New Orleans Split Over How To Fight Crime

New Orleans is debating the best way to police the city, one of the most violent in the U.S. A recent car-baiting sting operation conducted by the New Orleans Police Department has people sharply divided over how police resources should be used.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that more than 70 percent of residents feel that there has been little or no progress in controlling crime.

And as NPR's Andrea Hsu reports, the city is caught up in a debate over policing after some controversial crime-fighting tactics went public.

ANDREA HSU: On a recent Tuesday evening, people across New Orleans came out for National Night Out Against Crime.

Community leader Latoya Cantrell was at a bloc party in her neighborhood of Broadmoor.

M: We have seen an increase in burglary and theft that has significantly gone up.

HSU: She tells neighbors, lock your cars and don't leave valuables in them. And don't be afraid to call the police. At a news conference the next day, police Superintendent Warren Riley confirmed that auto theft have jumped this year almost 15 percent.

M: We are having a problem with auto thefts, and we are making adjustments to address those concerns.

HSU: Later, he tells me auto theft and auto burglaries are what led to New Orleans Police Department's first district to conduct a controversial sting operation earlier this year.

M: I think we made 25 or 26 arrests, I'm not quite sure. The month following those 25 or 26 arrests reduced auto burglaries by 22 percent.

HSU: A transcript of a hearing in one of the cases reveals how the sting was conducted.

An officer drove a bait car - a red Ford Explorer. A second officer pulled the car over then pretended to arrest the driver and take him away. The bait car was left unlocked with the windows rolled down. Inside were a laptop, beer, cigarettes and a DVD player. Within minutes, a man got in the car and was promptly arrested by a third officer. Police report show that electronics were used as bait in some of the arrests - in others, the cigarettes, beer and candy.

Word of the sting first came out in the CityBusiness newspaper. Soon after, it hit talk radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM RUSH RADIO)

M: Hey. It's John Osterlind. How are you?

HSU: John Osterlind hosts the daily show on Rush Radio WRNO.

M: Basically, some people are screaming entrapment. I don't think this is entrapment. Do you? The thing is they're charging them with felony (unintelligible). I mean, for stealing less than $6 worth of stuff. But if you break into a car, you know, you break into a car. 260-099...

HSU: Christine Lehmann is chief defender with the Orleans Public Defenders who are representing more than half the defendants.

M: It may or may not reach the standard of legal entrapment. But it certainly seems like moral entrapment.

HSU: Here's the thing: the use of bait cars is not new. More than a hundred police departments across the country deploy them. But in New Orleans, people have cried foul.

Rosana Cruz is co-director of the community group Safe Streets/Strong Communities. She faults the police for devoting so much time and energy to catching what she calls low hanging fruit.

M: Setting up these kind of high stake situations for people who aren't committing high stakes crimes is not, to us, a crime-solving solution.

HSU: Public Defender Christine Lehmann says, given the city's significant violent crime problem and severely overworked criminal justice system, people in her office were flabbergasted when they started seeing these cases.

M: Police resources have already been expanded on these cases. But moving forward, we're talking about expanding district attorney resources, we're talking about expanding public defender resources, and we're talking about expanding court resources as well.

HSU: Police Superintendent Warren Riley says, for his part, it's worth it.

M: I think it goes an excellent use of resources when we reduced auto burglaries by 22 percent. And that's what our job is - to do protect citizens, their lives, their property. It's an effective way.

HSU: A review of 17 of the cases shows most of the defendant do have local prior convictions. An overwhelming majority are for drugs and prostitution, not theft or burglary.

The district attorney's office said in a statement, it will prosecute the cases to the best of its ability. If found guilty, the defendants could face long sentences - up to 12 years for a first offense, possibly life for repeat offenders.

SIEGEL: what's the best way to police New Orleans? With murders occurring on the average of every other day, it's one that begs an answer.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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