ACLU Tells New Orleans Police Chief to Get Tough on Crime But Respect Civil Liberties

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
January 10, 2007 12:00 am

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Civil Liberties Group Proposes Reforms to Lower Crime Rate, Protect Freedom

NEW ORLEANS – In response to the severe crime problem in New Orleans, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today called on Police Chief Warren Riley to “get tough” and lawfully target known criminals, while respecting and protecting the constitutional freedoms of residents. The ACLU also called for independent oversight of the police to build trust with the public, and urged public officials to engage in preventative measures to strengthen communities and families and rebuild support structures.

“Use smart policing to lawfully target known murderers, rapists, robbers, and assaulters and bring them to justice,” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Simultaneously, Chief Riley needs to act quickly and decisively to make sure officers are fit for duty or remove them from the force, so people will cooperate and have confidence in the system.”

Public officials need to get down to business immediately with some common-sense alternatives to their failed “get tough on crime” tactics of the past, Cook said. Louisiana now has one of the highest crime and incarceration rates in the world, but the high number of arrests have not made the community any safer, according to the ACLU. Instead, precise targeting of individual serious and violent offenders is needed to help reduce crime.

Noting that 85 percent of offenders are never caught, Cook added, “The problem with our criminal justice system is not softness but low apprehension rates.”

The ACLU also expressed strong opposition to the automobile checkpoints announced by Mayor Ray Nagin and Chief Riley at news conference yesterday. Such checkpoints will cause the police to waste valuable time on fishing expeditions instead of using credible leads to pursue known bad actors. The ACLU pointed out that courts have repeatedly found that general checkpoints are unconstitutional and that innocent people should not have to give up their right to travel freely.

The ACLU is also pressing Senator Mary Landrieu to scuttle her proposal to make FEMA violate a federal privacy law and give identifying information of aid recipients to the police. People who have lost their homes and live in trailers should not have to lose their privacy as well, said the ACLU. The federal law at issue protects all FEMA aid recipients – which includes virtually every New Orleans resident – from having their names added to a criminal database. . No evidence has been presented to show that disclosure of the sought-after information would aid in fighting crime. Turning innocent people’s social security numbers and addresses over to the police will do nothing to make us safer from violent criminals, said Cook.

Senator Landrieu’s proposal for surveillance cameras raises even more questions. No objective data exists to support the use of video surveillance by police in public places to prevent or solve crimes. In London, where 150,000 cameras were installed to reduce crime, certain incidents of violent crime actually rose after the network was installed. In addition, the personnel in charge of operating the cameras engaged in widespread violations of civil liberties. They focused almost exclusively on people of color, gays and young people, and monitored public meetings, marches and demonstrations.

The ACLU released its own five-point action plan to lower the crime rate while still protecting civil liberties. The proposed reforms are:

  • Invest in real crime prevention. Young men 15 to 29 years old commit most of the alarming street crime in New Orleans and across the nation. The key to crime prevention lies in strong families and communities – jobs with a livable wage, decent housing and neighborhoods, quality schools for everyone – not more prisons.
  • Move forward with staffing and funding the office of the Independent Monitor for the New Orleans Police Department to hold the police accountable to the people who pay their salaries. People will not cooperate with police officers that they do not trust or respect.
  • Expand non-prison sanctions for non-violent offenders, such as issuing tickets instead of jail time for minor offenses, and wider use of release on personal recognizance, home detention, restitution and other non-incarceration measures. Such measures would save costly prison space for those who should be removed from society, and would cease wasteful incarceration in Louisiana’s state and local jails that already cost taxpayers close to one billion dollars a year.
  • Treat non-violent drug abuse and small quantity possession as a public health issue, not a crime problem. Nearly two-thirds of today’s prisoners are non-violent drug abusers. They need treatment, not a jail or prison cell.
  • Stop enacting or considering ineffective “anti-crime” laws or policies like checkpoints, surveillance cameras, and release of FEMA lists to law enforcement that reduce our freedoms, but not our crime rate. Many police, prosecutors and corrections officials agree that constitutional rights do not hinder effective law enforcement.

“Again, we need to think creatively and make changes already proven to work elsewhere, like those presented at the most recent crime summit,” said Cook. “Invest heavily in prevention that stabilizes and strengthens families to prevent crime, which makes more sense than just trying to catch criminals after people have been murdered, raped, or robbed. Stop wasting valuable police resources on arresting and incarcerating people on municipal offenses for which a citation would suffice.”

“Effective law enforcement and protection of civil liberties are both essential in a democracy with individual liberty. The ACLU believes that we can be both safe and free,” Cook added.

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