NEW ORLEANS - The Council's Criminal Justice Committee met today to discuss and move closer to implementing several significant legislative priorities aimed at improving the City's criminal legal system.
As it's first major agenda item, the Committee engaged court officials, respected experts and local advocates as part of the one-year review of the Aged Debt and Warrant Clearance Legislation (Ordinance 32,776 & Resolution R-19-370). The Committee, and all parties present today, formally affirmed their commitment to continue to work together to address the outdated policies around Aged Debt and Warrant Clearance, which have inequitably prevented New Orleanians from passing background checks, being hired for quality jobs, obtaining their driver licenses, and more.
"This is something that is universally supported by system actors," said Committee Chair Jason Williams. "The City has a clear mandate to make sure we are doing our part to correct the current obstacles that prevent our people from being able to fully contribute to New Orleans' growth and providing the necessary resources to system actors working to achieve that end."
The Committee also considered Ordinance 33,106, which would amend the City Code to ban the use of riot control agents by the NOPD except under specific circumstances involving a threat of harm to persons. This ordinance was developed in direct response to the New Orleans Police Department's (NOPDs) use of tear gas on a crowd of protesters on the Crescent City Connection on June 3. The Committee has actively engaged in ongoing discussions with members of the community and the NOPD to review the incident and develop safety measures and precautions moving forward.
"Tear gas is banned through an international treaty for use in war. It should never be used domestically except in the direst situations," said District "B" Councilmember Jay H. Banks. "Crowd control or crowd dispersal does not rise to the level to justify the use. Only when human life is in danger are these weapons permitted to be used. Working with local and national advocacy groups and our own NOPD, we were able to craft an ordinance that not only keeps our residents safe but does not take away law enforcement's ability to use it in order to save lives."
The proposed ban aligns with similar laws and policies across the globe. Tear gas was defined as a chemical weapon and banned in international law for use in warfare following the 1993 UN General Assembly's Chemical Weapons Convention. In light of the violence and racial injustice that occurred across the country this past year, the Committee fully supported local residents in holding peaceful protests to show solidarity with impacted communities and demand change from local and national leaders. The Committee also holds tremendous respect for the sacrifice and service provided by NOPD officers to keep our communities safe. However, the deployment of tear gas into the entire crowd on June 3 was not only unwarranted, but it also made an already volatile situation that much more so by inciting panic and hysteria on the bridge.
In order to prevent these types of situations from occurring in the future, the proposed ordinance would provide very limited emergency circumstances in which officers would be permitted to utilize such harmful methods. It would also mandate a clear and audible warning prior to the deployment of tear gas to provide members of the public with ample time to disperse. Ordinance 33,106 and a corresponding amendment (deleting the phrase "crime against persons" and replacing it with "to prevent imminent loss of life or serious bodily injury") will be considered by the full Council during its next regular meeting.
Committee members also began initial discussions to prevent No-Knock warrants in New Orleans following the wrongful death of Breonna Taylor. The Committee did not introduce a formal legislative instrument on this issue today but moved the conversation forward to further review the feasibility of a local law that would prohibit officers from executing a warrant without warning, which could ultimately result in the loss of life. The Committee agreed to hold ongoing meetings with City and law enforcement officials and conduct the necessary research to develop and ultimately pass this legislation in the future.
"The tragic murder of Breonna Taylor was a belated wake-up call: police serving unannounced or "no-knock" warrants can have deadly consequences. We never want a tragedy like this to befall our city, so we're working proactively to prohibit the use of this controversial and dangerous tactic that has cost far too many innocent lives," said Councilmember Helena Moreno.
Finally, the Committee heard a series of presentations and held a corresponding discussion regarding Phase III construction of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office (OPSO) jail facility. The new jail building was approved by the Council in 2017 as a last resort to address and house New Orleans' overflowing population of inmates with medical and mental health problems. However, given the substantial change in circumstances and decrease of the jail population since the project was approved, the Committee is reviewing current data and plans to determine if an alternative, less costly, more amenable solution can be found.
The Committee heard several presentations (view here) from representatives of the Administration and national experts with updates on the City's existing financial constraints due to COVID-19, current Phase III construction plans, alternatives and timelines, recent data trends regarding the local inmate populations, as well as the City's ability to meet constitutional standards for the care of the mentally ill. Upon conclusion of the deliberations, Committee members voiced their concerns and objections to the addition of the new facility, citing the various reasons and conditions that have changed since the initial plans were authorized.
Councilmember Williams concluded, saying, "This is a human rights issue first and foremost. Mental illness will affect all our lives, whether we experience it personally or through a loved one, and our society desperately lacks a sufficient plan for treatment. A jail cannot become the de facto treatment center for the City of New Orleans. Together, our city and justice system have made serious strides toward building efficiencies and programming to shrink our jail population, understanding that the size of the population and who is being detained impacts our overall public safety and fiscal health. Put plainly, our current financial crisis, and jail population trends simply don't support new construction, and we must work together to find better options for the mentally ill. It is our legal and moral obligation to do so."
Keith D. Lampkin
Office of Jason R. Williams, Council-At-Large