At a time when many law enforcement officials across the country have released inmates and curtailed arrests to prevent a deadly outbreak of covid-19 in local jails, some are resisting pressure to take similar measures. Police in New Orleans and some other jurisdictions continue to lock people up for minor and nonviolent offenses, according to defense lawyers, union officials and court records.
This business-as-usual approach endangers the police, the community and inmates, public health experts say. Two inmates have already tested positive at the Orleans Justice Center jail, as have six medical staff and 11 employees of the sheriff’s office, which runs the jail.
“We need to treat this situation as if there is rising floodwater in the jail and there are only hours before people will drown,” said Jason Williams, a member of the New Orleans City Council who has called on police to suspend arrests for nonviolent crimes. “Time is of the essence and right now the clock is running against us.”
Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a stay-at-home mandate on March 20 in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus through social distancing, which is all but impossible in a jail setting. Cantrell did not respond to a request to explain the city’s policing approach.
Police declined to comment on the cases described by the public defenders but acknowledged that coronavirus had not changed their approach to arrests. “There is no change in arrest policy,” the police department said in a recent statement to The Post. “We’re issuing summons and citations where possible and appropriate.”
As of Tuesday, 1,834 people in Orleans Parish had tested positive for covid-19 and 101 had died. A federal prison about 200 miles west has exploded with infection, leading over the weekend to the death of one inmate, the admission of a guard into a hospital intensive care unit and positive test results for another 30 inmates and staff.
Gavin Yamey, a global health expert at Duke University, said jails can help drive community spread as infected people — including inmates, law enforcement officials, lawyers and others — enter and exit. Reducing the number of low-risk detainees is a “sensible, no-nonsense step that will help keep all of us alive,” he said.
“Prison health is public health,” he said. “Right now, in the midst of the worst pandemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic, your health is my health, and my health is your health. In other words, we’re all in this together.”
Concern for public health has prompted police in a growing number of cities to let minor infractions slide, or to cite and release offenders who otherwise would be taken to jail.
In Atlanta, a March 18 booking list for the city jail shows that police arrested and booked more than 60 people that day, jailing some for nonviolent crimes such as driving without a license, drinking in public and “urban camping.” By March 25, the booking list had shrunk to 12.
In Washington, D.C., the jail’s lockup list dropped from as many as 100 a day, on average, to just 22 on March 25.
New Orleans is not the only holdout against this trend.
In New York City, attorney Elizabeth Fischer said two of her clients last week were arrested for minor offenses — trespassing on the rooftop of a housing project and possession of a synthetic marijuana cigarette. They were booked and arraigned over a 48-hour period during which they were held with other inmates in a small cell in the basement of a courthouse. She declined to name her clients, saying she feared they would become targets for retaliation by police.
“They are putting our clients at risk,” she said. “They are putting their lives at risk. And they are putting people in the court system at risk.”
In a statement, the New York Police Department said officers do not arrest for most low-level offenses and instead issue tickets, unless there are mitigating circumstances.
In Palm Beach County, Fla., Sheriff Ric L. Bradshaw declared at a March 20 news conference that he would not change his policing methods. He has maintained that stance even as three deputies tested positive for covid-19 and dozens more were quarantined.
“I’m not going to give a blank check to the criminal element out there so they believe they can go do whatever they want,” Bradshaw said in an interview. He said the jail screens all inmates for symptoms and has the space, sanitation and medical care it needs to keep them safe. “They probably got it better in there than they would if they were released,” he said.
Among those taken into custody in Palm Beach in recent days was a man accused of stealing power tools and other equipment from Home Depot, who was being held on a $3,000 bond, records show. Another man, arrested by a Boynton Beach police officer for driving with a suspended license and possessing .1 gram of cocaine, who as of Tuesday morning was being held on bonds totaling $3,250.
The inability of such defendants to pay puts their own health and the health of the broader community at risk, said Carey Haughwout, the county’s chief public defender. “People with means bond out in a day, and other folks end up sitting because they don’t have any money,” she said. “The public is going to care when critically ill people from the jail take up all the hospital beds.”
Some prosecutors have agreed to lower bonds for nonviolent crimes, but others have refused, Haughwout said.
Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for State Attorney Dave Aronberg, said the prosecutor’s office is not issuing blanket policies because people committing seemingly low-level offenses can be threats to public safety. A person arrested for trespassing might seem to be a good candidate for release on his own recognizance or low-bond release, he said. But in a recent trespass case, the defendant entered a hospital emergency room, made demands and, when denied, “proceeded to tear up equipment.”
In New Orleans, public defenders and groups like the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition have persuaded the courts and sheriff to release nearly 200 people from the jail, which held 828 inmates as of Tuesday morning. In an interview and in a letter to the court, public defenders estimated an additional 200 of those inmates are being held on nonviolent crimes and should also be released.
The goal of the coalition and the public defender is to reduce the population to the point where inmates can have more opportunity for social distancing. But it is difficult to make progress when police keep arresting low-level offenders, said public defender Lauren Anderson.
Last week, officers evicted a person from a local hotel. When they asked for identification, a single white pill, later determined to be acetaminophen and oxycodone, fell out of the man’s pocket. Then they found six more pills. Since he did not have a prescription, police arrested him.
Meanwhile, conditions in the jail are deteriorating. Every day, defense attorneys receive phone calls from their clients saying someone who was “hacking up a lung” or “delirious with fever” had been moved into isolation or medical care, Anderson said.
In addition to the two inmates who tested positive, five have exhibited symptoms and are awaiting test results, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Jim Pasco, executive director at the National Fraternal Order of Police, argues that police should be able to use their discretion to jail even low-level offenders. That authority should not be taken from officers by government officials who are unfamiliar with citizens’ concerns and criminal behavior in their neighborhoods, he said.
“There are all kinds of things that, on their face, sound ridiculous,” he said. “But when you look more closely at it, the police could be addressing serious concerns.”
For example, he said it may seem unreasonable to put someone in jail for stealing a bottle of liquor, but perhaps the store owner has been bombarded with recent thefts and robberies. A trespass onto the rooftop of a housing project may sound benign, but the residents may be dealing with a rash of break-ins.
In many of these instances, Pasco said members of the community are pleading with officers to make arrests.
But in New Orleans, where police are putting their own health on the line every time they come into contact with someone on the street, local police union officials would like the police department to explicitly direct officers not to make arrests for petty crimes.
Donovan Livaccari, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police in New Orleans, said the police department’s approach is needlessly endangering lives. As of Friday, there were 63 members of the roughly 1,200-member police department either sick or in quarantine. The coronavirus has already decimated other city services, such as Emergency Medical Services, which last week reported that 1 out of 6 workers were in quarantine.
“You can avoid risky situations by writing summonses and limiting the number of interactions with other human beings,” he said. “We have to think outside the box in these circumstances.”
Dalton Bennett and Julie Tate contributed to this story.