This piece originally appeared on The Lens.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas announced today he will no longer release the arrest records of homicide victims, reversing a controversial and unevenly applied practice that had come under intense criticism in recent days.
The about-face comes a week after Serpas took more than a day to release the arrest record of a Good Samaritan homicide victim in the Algiers neighborhood, compared to a few hours for most other victims.
That release last week came shortly after The Lens reported that the department wasn’t following its usual practice in releasing the victim’s record. Other news outlets followed suit. A search of a newspaper database shows more than 25 newspapers, as well as the Huffington Post, ran an Associated Press story over the weekend examining the controversial policy.
Since then, talk show hosts, columnists and on-air TV editorialists have ripped the policy. And state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, drafted a bill to prevent the police from releasing such information.
The practice was taking heat even before a would-be carjacker in Algiers killed Harry “Mike” Ainsworth, who turned out to have a record stretching back years for drug possession.
Two City Council members criticized Serpas when he appeared before the council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Jan. 18.
Serpas told the committee that most homicides in the city were “black males killing black males,” and said releasing their arrest records helps the community have an informed discussion about homicides. Ainsworth was white.
Activist group Safe Streets / Strong Communities this week began a petition calling for the practice to stop, and it had gathered 184 signatures before organizers closed today after the policy change. Executive director of Safe Streets / Strong Communities Yvette Thierry said the group is still discussing its reaction to the news.
Morrell said Serpas spent more time crafting the press release about Ainsworth’s arrest record than the arrest records of other homicide victims.
“The press release for Mr. Ainsworth rehabilitated him,” Morrell said. “It said he had worked to be part of the community in the 8th District, but that same level of care did not go into the press releases on the other victims whose grieving families had to suffer the embarrassment of having their loved ones’ arrest records paraded publicly.”
Morrell said he thought community pressure had a role in forcing Serpas to change his mind.
“I think it was really a perfect storm of issues coming together,” Morrell said. “I know you can’t talk about yourselves, but The Lens’ pressure to release Mr. Ainsworth’s arrest record along with the pressure from community groups on this practice, coupled with my legislation, I think it really gave the police chief no option. He realized that this was not an issue that was going to go away.”
Serpas announced the decision in a press release this afternoon and was unavailable for further comment. He now plans to release monthly aggregate statistics on the number of homicide victims with a history of felony arrests, but without naming the victims.
“I believe it is necessary to share with the community the obvious and direct link between criminal behavior and the horrible acts of murder in our city,” Serpas said in his news release. “I have always said, however, that there are very good arguments to share and not share this public information.
“After consulting privately with local clergy leaders over the last weeks, starting today, our press releases will no longer include the individual public arrest record of a homicide victim.”