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'We Have a Long Road Ahead of Us.'

Police Chief Warren Riley speaks frankly about New Orleans' crime problem -- and admits that things will get worse before they get better.

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Several weeks ago, NBC Nightly News reported that New Orleans’ homicide rate is 30 percent higher than any other city in the country. In one week, more than a dozen people were murdered in New Orleans — compared to eight Americans killed in the war in Iraq. And the only persons arrested and charged with homicide in New Orleans in that week were police officers, for incidents that happened much earlier. All over town, people are frightened and frustrated.

“I don’t care if we have the 82nd Airborne. Until our criminal justice system works to the efficiency [level] of the federal government or even of Jefferson Parish, we’re going to have these problems.”

Last week, citizens marched on City Hall and demanded the resignations of Police Chief Warren Riley and District Attorney Eddie Jordan.
  
A day before Riley and Mayor Ray Nagin announced the city’s newest plan to fight violent crime, the chief sat down with Gambit Weekly for a frank discussion of the crime wave, the department, and whether there’s any hope for things getting better any time soon.


GW:
What is your plan to lead New Orleans out of the current crime wave, and how will you make the city safer in 2007?

RILEY: We have reformatted the New Orleans Police Department in the aftermath of Katrina. We have put some very serious plans in place that unfortunately have been diminished because of our attrition rate. Today our department has 1,401 officers, which includes 41 recruits. We have 107 officers that are out sick. We’re operating a department with about 1,200-and-something officers. And that has hurt us.

GW: Aren’t many of those officers assigned to desk duty or administrative posts?

RILEY: When you exclude rank and administrative people, you’re probably talking about another 300 officers. So our ranks have diminished. We had the foresight to call in the National Guard and the State Police, which has helped us. It truly has helped us.

As it relates to leading this police department and trying to make this city safer, we have to continue to do all that we can. We have created proactive units. We have, of course, our SWAT team. We have Narcotics, which is no longer focusing on the big drug dealers; they’re out hitting street corners and hitting street-level drug dealers. Now, we do have 16 officers assigned to a joint narcotics task force … with the FBI and DEA as well as ATF. But we took our [narcotics] unit and focused on street corners.
  
We have a CAT team, which is a Crime Abatement Team, which are undercover officers that have been very proactive and productive as it relates to taking felons and guns off the street. Some of the biggest problems that we have, we continue to have the same people that we have to arrest. We have to keep our hard-core felons in jail.

GW: Has that been happening?

RILEY: That has not been happening — not on the local level. On the federal level, yes. On the local level, no.

Obviously we now have to start focusing on other areas where we have not had a crime problem, where it seems as though we have people slowly moving into areas where we once didn’t have a major concern. So we’re redirecting our traffic units right now. They’re going to become more proactive. They’re going to focus on some traffic, but they’re going to do more proactive work by going into neighborhoods. We’re going to build our mounted force up. We’re going to increase foot patrols. We’re going to start doing that in a more significant way, having foot patrols in neighborhoods.

We continue to have a great relationship with the FBI and DEA and all the federal agencies. We continue to have a joint operation with Jefferson Parish. But until we get our criminal justice system to keep people in jail — and we have to build our numbers back up — there are many deficiencies in the aftermath of the storm. We have lost almost 400 officers who have either been fired [or] have left to go with their families who are all over this country.

The other problem that we have tried to identify and deal with is that our bad element is back. The city is not only being reoccupied, but it’s who is coming back. And we have to focus on them. And again, we can’t arrest them 10 times — and five times with guns — and they have four and five convictions, and then [they’re] back on the street. I don’t care if we have the 82nd Airborne. Until our criminal justice system works to the efficiency [level] of the federal government or even of Jefferson Parish, we’re going to have these problems. …

The criminal justice system has to work as a unit. We have to work together. We can’t be as successful fighting crime as we would like to be until the rest of the criminal justice system works like it’s supposed to work. We have to keep hard-core felons in jail.

GW: Mayor Nagin has said that he gets beeped every time there’s a murder in the city. Who’s authorized to make those calls to the mayor, and how many times have you personally called him on that sort of thing?

RILEY: He’s in the same paging system that I am. Anytime I get paged on a homicide or a serious incident, that automatically goes to the mayor as well. I call him on serious incidents. I will call him if it’s an unusual circumstance, if it’s a multiple-type murder, if it is an incident involving a police shooting, something like that.

GW: Describe what those calls are like for you.

RILEY: First of all, let me say that nobody gets more frustrated or angrier than I do when my pager goes off, especially last week on Jan. 3 when we had five murders in a day. Those calls to the mayor are professional. It’s informing my boss of a bad circumstance, of an unfortunate circumstance, of a criminal act that has cost somebody their life. And basically I give him as much detail as I have at that particular time. And if there is some new development, then he’s advised of that as well. And the mayor and I meet every week. We sit down and we talk about crime strategies, violent activity, crime trends, and things such as that. So he’s made aware of what’s going on on a weekly basis. And then with major incidents he’s notified immediately.

“I would understand those who chose to leave but encourage them to stay if they love the city, because things will get better. But we’re going to have some tougher times before they get better.”

GW: Some people seem to believe, no doubt out of frustration, that the chief and the mayor don’t necessarily share the feeling or don’t acknowledge publicly that New Orleans is in a crisis. There’s a suspicion that there’s too much “spin” put on the crime problem.

RILEY: It’s not spin, not by any means. By no means am I, and I know the mayor is not, happy with the fact that we had 161 murders last year. It’s impossible for us to gauge how bad crime is or if any progress was made, which apparently not a lot of progress was made, in the aftermath of Katrina as it relates to violence. But it’s very difficult because we really don’t know what the population is. …

This isn’t traditional policing. This is policing in the aftermath of a horrific catastrophe that happened to this city. There are so many other issues that as chief of police I have to deal with that are nontraditional. I still have police officers who have family scattered all over the country, who are living in trailers, who are trying to take care of two households, one here and one wherever their family is.

We had equipment problems early on. A lot of those things have been corrected, and we’re moving in the right direction in that area. We have a district that has no bathroom facilities. We have a lot of things that are nontraditional that we’ve had to deal with — plus fight crime. We have a police force that has been dragged through the mud and talked about as if it was a bunch of thugs and thieves when the vast majority, 90 percent, were out here doing their jobs, in many cases being heroic, risking their lives and doing things and have never been recognized for it, but yet come to work every day.

And everything that is done in this city that’s wrong is blamed, it seems, on the police. The police department is seen as a cure-all. And that’s why I continue to push the criminal justice system, because it’s not just the police. We had 14 months where we didn’t have a courtroom. We have a DA’s office that worked in a bar that didn’t have appropriate screening facilities.

There are so many other components that hinder our crime-fighting efforts, not just the police. This isn’t 2002 where we’re just a normal city and a normal police department. And although we’re moving forward and we’re still out there pushing to do the right things, you know, all people see is the surface side of it. They don’t understand everything else that goes with policing in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

GW: Do you believe that the rate of crime per hundred thousand residents is up, down, or about the same?

RILEY: We approach it as if it’s up. I honestly don’t know. But we approach it as if the crime rate is up.

GW: Some people would naturally suspect that things wouldn’t be this bad unless some police officers were either working with drug dealers or turning the other way. And that’s a terrible thing to allege because we don’t sit here with any evidence. But people just, when they reach a level of frustration or even fear, they begin to harbor the darkest thoughts. What assurances can you give the public that NOPD is honest?

RILEY: I can’t vouch for 100 percent of the officers being honest. We have some corrupt cops. I don’t think we have the level that we had during the Len Davis days. We have run more integrity checks than any previous administration has ever run. We have done sting operations. And we have fired more people than any other police administration has done within the first year. We are targeting individuals. We have taken swift and decisive action.

Now, what you don’t hear is that we terminated them because under this administration, when they’re caught, they resign because they already know the outcome. … We have taken a no-tolerance policy. We have run undercover operations. We have set up drug houses where we’ve set dope up for officers to go in to see what they’re going to do. We have done a number of sting operations not only to instill professionalism, but also paranoia into the minds of the few who might consider doing something wrong. We want them to think twice about committing a crime because it might be us; it might be the FBI.

We have FBI agents assigned to public integrity that are working with us. There are some things that I am seeking with the Department of Justice as it relates to some activities within the New Orleans Police Department. All I can do is tell you that the public needs to know that this administration is doing everything that it can to ensure that this department does the right thing.
  
To our surprise, with all the sting operations and all that we have done and all the people that we have fired, there are still a handful out there that will take a chance and do something wrong. And that’s unfortunate. But I guess it comes with the territory.

GW: You recently floated the idea of a curfew from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. How many armed robberies or other violent crimes typically occur during those hours and do you think that such a curfew would really be effective?

RILEY: As it relates to violent crime, about 30 percent happen between those hours. So, it’s something that we’re looking at. But we’re also looking at the impact that it has on a city like New Orleans, which is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week city. So that is an idea that’s been floated not only by myself and the mayor but by a committee, a number of people that we have talked to. And it’s only an idea. We’re not sure that we’re going to do that, but it’s certainly something that we have discussed.

“This isn’t traditional policing. This is policing in the aftermath of a horrific catastrophe that happened to this city.”


GW: You and police chiefs before you — and many officers — have found yourselves at odds with the DA’s office from time to time. Tensions have heightened since the indictments of the Danziger Seven. Tell us how your relationship with Eddie Jordan has evolved since you first took office and how well do you think you’ll work with that office going forward.

RILEY: We’re going to be fine as it relates to working together. The DA’s Office and the New Orleans Police Department, as you mentioned, have historically had some difficulties in certain areas.

GW: It’s been kind of a blame game going back and forth.

RILEY: And for far too long, for far too long. And let me say this: as it relates to the New Orleans Police Department, we have sent our officers to report writing training, investigative training. We’ve done everything that we can over this last year to make sure our people are preparing the best cases, providing the best evidence.

The relationship between Mr. Jordan and myself is fine. As it relates to the implementation of the processes that go from NOPD with a case to the DA’s office, it isn’t quite where it needs to be yet.
  
I’ll give you an example. We have suggested, and we would like Mr. Jordan’s office to, when a homicide occurs, get involved from the very beginning. Come to the scene, the collection of evidence. If our detectives are missing something, for them to say “You need to take a photo of this. You need to bring that piece of evidence in.” We want them to be a part of the entire process. We invite them to do that.
  
We want to ensure that our cases are submitted within 60 days, which we are doing. We also want them to understand as it relates to crime analysis information that it takes more than 60 days. If someone is in a violent crime and we have to send blood samples away because we don’t have a crime lab, that’s going to take some time to get back. … We can write a report in 60 days, but we can’t say that drug analyses are going to come back in 60 days. We can’t say that blood splatter results are going to come back within 60 days. It’s out of our hands.

But the relationship going forward, as it relates to Mr. Jordan and me, we’re fine. It’s not a personal thing. From the Danziger incident, certainly Mr. Jordan made some comments, and I certainly made some comments. But that was it. That was over with. Mr. Jordan and I met last Saturday. We are working together. We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that we do all that we can to make this city safe. The relationship simply needs to be tweaked where everybody’s on the same page. And that’s something that we’re working to get done.

GW: Many officers have said over the years that the typical murder victim is somehow involved in drugs. Do you subscribe to the view that if you’re not in the “drug game” that you’re less likely to be the victim of a crime or a murder?

RILEY: You’re less likely to in the sense that statistical information shows that 84 percent of our victims had a criminal record [and] 92 percent of the perpetrators had a criminal record. Now, there is certainly in any urban area the potential to be a victim of a crime.

GW: It raises the question: What do you say to the families of murder victims like Helen Hill or Dinerral Shavers?

RILEY: I feel for those two people. They obviously were genuine, good-quality citizens. It’s very, very unfortunate that that happened to them. And it’s something that we’re working on to address because those individuals were clearly innocent and didn’t deserve in any way, not that anyone does, but they’re certainly not individuals who you would have thought their life would have ended in that way. And it shouldn’t have happened.

GW: How significant is the influence of illegal drugs on the crime problem?

RILEY: I think it’s significant. Even if it’s 50 percent, it’s significant. I think that burglaries traditionally are people who are on heroin. They’re really, for the most part, nonviolent individuals, but they will steal property to sell so they can get their fix. Cocaine users are more violent. And they’re more likely to commit an armed robbery to get a fix. So it depends on the type of drug. The bottom line is, as it relates to violent crime, I do think that drugs are a significant part of our crime problem.

GW: A year ago, you and the FBI were working very closely to identify and capture the worst of the so-called legacy criminals who were returning to the city after Katrina. It seems that you’re behind the curve on that one now. What happened?

RILEY: Well, we were working very diligently. Some of those individuals are in jail now. Some of them are in jail in Houston. Some of them were killed in Houston. Some of them have been indicted and are in jail in the federal system here. But what has evolved is a new breed. And I think they’ve become more violent because they have not been remanded to jail, and they have lost any fear of going to jail. You can talk to any defense attorney in this city who handles drug users, and I can almost assure you they will tell you their clients never believe they’re going to go to jail in New Orleans.

“You can talk to any defense attorney in this city who handles drug users, and I can almost assure you they will tell you their clients never believe they’re going to go to jail in New Orleans.”

GW: The legacy of your first year as police chief may be that you asked the National Guard and State Police to help your department fight crime. Many citizens are very grateful that you took that step. But it also costs state taxpayers about $88,000 a day, and the clock is ticking. What’s your exit strategy for sending the Guard and State Troopers home by the end of June?

RILEY: Well, we’re working on that. We’re going to have a plan and a report to the governor’s office soon. We were tweaking that and finishing that up this morning. I met with the governor’s chief of staff about two weeks ago along with some other leaders. We had a great conversation. The state clearly wants to help New Orleans. But we also realize they can’t be here forever.

GW: Recruiting is another major issue. How will you offset the loss of more than 300 seasoned military police and State Troopers with new recruits — and you’ll have less than six months to do that?

RILEY: As you know, we have a radio campaign, a billboard campaign. I’ve asked for over one million dollars in recruitment and retention public relations money from the City Council. We hope to get that up and running. The Police Foundation has some initiatives that they’re working on as it relates to signing bonuses of four thousand dollars for laterals. We’re recruiting heavily in the military and in the National Guard. Because of their training we’ll have them go through an expedited training process in the academy, which won’t take 19 weeks. That will be much shorter because of their training. We are actually going to cut our academy down to 14 weeks [from 19 weeks] and get those officers on the street with a field training officer, where they will do the remainder of their training.

We are trying to put no less than 30 people in the academy every nine weeks. So we hope to build up, and it’s very difficult because we have so many people leaving. We hope to build our numbers to where we at least have 1,400 on the street and working.
  
So with that, we will focus on the highly populated areas. We will put more emphasis on the areas where we have crime trends and patterns. But we must continue to cover those areas that are abandoned and where you have one person living in a block and things like that. So it is a tremendous undertaking to devise plans and strategies.
  
Nobody’s been through this before. As the situation evolves, we modify our plans on how to get these things done. So we are working on strategies.
  
Let me give you an example. When we reformatted the police department after the hurricane, we went from 68 percent of our people to 87 percent that were out on the street. We had 20 officers assigned to every platoon in this city when you normally had 10 or 11, which meant even on a bad day, on a light day, you have 15 officers per district working every day. Those numbers are now down to 10 or 12 on a platoon, which means we have 8 possibly working.
  
Until we stop people from leaving the Police Department and start adding police officers, we’re going to have a major, major undertaking. That’s why the criminal justice system becomes so much more important in keeping those hard-core offenders in jail.

GW: The local president of the Fraternal Order of Police says the Danziger Bridge case could put a damper on recruiting. At the same time, the local NAACP president says police demonstrations for the accused officers can have a chilling effect on witnesses. What’s your take on the impact of this case on the department and on the community?

RILEY: I’m not going to make any comments of any sort on the Danziger. I don’t want to do anything that’s prejudicial.

GW: The mayor recently said that racial tensions have increased since the storm. It’s often said that a police department should reflect the community it serves. What do you believe is the state of race relations within the department?

RILEY: We had some serious issues after the [mayoral] election within the department along racial lines. The department was divided down racial lines as a result of the election. And it is certainly better now, much better now than it was immediately following the election. There was some severe separation. And I think that’s sort of come back together. Within any organization you’re going to have some racial issues, I believe. And we have some, but it’s not significant. But we do have some issues.

GW: What effect has the three-year suspension of the residency requirement had on recruiting and visibility, and what do you see are the pros and cons of residency requirements?

RILEY: Well, right now because of the aftermath of Katrina, it was probably one of the most positive moves that we made. The police officers had nowhere to live here. It gave us an opportunity to recruit around the state. And it’s very, very positive. The long-term effects of that, I don’t know what it will be. But I know that at this particular point in time the lifting of the residency [requirement] is a positive thing for the police department.

“We were prepared for a hurricane. We weren’t prepared for a levee break. We weren’t prepared for water to cover 80 percent of the city. Now our emergency preparedness plans are for a catastrophe, not just for an emergency.”

GW: How prepared is NOPD for the next major hurricane, and what will you and the department do differently?

RILEY: We’re very prepared. The difference is before we were prepared for a hurricane. We weren’t prepared for a levee break. We weren’t prepared for water to cover 80 percent of the city. Now our emergency preparedness plans are for a catastrophe, not just for an emergency. We have sufficient boats now. We have training from our intelligence units and our Criminal Intelligence Bureau and our Special Operations Division. We were never the lead on water rescue; the fire department was. But we have a bigger role in that now, although the fire department is still the lead.
  
As it relates to communications, we have our new radios in. … That new radio has the ability to turn a channel and we can talk to anyone in the state. So in the event that our current system goes down, we turn to another channel [and] we can communicate with the FBI, with DEA. We can communicate with Lake Charles, Shreveport. We will have the ability to talk to each other through those systems that are around the state. So that will never ever be a problem again.


GW: Part of getting past a catastrophe like that is looking back at what went right and what could have been improved upon. Did anyone at any level issue a shoot-to-kill order during Katrina?

RILEY: No, no.

GW: Was martial law ever declared? And if so, on whose orders?

RILEY: Martial law was never declared, just a state of emergency.


GW: The Metropolitan Crime Commission says the city needs to form a special commission with vast powers to investigate what happened after Katrina. Would you welcome such an investigation?

RILEY: I would. I believe that the U.S. Senate investigators did a detailed investigation. I don’t know what could be any more thorough than that, but I would have no objection to it. It’s an open book. Whatever’s going to identify problems and improvements is welcome.

GW: A recent UNO poll showed that one in three people were considering moving out of Orleans and Jefferson parishes within the next two years. The same poll shows crime is the number one concern in both parishes. What would you say to keep people from leaving?

RILEY: (Long pause.) I’m trying to think of the pros and cons of that question. For those people who would want to leave either Jefferson or New Orleans, I understand their concerns. I would understand if they chose to leave. But again, you know, I would encourage people to stay. I would encourage them to stay for the love of the city. I would encourage them to stay because the city really needs them. And I understand their concern about crime. …
  
But, you know, we have a long road ahead of us. We have some tough times ahead of us, you know. And we can’t ensure a whole lot of things right now until all components are working [and] we build our strength up. I don’t want to say that everything’s going to be all right because we have a tough road ahead of us. So I would understand those who chose to leave but encourage them to stay if they love the city, because things will get better. But we’re going to have some tougher times before they get better.

GW: What would you like your legacy as Chief to be?

RILEY: (Pause) That I had the very, very best interest for the safety of this city, that we put forth as unique and as diligent crime-fighting plans and as progressive crime-fighting strategies as any place in this country, that in the aftermath of the worst national disaster in American history that we never ever gave up, that this department was the only fully functioning agency in this city in the aftermath of a storm, along with other public safety units; and that, you know, we did our very, very best under the worst conditions, under the very worst conditions; and that we have dealt with uncertainties, we have dealt with new evolutions, we have dealt with communities that were once wholesome, that have now become areas of prey. We’ve tried to identify those areas. We’ve tried to stay ahead of it — and that all that we have done we have done with limited resources. And although we have not succeeded to the degree that we would like, and although there are many problems, that we have done everything that we could and continue to under the worst conditions.
  
And for a department that has really been battered and beaten up on nationally, battered and beaten up on because of a handful of people, that this police department is still dedicated and strong and has held together through the most trying circumstances — and that ultimately we will be successful in reducing crime and violence in the city. …
  
Also, that professionalism and community service have been pushed and pushed, and training has been pushed to a level that I have never seen before — from myself on down — because we wanted to put the very best effort forward and have the most knowledge that we could in the most unusual circumstance.

GW: Chief, this interview is going to be published the week of January 15, which is your birthday. Happy birthday. At the same time, we couldn’t help but notice that in the year you were born [1959] there were only 59 murders, and the city had more than 600,000 people. What would it take if we were to set that as a goal? How would we get back to a number like that?

RILEY: An education system that was anywhere near what it was back then. An economy that was thriving. A poverty level far lower than the 27 percent that it was pre-Katrina. Opportunities where our impoverished youth didn’t feel their life was useless and that they were going to live beyond 25 years of age because they were educated and had opportunities. And a criminal justice system that, when you’ve committed a crime and it was proven, you go to jail and you do your time.

GW: Do you think you’ll see the number drop in your lifetime to 59?

RILEY: No.

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