New Orleans Police Policy of Revealing Slain Victims Criminal Records Draws Fire

New Orleans Police Vehicle

As Mike Ainsworth walked his two sons to a school bus stop, he heard a woman being carjacked scream, and ran to help. The woman was not hurt, police said, but the Good Samaritan was shot to death by a suspect who fled.

When police gave out the details of Ainsworth’s killing, they also announced he had been arrested for drugs and other non-violent crimes, keeping with a year-old policy in which criminal records for slain victims are released _ sometimes before they’ve been publicly identified.

New Orleans police say revealing a victim’s rap sheet lets the public know that much of the violence is happening between people with similar criminal backgrounds. Families of the slain victim’s say the practice is insensitive, and others outraged with the policy say it has racial overtones and sends a message that the victims got what was coming to them.

“I don’t understand why they want to do it,” said Kathryn White, whose 25-year-old son was gunned down in what she said was a case of mistaken identity. White said her son was arrested just once for a small amount of marijuana.

“You are already in so much pain and then you have to see people saying bad things about your dead child. What good does that do anyone,” she said.

In a city often cited as the nation’s murder capital _ more than 20 people have been slain so far in January _ police are hard-pressed to find solutions.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said publicizing arrest records gives a better picture of the killing, which authorities said usually involves young men who are killing people with similar backgrounds.

Serpas estimated 62 percent of those killed in 2011 had prior felony arrests. He said 40 percent of people arrested for murder in 2011 _ and 39 percent of those killed _ had previous arrests for illegal possession of a firearm

“If I walked into the doctor’s office and he told me there was a 40 percent certainty that something I was doing would affect my life, don’t you think I would want that knowledge?” Serpas said. “This is knowledge people need to know, and talk about.”

The stakes are high for New Orleans, a city where tourism and free-wheeling visits are promoted for events like the Sugar Bowl, the Final Four basketball tournament this spring and the 2013 Super Bowl, not to mention Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Serpas acknowledge New Orleans’ per capita murder rate is 10 times the national average. In 2011, there were 199 murders in a city of 344,000, up from 175 in 2010. However, those numbers are far less than the 400-plus killings during some years in the 1990s when the pre-Hurricane Katrina population was higher.

Landrieu hopes to fight the crime surge with an emphasis on mental health, education and employment, as well as more patrols and targeting hotspots.

Many big-city police departments avoid a blanket policy of releasing criminal information on victims.

In Baltimore, police track whether homicide victims had criminal histories, but people who inquire are referred to online court records. In 2011, 80 percent of murder victims had criminal records, according to Baltimore police.

“We may confirm whether the person was known to the police if we’re asked, but we try not to disclose too much information about victims for their privacy and security,” said department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

The Detroit Police Department does not release victims’ criminal records unless there is a correlation between the victim’s criminal activity and the homicide, like a convicted drug offender slain during a drug deal. For $10, criminal records are available from the Michigan State Police data base.

Serpas also had a blanket-release policy in Nashville, but after he left 18 months ago, the department decided not to release every rap sheet. Someone with 100 arrests or a person with drug convictions being shot in a drug deal is different than someone with a drunken driving arrest from five years ago, said Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron.

Whether a murder happened in New Orleans, New York or Nashville, there often are common threads, experts said.

“What the New Orleans department is responding to and is true everywhere, is the nature of criminal homicide is that both the offender and the victim tend to have robust criminal records,” said David Kennedy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Today’s victim is very likely to be yesterday’s perpetrator.”

Releasing all crime records might have unintended consequences, said Charles Ewing of the University of Buffalo Law School.

“One of which is to say to the average citizen that this is not going to happen to you,” Ewing said. “You are a law-abiding citizen so you are safe, which is not always true.”

Ainsworth, the Good Samaritan, had been arrested for possession and distribution of marijuana and LSD as well as several other non-violent charges. He was on probation for marijuana possession from 2006-2008, and for distribution of LSD from 1987 to 1989. Police said they are still looking for a man who shot him.

The policy has also drawn criticism for what some called its racial overtones.

Police tout building community trust and getting witnesses to testify as a large part of the crime-fighting effort, but the policy on murder victims is a poor way to reverse long-time problems what has been mostly black areas, said Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney in New Orleans.

“To insult and add to grief of these families at the same time they’re saying they want community policing, is incredible,” Howell said. “All I can see this has accomplished is to instill anger and deepen grief.”