Viewpoint: Covid and crime are raging as New Orleanians prepare to ring in the new year
By Danae Columbus, opinion columnist
More than 6,000 new Covid-19 cases were identified in Louisiana on Wednesday (Dec. 29). A teenage boy was injured in the second of two Desire-area shootings Tuesday evening. Three lions at the Audubon Zoo tested positive for Covid on Wednesday. In a case of mistaken identity, 7-year-old Dillan Burton was shot to death Sunday night in Algiers while riding in her mother’s car. City Council meetings once again are going virtual. Carjackings are up 172% during the last three years. Shootings have increased 90% during the same period. Most New Orleanians wait in long lines to get tested for Covid-19. The NOPD is operating at a historic 45-year low.
Masks are now required at all New Orleans public library locations. The district attorney has dismissed or refused to prosecute more than half of those arrested for violent felonies in 2021, according to a Metropolitan Crime Commission report. The positivity rate of young patients being tested at Children’s Hospital has increased from 5% to almost 16% during the past week. The Saints lost to the Miami Dolphins on Monday night because several dozen players and coaches were sidelined by the virus. With beverage in hand, an unmasked Mayor LaToya Cantrell was, according to her sash, queen of a second-line attended by hundreds of mostly unmasked revelers last Sunday afternoon.
Everyone should be in a festive mood this time of the year, but it’s hard for many considering the impact the double Cs — Covid and crime — are having in our community. To make matters worse, both are expected to linger for at least a substantial portion of 2022.
The year’s crime statistics, which will be finalized Friday at midnight, look especially bleak in the eyes of the Metropolitan Crime Commission’s Rafael Goyeneche. There’s a crime surge that is hard to deny. More than 200 homicides, close to 500 shootings, and upwards of 300 carjackings occurred in 2021. At least the numbers of armed robberies and auto thefts having been falling this year. With many businesses closed due to Covid and then Hurricane Ida, there have been fewer opportunities for armed criminals to ply their trade. Conversely auto thieves have switched to carjacking, considered more lucrative because motorists carry cash, jewelry, electronic equipment and guns that can be sold. Plus criminals have a vehicle to escape in that can be chopped up and sold or later used in another crime.
“As bad as crime was in 2020, it was worse in 2021 and is going to get even worse in 2022,” Goyeneche said. With only about 1,000 NOPD officers currently on the force, criminals know they can operate pretty much unchecked. “The odds are in their [the criminals’] favor,” Goyeneche said. “They will continue to commit crimes until they get arrested. Many won’t be arrested because of declining manpower.”
Goyeneche contends that one of the few solutions available is increasing police pay to retain existing officers and recruit new ones. “New Orleans can’t do this fast enough. Every day’s delay means that more innocent people become victims of crime,” he said.
Goyeneche said he is also disappointed that District Attorney Jason Williams has been dismissing cases at rates never seen from prior DAs going back to Harry Connick, who served from 1973 to 2003. Metropolitan Crime Commission’s research shows that of the NOPD’s 2,079 violent felony arrests from Jan. 1 to Dec. 26, Williams dismissed or refused to prosecute 1,223 cases. Goyeneche said that offenders are aware of the city’s manpower shortage and the DA’s policies and feel emboldened to prey on law-abiding citizens. “They fear no consequences for arrest or prosecution,” he said.
Some police officers are leaving the force because the job is not safe. “There is no back up for officers when they need it. The public is paying the price,” Goyeneche said, adding that doesn’t see conditions improving any time soon. “There is no sense of urgency from our political leaders to reverse the situation. It’s only going to get worse.”
When Cantrell and the new City Council get sworn in next month, addressing crime and Covid should top their agenda. If not, the city’s tax base will suffer as more citizens depart for communities safer from crime and Covid.
Many New Orleanians who have received both shots and even the booster want to avoid getting sick. They are now erring on the side of caution by masking and limiting their interactions with groups. Although the omicron variant might not be life-threatening to those already vaccinated, many fully vaccinated people are concerned about the number of breakthrough cases. They are willing to make these sacrifices now but don’t want to make them forever.
After all, only half of Louisiana residents have been fully vaccinated and 56.5% have received the initial shot. Almost 90% of Louisiana residents over the age of 70 have completed the process but only 18% of those between the ages of 5 and 17 are fully vaccinated. Millions of unvaccinated residents and tourists alike walk Louisiana’s streets every day and could be carrying the infection or passing it to others, even outside at a second-line.
Covid-19 is also on the rise among kids in Louisiana. According to Children’s Hospital’s chief physician Mark Kline, a tremendous amount of community transmission is occurring. Children, many too young to be vaccinated, are being admitted to Children’s for Covid-related respiratory problems. Several of the patients are younger than 2 years old. Kline recommends that a better job must be done to vaccinate kids 5 and older. He also suggests that young children must be surrounded by adults who have been vaccinated. “This is not a benign disease for all children,” Kline said.
With 11 players now deemed virus free and returning to practice, the Saints still have a chance in the playoff race if they can win their final two games. Though it will take determination, luck and lots of hard work, all things are possible when like-minded people pull together toward a common goal. Maybe New Orleans elected officials and business leaders could adopt the same attitude to tackle Covid and crime. That would indeed be a worthwhile New Year’s resolution for 2022.
For information on Covid-19 testing and vaccination sites, visit ready.nola.gov/calendar.
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at email@example.com.