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New Orleans police face $16M budget cut amid rise in violent crime

Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson says he’ll require officers take 26 unpaid days off and cut pay for other employees by 10%

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New Orleans Police Department

Ramon Antonio Vargas
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — It’s an annual ritual: One by one, City Hall bureaucrats go before the New Orleans City Council to make their case as to why they deserve more money or, at times, why they are happy to accept the amount put forth by the mayor.

On Thursday, it was Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson’s turn. He told the council he’s ready to absorb a hit.

The Police Department is staring down a $16 million budget cut for next year, an 8% decrease due to a steep drop in tax revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite a sharp rise in violent crime, Ferguson said he’ll find ways to make it work, mostly by requiring officers take 26 unpaid days off, cutting pay for other employees by 10% and leaving non-critical positions unfilled.

Under Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposed budget, funding for the department would drop from $193.7 million this year to $177.8 million in 2021. Other municipal agencies would take much bigger hits, in some cases up to 20%.

Council members gave no indication they were mulling deeper cutbacks to the Police Department, despite calls from some critics, during protests across the U.S. after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, to reallocate substantial portions of law enforcement budgets to other social services.

Instead, council members asked Ferguson how his agency planned to grapple with significant spikes in homicides, carjackings and non-fatal shootings, while also trying to complete the last few unfulfilled requirements in a package of federally mandated reforms that the Police Department has been implementing since 2012.

“I hope you look at this as an investment in continued constitutional policing,” Ferguson said of his department’s proposed budget.

Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and one of the leading voices favoring the shifting of taxpayer money from law enforcement to other preventative social services, said she was disappointed that New Orleans officials still intended to dedicate so much money to policing. She argued that New Orleans will be made safer during the pandemic with better access to stable housing, health care, food and job opportunities — not with a certain number of police officers patrolling the streets.

“Overpolicing our way to safety can never work, because officers arrive once the harm is done,” Dumas said. “We must be proactive in caring for those most vulnerable in our community.”

Ferguson said the fight against this year’s surge in violent crime would be the top priority for his 1,200 officers in 2021. As of Thursday morning, unofficial statistics maintained by the City Council showed that the 169 homicides reported this year represent an 80% increase from 2019, when killings in New Orleans reached a 47-year low. Non-fatal shootings this year were up almost 59%, and carjackings had jumped 106%.

Ferguson said he was confident the Police Department’s newly formed violent crime investigations squad would rise to the challenge of bringing those numbers down. Members of that team will work with detectives in the eight police patrol districts or in the homicide unit to clear shootings, robberies and killings in the short term when possible, Ferguson said. The team also will build more complex investigations in partnership with the FBI and Louisiana State Police when necessary.

“We believe it’s several crews ... committing these crimes,” Ferguson said. “It’s not one particular crew.”

But Ferguson said police are also intent on achieving three broad pending reforms mandated by the 2012 federal consent decree: supervision and performance evaluations, promotions and bias-free policing. He said the hold up mostly involves city officials and consent decree monitors reaching a consensus on how compliance with those last reforms “should be ... [and] would be measured.” He credited the reform agreement with helping the Police Department enact use-of-force restrictions that protesters in many other cities have demanded after Floyd’s killing.

The only proposed spending increase Ferguson noted is $94,000 to cover higher costs for body-worn, in-car and stun-gun camera equipment and video storage. The agency relies on the cameras and videos to ensure officers’ actions are lawful.

City Council members offered little, if any, resistance to the mayor’s proposed budget for police. They did mention the June 3 episode where officers on the Crescent City Connection fired tear gas and rubber projectiles at a crowd protesting police brutality, sparking public outrage. But it was in the context of council members Jay Banks and Kristin Gisleson Palmer thanking the police for their cooperation afterword in crafting a measure that banned use of the chemical irritant in most cases.

“It wasn’t adversarial,” Banks said. “It was cooperative.”

Ferguson said cost cutting has already started this year. Police officers, like all other municipal employees, must take six unpaid days off before the end of December. The Police Department has also limited the amount of overtime work it approves for officers and would do so again next year, Ferguson said.

Council members have until Dec. 1 to adopt a 2021 spending plan.

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