NEW ORLEANS - Yesterday, the Criminal Justice Committee held its July regular meeting. The meeting centered on a progressive agenda to reduce exposure to COVID-19 through the justice system and lessen opportunities for racial and ethnic disparities in justice system interactions. Council Public Safety Analyst, Jeff Asher, opened the meeting presenting newly created Community Safety and Racial Disparity public information dashboards.
"I am very proud of the fact that this city has seen an absolute sea change with respect to the use and reliance upon data and analytics in the decisions we make," said Council President and Criminal Justice Chair, Jason Rogers Williams. "Significantly scaled up public-facing information is becoming commonplace. Shrinking that information divide is all the more important in this increasingly virtual world when we are confined to our homes, and many have not been able to participate in the public process in the ways we typically would. We continue to encourage a culture of open data system wide because availability of facts and data to the people is the ultimate weapon against disinformation and scare tactics."
Later in the agenda, Chairman Williams hosted local legal and community advocates representing the Orleans Public Defenders Office, MacArthur Justice Center, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, and the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. These advocates joined the Committee to discuss two of Councilmember Williams' proposed ordinances before they move to a vote of the full City Council. The Committee first heard Ord. Cal. No. 33,020, expanding the issuance of summons instead of arrest for low-level violations, an effort aimed to decreasing COVID-19 spread through unneeded physical contact between officers and the people.
In a compelling argument for expanded summonses in lieu of arrests Dr. Joshua Yukich, an epidemiologist and professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, cited a Chicago study of community spread from the city's jail and concluded that, "There is still no better way to protect staff, incarcerated people and the communities at large than keeping jail populations as low as possible and reducing cycling through such facilities ."
Williams opined, "It is critical that we lower instances of law enforcement officers coming into unnecessary contact with the public. By expanding the use of summonses and citations in lieu of traditional arrests in appropriate situations, we shrink the exposure for those outside and inside facilities. In many cases, these low-level offenses would not yield prison time if they were brought to disposition. We have to look at a smarter approach to safety."
The committee followed by discussing Ord. Cal. No. 33,018, providing an arrestee or their legal counsel prompt access to body-worn and in-car camera footage in connection with the accused's arrest.
Explaining the need for earlier production of NOPD (New Orleans Police Department) body camera footage, Orleans Public Defender Nick Place said, "This evidence was recorded and saved the night my client was arrested. And there was no practical reason why I couldn't get it sooner. By the time their case is accepted, and we finally get the crucial, potentially game-changing bodycam footage from the DA, our incarcerated clients likely have already lost their housing, their job, their connection to social services, even, in the most tragic situation, their parental rights."
"Now more than ever, we need our legal system to be as lean as possible. We also have to ensure that we proactively address those areas where we've traditionally seen fairness denied. This crisis has shown that access to video evidence is immensely impactful as a tool of accountability. In the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others cities nationwide are coming to terms with necessary systemic reforms to decrease opportunities for police abuse against citizens. We have a reciprocal duty to make sure officers are protected and that the reports they write are supported by reliable evidence. This measure will ensure the rights of all parties are protected and all have equal access to vital evidence.," said Councilmember Williams.
The Committee meeting ended holding discussions of uses of force by security districts following a June 13th incident where an investigatory stop ended in guns being drawn on three innocent young black males who were searching for a lost dog. The Committee heard from the family of one of the victims about the experience and committed to thoughtfully reviewing existing protocols for opportunities to create uniformity among law enforcement.
You can listen to the committee meeting recording here.
Keith D. Lampkin
Office of Jason R. Williams, Council-At-Large