From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The number of arrests made in New Orleans has dropped dramatically in recent days, following calls from advocacy groups and the Orleans Public Defenders office to halt low-level arrests in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among people being held in jail, as well as the broader community. 

Over the last seven days 117 people were arrested, which appears to be the lowest number of any seven-day period in at least a decade, according to data collected on a City Council dashboard. That data only goes back to 2010. On Monday, according to the data, nine people were arrested, the fewest in a single day this year.

“There has been no change in arrest policy,” NOPD spokesman Gary Scheets said in a written statement. “NOPD will continue to address individuals on a case by case basis.Responding officers will either make an arrest or issue a summons or citation whenever possible or appropriate.”

But Danny Engelberg, Chief of Trials for the public defenders office, who is monitoring first appearances via videoconference, said he is still seeing arrests for low-level charges, which in his view unnecessarily exposing everyone involved to coronavirus infection.

Engelberg pointed to the case of a man arrested on Monday evening on a warrant that Engelberg said was from 2019, for criminal damage to property. He was booked into the jail and held overnight.  

“He was booked yesterday at 6 p.m. and is being held in part of the jail where we know that people are being quarantined,” Engelberg said on Tuesday. “And even if he is released on his own recognizance, as he should be, it won’t until much later today or this evening.” 

Recent first appearance records from Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, available online, show other recent arrests for property damage and drug possession. Others, however, are for more serious crimes, like aggravated battery and domestic abuse. 

The man was eventually released without having to pay a bond. 

“So, that sort of highlights where NOPD is not making wise decisions,” Engelberg said. “Why even arrest somebody on a 2019 warrant unless there is some indication that there is some dangerousness now?”

Experts have warned that prisons and jails are particularly conducive to the spread of the virus, and across the country thousands of prisoners have been released as a response. In New Orleans, after a push from the Orleans Public Defenders, advocacy organizations, and local bail funds, the jail population — at 915 as of Tuesday — is the lowest it has been in recent memory. 

It is not just a concern for the jail population that has people calling for fewer arrests. Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the New Orleans chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that the department should be doing everything it can to limit unnecessary exposure to the virus for officers, including handling as much as possible by phone or online.

“Property crime in particular,” Livaccari said. “I don’t think there is any need to have officers exposed to danger for reporting a property crime. I mean, obviously there may need to be some things that need to be followed up on, but they can do that once the threat has passed. Some things there’s just not any big rush on. Emergency calls, calls where people’s lives are in danger, they’re obviously going to respond appropriately.”

Livaccari’s concern was not only for the safety of the individual officers, but the ability for the department to function should a significant portion of officers get sick or have to quarantine after being exposed. 

“They’re in a job that is dangerous by necessity, dangerous by itself, and you add this in and it creates a whole new level of danger. If these guys start getting sick, they’re not going to be able to come in,” Livaccari said. “If they get sick and infect their colleagues, and we see a tremendous rise in the number of people that are infected within the police department, then it could at some point become difficult to render services to the public.”

New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson has resisted calls to halt all low-level arrests, but has said the department will be handling things on a case-by-case basis and is increasing the use of citations and summonses where appropriate. 

“It doesn’t help anybody to be arresting anybody right now unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Livaccari said. “It’s dangerous for the officer, the person getting arrested, and the prison population.”

At least four staff members working for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a memo released by the jail’s Independent Compliance Director, Darnley Hodge. One “former inmate” also tested positive, but the memo did not specify how long the individual had spent in jail or whether they began showing symptoms prior to being transferred to the hospital. 

Two other inmates were also tested but had not received results on Monday, and in the memo Hodge said that they “anticipate testing three more inmates at this time.” 

It was not clear from the memo whether or not those were the only inmates showing symptoms, or if there was a limited number of tests. 

The memo said that Wellpath, the jails healthcare provider, “recently received collection kits and is now capable of collecting samples to be sent for testing in Baton Rouge.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not return multiple calls and emails from The Lens.

Livaccari said he thought that the NOPD leadership was moving in the right direction, but that institutional adjustments tended to take place slowly. 

“These are the kinds of circumstances that require people to think outside the box,” said Livaccari, “and sometimes thinking outside the box hasn’t been the strong suit of city government.”

This story was updated with a comment from the New Orleans Police Department.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...