been smirking that the NOPD was dragging their feet in releasing any arrest record?

    Its hard to believe The Lens or the Times Picayune would have used that murder as a device. Curtis Mathews’ murder was editorialized as alarming.

    http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2011/10/the_alarming_killing_of_curtis.html

    Ainsworth murder was used as a rhetorical device.
    You can sit here from now to doomsday and deny it, but there is a dual standard in the way these two heroes were treated in the media, and it stinks of racism and I don’t care what color you are.

  • PV

    First, Shawn, do not misinterpret The Lens (or the Times Picayune) for that matter as airing out their sheets all if a sudden just, because Ainsworth is white. Recognize that it was the NOPD who chose not to disclose this victim’s record more chances than not, because he was white, and that it was a citizen’s intervention who directly asked NOPD after viewing the victom’s record why he was an exception to the norm. NOPD immediately released the record to the press… It is the justice system, to be held accountable. If this principle introduced by Serpas was obsolete, biased racism and classism would unfortunately still exist, but publicizing arrest records of any persons would not.

    My next comment is this and I would love to see this addressed in connection to this story. Why after 20+ murders and 50+ shot, (but alive!) to date in January, are Landrieu and Serpas now setting higher bonds for suspects arrested on counts of murder in reaction to Ainsworth’s killing? This one, feeds another beast within the justice system already out of control, and two does not address the immediate issue of what is going on with our streets being out of control.

  • Shawn

    “Recognize that it was the NOPD who chose not to disclose this victim’s record more chances than not, because he was white, …”

    That is an unbelievably bigoted statement. I have no doubt the hesitation was a result of the circumstances and nothing whatsoever to with Ainsworth’s race.

    I am just as certain The Lens chose this crime because the victim was white, and would have been hands off had it been a black victim killed while acting in a noble or heroic fashion, e.g., a case like the Curtis Mathews murder.

    While the police victim besmirchment policy is despicable, what The Lens and the The Times Picayune did is equally as despicable, and in the latter case, racist.

    The facts stand stark. The Lens and the Times -Picayune publicized the arrest record of one murder victim, the single white victim.

    Make up all the excuses you want, that is despicable and racist.

  • PV

    Shawn. I have no doubt either. Not a bit. I am not about to get into a spitting contest with you, however if you interpret the quoted statement above as being underlined by bigotry, I recommend that you reassess what I wrote from a more open and less bigoted mindframe yourself. Without knowing my color or creed, standpoint, background, and I not knowing yours, nor should it ultimately matter as we are on the same side here hence the attack senseless. May I ask, are you familiar with the NOPD’s policy to release prior records of all homicide victims? Do you know that the only victim’s record they do not post is the white man’s? Are you aware that the reason the police released the record to the press later after the first release is, because it was a citizen who pronounced the act as racist, so the NOPD then made up some bulls*#t as to why they did not do this in the first place and ammended it immediately to not look as dirty as they already are? I know this, because I was present in the room with the people who initiated this whole little convo we’re having right now.

    We are saying the same thing in different speak. I agree that the press making one man heroic and nixing out and ignoring countless other cases as if they don’t matter, because ultimately the victims are all black is

  • PV

    racism at its finest. I hope that as passionately fueled as you are at this by anger that you are also doing something constructive other then venting out your own anguish on a website to curb the matter we apparently both stand against. I am.

  • http://nolaanarcha.blogspot.com nola anarcha