New law requires summons instead of arrest for low-level crimes in New Orleans

City council adopts ordinance prioritizing community over arrests

New Orleans Police Department officers stand at attention. (Image courtesy of NOPD via joinNOPD.com).

New Orleans Police officers can no longer arrest people who commit low-level offenses and must instead issue them a court summons, according to a new ordinance adopted by the New Orleans City Council on Thursday.

Council members unanimously approved the ordinance, which requires NOPD officers to issue a summons in lieu of making an arrest for misdemeanor and some other non-violent crimes such as solicitation of prostitution, disturbing the peace and others. It provides exceptions for certain circumstances and offenses such as assault, battery, illegal possession of stolen things and resisting an officer, among others.

“A majority of this ordinance I do agree with, and I can work with,” NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson said. “In some instances I still have some apprehension and concerns with regard to taking the discretion of an officer away…Are we talking about an individual who is in possession of a stolen gun, we should be issuing that individual a summons?”

Councilman Jason Williams, who was just elected district attorney of Orleans Parish, authored the new policy alongside the City Council Criminal Justice Committee, which he chairs. He pointed out that possession of a stolen firearm is almost always a felony and listed as an exception to the ordinance. Also, the ordinance does not take away an officer’s discretion to make an arrest based on what the officer observes at a scene, Williams said.

Williams’ reassurance seemed to allay the chief’s concerns. 

“That’s all I’m asking,” Ferguson said.

The ordinance came at the urging of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), a grassroots organization that advocates for improving conditions and reducing the number of inmates confined at the parish prison. 

In April, as COVID-19 numbers in New Orleans were sky high, OPPRC exchanged letters with Chief Ferguson and Mayor LaToya Cantrell, urging them to adopt a new policy that would reduce arrests of non-violent offenders.

“Unnecessary arrests for low-level offenses don’t keep us safe,” the OPPRC said in a press release Thursday. “We commend the New Orleans City Council for prioritizing community safety instead of over-policing residents with the passage of this ordinance.”

Williams participated in his last meeting as a councilman on Thursday before he steps into his new role as district attorney.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.