Jason Williams, pictured on July 22, 2020, takes questions from reporters after qualifying to run for district attorney. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Orleans Parish District attorney Jason Williams asked the New Orleans City Council on Monday for an addition $1.3 million in his budget to fund resources and initiatives that he said are necessary to combat and prosecute violent crime — including adding more assistant district attorneys, more detectives for the office’s cold case unit, and a prosecutor embedded in the Real Time Crime Center, the hub for the city’s crime-camera network. 

Williams also pushed the New Orleans Police Department to sign on to two cooperative endeavor agreements that would establish a Serial Crimes Task Force to target carjackings and robberies, and revive a controversial unit, the Multi-Agency Gang Unit, responsible for a series of investigations and arrests into dozens of members of alleged gangs during former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.

The unit, which was convened as part of Landrieu’s murder reduction strategy, came under fire in 2018 over the use of what has been characterized as “predictive policing” technology, as reported in The Verge, to identify “high-risk” individuals allegedly involved in gang activity, including those on the periphery. Prosecutors working with the MAG Unit often made use of sprawling racketeering indictments, which snagged small-time associates along with central figures in the groups. 

Williams said that the proposals have been on NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson’s desk since March, and had they been signed he thought “we wouldn’t be in the current crime surge that we are in now.”

But in a statement on Tuesday following the DA’s presentation, NOPD spokesperson Gary Scheets disputed that characterization, and said that in fact Ferguson had signed one of the agreements —  the serial crimes agreement —  last year, and provided a copy to The Lens that contained signatures of  Ferguson, Williams, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Signatures from representatives from the State Police, along with the FBI and Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms were blank in the copy the department provided. 

“​​It is inaccurate to state the Serial Crimes Initiative Agreement was not signed,” Scheets said. “The agreement was signed by the DA, Superintendent Ferguson, and Mayor Cantrell last year.  Signatures were also needed from other relevant agencies, however, the status of the effort to obtain those signatures is not known to NOPD.”

When The Lens provided the DA’s office with the document, Tyronne Walker, the Chief Administrative Officer, said it was the first time they had seen it. 

“The document that you sent to us — that’s the first time we’ve ever seen it,” Walker said. “So we’re happy to hear that the Serial Crimes Prevention and Prosecution Initiative was actually signed off by the mayor and chief, but that never got to us. This is the first time we’re seeing it.”

Walker said that the office would coordinate with the FBI, ATF, and state police to get the agreement finalized. NOPD did not immediately respond to follow-up questions from The Lens about whether or not they informed the DA’s office that the agreement had been signed. 

The back and forth over the agreement appeared to highlight a lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies that a number City Council members have expressed concerns about at a series of meetings meant to address crime in the city, including Monday’s. 

“You are seeing a lack of coordination,” Councilman J.P. Morrell said on Monday. “You’re seeing a lack of communication, you’re seeing a lack of urgency, and all of those things need to be addressed across the board from start to finish.”

Williams on Monday hoped to convince the council that his office was doing its part. He

called current crime trends a “real and present threat to the future of our city,” arguing that law enforcement resources needed to be focused on the most serious and violent crimes.   

“I don’t believe that we have the luxury of time,” Williams said. “We need a collective citywide front end and back end plan not today but yesterday. I would dare say that the silence has been absolutely deafening in terms of real strategies and solutions as to what we can do as a city and need to do to surge back at this violent crime surge.”

Data presented by crime analyst Jeff Asher at Monday’s meeting showed that while overall crime was down in 2021 relative to the previous year, violent crime was up nine percent, and homicides are at the highest level since 2004. 

To address the issue, Williams asked for over $400,000 to hire six additional assistant district attorneys to prosecute cases in Criminal District Court, and another $120,000 for attorneys who would do screening at juvenile court. Those additional attorneys, he said, would allow the office to get closer in line with national best practices in terms of attorney caseloads, and would free up more senior attorneys to focus on training and specialized prosecutions.

He also urged the council to spend $100,000 to fund training for DNA analysts at the state lab, where all DNA out of Orleans Parish is tested. Williams said that while the city funds seven analysts, there are currently three vacancies due to lack of training. If the council commits to training people for those positions, they can be hired by the state police and would increase the capacity of DNA testing. 

“This is a minimal investment with a very, very big return,” Williams said. 

Williams also said that he hoped to begin embedding DA personnel in the city’s Real Time Crime Center — the surveillance hub in charge of monitoring the city’s fleet of crime cameras. Those DA employees would be in the RTCC “solely for the next year to strictly focus on carjackings.”

Williams asked the council for $200,000 in additional funding to embed one assistant district attorney and two investigators in the RTCC. He said those personnel would help gather evidence to catch and prosecute people committing vehicle robberies. He also said the RTCC had the potential to help stop carjackings before they happen.

“Oftentimes, carjackings are committed in sprees, more than one in the same night by the same perpetrator,” Williams said. “So by using the Real Time Crime Center wisely, we can develop very, very good evidence, but we can also possibly aid in interrupting that particular crime spree on that day.”

Williams didn’t explain why existing RTCC staffing and procedures are insufficient, or exactly how additional DA staff would help. The RTCC is currently managed and staffed by the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. 

Prior to heading the DA’s office, Williams served on the council, where he took a leading role in passing regulations and restrictions on city surveillance. He worked closely with a local privacy group, the Eye on Surveillance Coalition, to pass landmark privacy legislation in December 2020, the month before he took office as District Attorney. 

On Thursday, Williams vowed to continue working with the coalition if the council gives him the $200,000 he needs to embed personnel at the RTCC. 

“I would commit to this body that I would work with Eye on Surveillance and other stakeholders to make sure we set up appropriate safeguards to make sure we prevent any unconstitutional government overreach as well.”

It is unclear whether or not the council will provide Williams with the additional funding request, though most members seemed receptive to his ideas. Councilwoman Lesli Harris asked what specific items he would prioritize if the council needed to “stagger the funding.” Williams pointed to the DNA training and more attorneys in both juvenile and Criminal District Court as most essential.

But some council members acknowledged that the solutions discussed at the meeting would not get at the more systemic issues that lead to crime in the first place. Councilman Oliver Thomas said for any lasting solutions would need to deal with education and income disparities. 

“Will we create sustainable solutions that engage the poor segments of our community?” Thomas asked. “That engage the largest segment of our community, so we can begin to make a difference where it is sustainable, not when it’s just a hot topic that we’re forced to deal with now.”

Michael Isaac Stein contributed to this story. 

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...