New Orleans police chief, DA pledge to relaunch gang unit
The city has faced increasing pressure to act as residents' outrage has grown over a surge in violent crime
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — After weeks of verbal sparring over who or what is to blame for New Orleans' surging violence, District Attorney Jason Williams and Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson sat shoulder-to-shoulder Thursday and pledged to revive a multi-agency unit that was credited with disrupting gang-related bloodshed but was disbanded over its controversial tactics.
The plan broadly calls for the Violent Crime Abatement and Investigation Team that the New Orleans Police Department launched in 2020 to adopt the core tenets of what had once been known as the Multi-Agency Gang Unit.
Unleashed after the 2012 killing of a 5-year-old outside a birthday party, the unit paired up NOPD officers and Orleans Parish prosecutors with federal and state law enforcement agents to secure dozens of convictions against some of the city's most notorious criminals.
"We are coming," Williams said during a press conference at Edna Karr High School, which lost 11th-grader Keyron Ross in a shooting last month. "The full force of every law enforcement agency (in this area) is coming to bear at this surge."
Despite several years' worth of reductions in homicides, the MAG Unit's work met stiff political resistance from some quarters, with opponents arguing that the cases it built tore apart Black families and often amounted to guilt by association. Without delving into specifics such as funding, manpower, and a timeline for when the unit would be brought back online, Ferguson on Thursday said he and Williams were finalizing a plan to ensure the new squad sticks around for the long-term.
Both Ferguson and Williams have been facing increased pressure to act as residents' outrage has grown over a surge in violent crime. For example, New Orleans saw homicides spike 64% in 2020, after registering the fewest murders in almost half a century the year before.
Then, in 2021, the city recorded 218 killings, which were the most since 2005. Meanwhile, since 2019, carjacking have increased 160%, with a brutal carjacking at the gas station outside the popular Costco warehouse on South Carrollton Avenue this week inflaming tensions.
At separate news conferences and appearances before the City Council, Williams had suggested that the NOPD wasn't making arrests in enough cases to positively affect the city's violent crime rate. Ferguson countered that prosecutors weren't convicting — or even trying — enough alleged criminals.
On Thursday, the two men said they had resolved their differences and would work together to curb the carnage on the city's streets.
The bulk of Thursday's discussion centered on dedicating manpower and other resources toward incapacitating repeat offenders and their associates. That would largely involve replicating the work done by the MAG Unit in its heyday.
MAG Unit cases involved charging lots of defendants with conspiring to break the law, ranging from alleged kingpins to bit players. Local officers, state troopers, and agents from organizations like the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted elaborate, intelligence-driven investigations which charged a wide range of purported offenses, from using and selling drugs to armed robbery and murder.
Proponents of the approach correctly predicted it would lower the number of homicides in New Orleans relatively quickly. The city saw killings drop in five of the seven years following the MAG Unit's inception, culminating in a 47-year low of 121 murders in 2019.
But, despite the gains, New Orleans still remained one of America's deadliest cities. The unit additionally drew criticism for quietly gaining access to sophisticated computer software that let investigators draw from a wide range of databases and social media platforms to connect victims, suspects and witnesses.
Critics also fretted that the unit was vulnerable to the kind of biased policing that led the NOPD to enter into a sweeping federal reform agreement that's been in effect for nearly a decade. Four years ago, as Louisiana lawmakers took steps to decrease the state's incarceration rate, the unit fell out of political favor and was disbanded.
Ferguson and Williams said Thursday they were unconcerned about the MAG Unit's complicated legacy. Williams, whose progressive agenda propelled him to the office of DA last year, said the criminal justice reform he's long supported has never been about going easy on violent criminals — but rather ensuring that the system's limited resources are spent on the worst of the worst.
The commitment to re-implement the MAG Unit's broad approach is consistent with that aim, Williams said.
"It's not arresting for lower-level offenses," Ferguson added. "These are serious offenses for which people should be held accountable."
Ferguson's remarks came a day after he held a press conference with Mayor LaToya Cantrell and asked City Council members to repeal or amend an ordinance limiting the use of video surveillance technology, saying it was an important tool for officers.
The rehashed, anti-gang initiative is part of a four-point plan presented by Williams and Ferguson that also emphasized prosecuting serial offenders who might not belong to a gang, continuing federal and state law enforcement partnerships, and calculating NOPD case clearance rates using FBI standards.
Under FBI rules, cases are considered cleared when the prime suspects are arrested or the suspects can't be arrested because they have died or there is another special circumstance. The NOPD will often tout cases in which they have obtained warrants to arrest suspects, though instead of calling those clearances, the agency labels them "solves." Most members of the public don't grasp the difference, and Ferguson pledged to be transparent about the agency's FBI clearance rate whenever he mentions the department's higher but unofficial solve rate.
Williams — who had criticized the practice — said the adjustment is significant, allowing "apples to apples" comparisons between the NOPD's performance and that of its counterparts elsewhere.
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