COVID-19 is exploding in New Orleans. As of April 1, 2,270 people in Orleans Parish have tested positive, and 115 have died.
While Mayor LaToya Cantrell should be commended for issuing a stay-at-home order and housing the homeless in hotels, this crisis calls for bolder action on the part of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), which is conducting “business as usual.”
Officers are still arresting people for minor offenses and transporting them to police stations. As two policing professionals, we believe it is our duty to ask NOPD to follow other police departments nationwide and adapt to the special circumstances created by COVID-19.
Making arrests puts New Orleans’ finest at high risk of infection. Officers cannot tell if someone has the virus, since many people with COVID-19 show no symptoms. They run the risk of contracting the virus every time they handcuff, transport, fingerprint, or book someone.
By arresting someone with the virus, officers risk exposing not only themselves, but also jail staff and other arrestees. Once COVID-19 spreads in jail, as it has in Rikers Island, containment becomes nearly impossible.
Major police departments around the country have accepted responsibility for slowing the spread of the virus by reducing arrests. In Philadelphia, police leaders and unions have agreed to delay arrests for drug offenses, theft, prostitution, and similar cases.
In Los Angeles and Denver, police are issuing citations instead of arresting suspects for all but the most serious cases. The Miami-Dade County Police Department is expanding the use of civil citations to avoid criminal charges entirely for many misdemeanors.
New Orleans is the outlier, despite the risks to police officers and our communities.
More than 60 police officers are already sick or in quarantine.
Patrol officers have always put our lives on the line to protect public safety, but now New Orleans officers are being asked to risk their lives and the lives of their families for no real public safety benefit.
In fact, these arrests make a public health crisis worse.
We urge the NOPD to advise officers to issue citations instead of making arrests wherever possible. We know that in most cases patrolmen can issue citations without sacrificing public safety. A citation would still hold an individual accountable to showing up to court, but it would not require officers to risk their safety and spend three hours making an arrest.
At a time when the nation is facing an unprecedented pandemic, we need officers looking out for public safety emergencies first. The city cannot afford to waste their time and put their health at risk.
As people who care deeply about the wellbeing of police officers, we believe it is our duty to look out for public health and safety, even when it means changing long standing practices.
Now is the time for NOPD to make this change, and help protect the city from our greatest threat.
Jerry Kaczmarek lives in New Orleans, where he served as a Patrolman with the New Orleans Police Department until retirement due to injury. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system. Walter Katz is a Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. He formerly served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety for the Mayor of the City of Chicago.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Crime Report has opened a resource file of stories mapping COVID-19’s impact on the criminal justice system to keep you abreast of fast-moving developments. Updated daily. Check it out here.