By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

The New Orleans Police Department arrested 20,000 people needlessly on warrants last year at a cost to taxpayers of almost $2 million, said Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas at a City Council budget hearing this morning.

“To say I was stunned was an understatement,” Serpas said, describing his reaction to the statistics. “To know that we have 20,000 arrests that we didn’t need to do under state law. Certainly I’d like to see that go down by almost 100 percent.”

Most of the arrests were for warrants on relatively minor matters, such as unpaid traffic tickets, Serpas said. Those arrested spent an average of 4.2 days in Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s jail.

In turn, the city paid Gusman $22.39 a day to care for each of those prisoners, many of whom were released after the other parishes declined to come pick them up.

Serpas said he first heard about the needless arrests at a meeting of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group on Friday. The group has been meeting to talk about the size of a new jail in the city.

Serpas, Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin explain the NOPD budget to the City Council Monday monring.

Serpas changed his department’s arrest policies last week to get rid of the arrests, he said.

In the 12-month period ending September 2010, there were 60,000 people released from Orleans Parish Prison. Of those, 20,111 were incarcerated on a warrant charge, Serpas said.

“An audit of randomly selected persons showed that 98 percent of those warrant charges were for crimes committed in other parishes, primarily Jefferson, for crimes such as: failing to pay a citation; failure to appear; out of compliance with a court order, et cetera,” Serpas said.

State law was changed in the most recent legislative session to no longer require police officers to make these arrests.

“If these persons were confronted in Jefferson Parish with such warrant, these persons would not be physically arrested,” Serpas said. “But yet here in Orleans Parish we have been physically arresting these persons.”

Serpas said the arrests are a “tremendous drain of resources on our community,” and that “it does not make sense, economical or common, to continue these arrest policies.”