DA’s office calls for bigger budget for criminal investigations and prosecutions

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams on Monday asked the New Orleans City Council for an additional $1.3 million in its budget to fund resources and initiatives that he says are needed to combat and prosecute violent crimes – including the addition of more assistant district attorneys, more detectives for the bureau’s cold case unit and a prosecutor embedded in the Real Time Crime Center, the network’s hub of city crime cameras.

Williams also pushed the New Orleans Police Department to sign two cooperation agreements that would establish a Serial Crime Task Force to target carjackings and thefts, and revive a controversial unit, the Multi-Agency. Gang Unit, responsible for a series of investigations and arrests of dozens of suspected gang members during the administration of former mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The unit, which was summoned as part of Landrieu’s murder reduction strategy, was criticized in 2018 for using what was called “predictive policing” technology. as reported in The Verge, to identify “high risk” individuals who may be involved in gang activity, including those on the periphery. Prosecutors working with the MAG unit often used sprawling racketeering indictments, which snagged small associates as well as central figures in the groups.

Williams said the proposals had been on NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson’s desk since March, and if they had been signed he believed “we wouldn’t be in the current crime wave we’re in now.”

But in a statement Tuesday after the prosecutor’s presentation, NOPD spokesman Gary Scheets disputed that characterization and said that in fact Ferguson signed one of the deals – the serial crimes deal – last year, and provided a copy at The Lens which contained the signatures of Ferguson, Williams and Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The signatures of the State Police, as well as the FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials were blank in the copy provided by the department.

“It is inaccurate to say that the Serial Crime Initiative agreement has not been signed,” Scheets said. “The agreement was signed by the district attorney, Superintendent Ferguson and Mayor Cantrell last year. Signatures were also required from other relevant agencies, however, the status of efforts to secure those signatures is unclear. is not known to the NOPD.

When The Lens provided the document to the prosecutor’s office, Tyronne Walker, the chief executive, said it was the first time they had seen it.

“The document you sent us – this is the first time we’ve seen it,” Walker said. “So we are happy to hear that the Serial Crime Prevention and Prosecution Initiative was in fact endorsed by the Mayor and the Chief, but it never reached us. It’s the first time we’ve seen him. »

Walker said the bureau would coordinate with the FBI, ATF and state police to finalize the deal. The NOPD did not immediately respond to follow-up questions from The Lens about whether or not it had informed the prosecutor’s office that the deal had been signed.

The back and forth over the deal appeared to highlight a lack of coordination between law enforcement that a number of city council members raised concerns about in a series of meetings aimed at tackling crime in the city, including that of Monday.

“You see a lack of coordination,” Councilman JP Morrell said Monday. “You see a lack of communication, you see a lack of urgency, and all of these things need to be addressed holistically from start to finish.”

Williams hoped Monday 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 should be focused on the most serious and violent crimes.

“I don’t believe we have the luxury of time,” Williams said. “We need a collective city-wide foreground and background plan, not today but yesterday. I dare say the silence has been absolutely deafening in terms of strategies and real solutions as to what we as a city can and should do to deal with this surge in violent crime.

Data presented by crime analyst Jeff Asher at Monday’s meeting showed that while overall crime was down in 2021 from a year earlier, violent crime was up 9% and homicides are down. at the highest level since 2004.

To fix the problem, Williams requested more than $400,000 to hire six additional assistant district attorneys to prosecute the cases in criminal district court, and an additional $120,000 for attorneys who would screen in juvenile court. These additional lawyers, he said, would bring the office closer to national best practices in terms of lawyer workloads and free up more experienced lawyers to focus on training and specialized prosecutions.

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

“It’s a small investment with a very, very big return,” Williams said.

Williams also said he hopes to begin embedding DA personnel into the city’s Real Time Crime Center – the monitoring center responsible for monitoring the city’s fleet of crime cameras. These DA employees would be at the RTCC “only for the next year to focus strictly on carjackings.”

Williams asked the council for additional funding of $200,000 to embed an assistant district attorney and two investigators into the RTCC. He said these staff would help gather evidence to catch and prosecute people who commit vehicle thefts. He also said the RTCC has the potential to help stop carjackings before they happen.

“Often carjackings are committed in series, 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 some really, really good evidence, but we can also potentially help break up that particular crime spree on that particular day.”

Williams did not explain why the RTCC’s existing staff and procedures are insufficient, or exactly how additional AD staff would help. The RTCC is currently operated and staffed by the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Prior to leading the district attorney’s office, Williams served on council, where he played a leadership 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 prosecutor. district.

On Thursday, Williams promised to continue working with the coalition if the council gives him the $200,000 he needs to onboard staff to the RTCC.

“I would commit to this body to work with Eye on Surveillance and other stakeholders to ensure that we put in place appropriate safeguards to ensure that we also prevent any unconstitutional excesses by government.”

It’s unclear whether or not the board 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 council were to “stagger funding.” Williams pointed to DNA training and more attorneys in district juvenile and criminal courts as most essential.

But some council members acknowledged that the solutions discussed at the meeting would not address the more systemic issues that lead to the crime in the first place. Councilor Oliver Thomas said any lasting solution would have to address education and income disparities.

“Are we going to create sustainable solutions that engage the poor segments of our community? Thomas asked. “It engages the largest segment of our community, so we can start making a difference where it’s lasting, not when it’s just a hot topic we’re forced to address now.”

Michael Isaac Stein contributed to this story.

Mark M. Gagnon