Only one Louisiana city, New Orleans, faced any citizen unrest in 2020. Regrettably, the policy response to that and the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic created self-inflicted wounds that significantly increased the amount of homicides in the city, and have set the stage for more of the same in the future.
While a report for the Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice didn’t include New Orleans data, analyses of these from many other larger American cities noted that “homicides, aggravated assaults, and gun assaults rose significantly beginning in late May and June of 2020.” Observing that homicides surged by 42 percent during the summer and 34 percent during the fall, as well aggravated assaults went up by 15 percent in the summer and 13 percent in the fall of 2020, while gun assaults increased by 15 percent and 16 percent.
Even as warmer months with their longer days often produce more crime, the surge in 2020 was particularly notable in that it spiked in the late spring. As researchers noted, in part this could have come from lockdown policies that discouraged provision of social services and conflict resolution attempts, but these largely had been lifted before the spike.
More likely, it came because of unrest as protest appeared to hit a critical mass after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd in police custody in late May. Within weeks, a number of law enforcement agencies found their budgets under serious fire as defunding police became a much-debated, if not actually implemented, policy option and a number of cities began implementing orders that circumscribed law enforcement strategy and tactics. These visible cues of increased permissiveness of general disorder and deemphasis of policing probably spurred the increased violence. By contrast, along with robbery, nonviolent crimes diminished sharply, and along with the timing of weekly data confirms the thesis that a lighter touch by police (and the diverting of resources to handle protests) led to more violent crime, particularly murders.
New Orleans had just one major incidence of protest violence, to which police had to respond with minor force. Nonetheless, it created an impression. Only days later, Democrat Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Police Chief Shaun Ferguson were insisting that the department already had undergone “reform” congruent to the calls of protesters, with spending priorities to match, and would go further. The City Council backed her up by restricting use of tear gas by police days after the riot.
Pandemic politics played perfectly into this. Not wanting to let a crisis go to waste (and one she intensified with the most draconian behavioral restrictions in the state in response to the pandemic), Cantrell foisted furloughs on the NOPD, encouraging 90 officers to leave an already understaffed force. Over the past decade, the force has declined 25 percent to 1,600 employees in 2020, and the furlough has contributed to around 190 fewer officers available at the start of 2021 compared to a year ago.
Cantrell further put her money where her mouth was during the budgeting process later last year. Police took an 8 percent hit, although other agencies suffered more of the 15 percent reduction across the city. Still, given the remarkable rise in the crime rate – the city would end the year up over 60 percent in homicides and carjacking almost doubling and a half – any cut may be injudicious. The City Council went along with her.
New Orleans of last year emerges as a harsh case study: when encountering adverse publicity and hostility from political elites, law enforcement typically pulls back on proactive measures and in aggressive measures. These have consequences: a study of Democrat former Pres. Barack Obama Administration policies, which had the federal government scrutinize heavily departments that had significant racial disparities in various enforcement outcomes (and which the new Democrat Pres. Joe Biden Administration has signaled it would readopt), discouraged policing and led to nearly 1,000 more homicides and almost 35,000 more felonies over a two-year period.
Bad enough if Biden charts this course, but local jurisdictions make matters only worse by piling on. Worst of all for Orleans, the election last year of Democrat Jason Williams, one of several “progressive” prosecutors across the country, will disempower crime disincentives further and thereby trigger increases in crime, as research demonstrates. Already, Williams has declared a policy of nearly-universal unwillingness to block any paroles, and plans to curtail the cash bail system (whatever remains of it), to end prosecutions of people for marijuana possession, never to transfer minors from juvenile court to be prosecuted as adults, and to open a civil rights unit on his first day to investigate wrongful convictions and “excessive” sentencing.
As 2020 showed, policies that place too much belief in the idea that traditional law enforcement practices contain pathologies such as racial animus and a bias towards the poor, and which underemphasize individual behavior, have bad consequences. Unfortunately, New Orleans policy-makers of all kinds appear even more willing to make those mistakes, putting citizens in harm’s way and needlessly risking their lives.