Monday, January 29, 2007

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Why don't we have better law enforcement? A pithy bumper-sticker slogan may provide a clue: "Pay Police Like Your Life Depends On It." Police officers, particularly in New Orleans, have a dangerous -- and too often thankless -- job. As a defense lawyer, I often see what may be police excess and overreaching. But most police officers are honorable people doing a job that most of us would never want to do, working under immense stress, dealing with unsavory people, and all for very little money. If we are serious about law enforcement, we should be certain our police officers have the resources (and salaries) they need.

It's a real boon to defense lawyers having police officers fail to appear in court, or lacking basic resources to run a crime lab, or being simply too overworked to get the facts straight in a written report. But for the sake of the community, that's obviously not a good thing. I overheard someone in court today say that the New Orleans Police Department is losing, on average, 17 officers per month. If that's true (and I have no idea if it is or not), the City's problems are only going to get worse. You can't well survive as a City if you don't have basis law and order, and I'm afraid we are witnessing the slow erosion of whatever peace remains in the City.

There was a little noticed report on the news the other day that said the District Attorney's Office is setting up a task force of prosecutors who will prosecute only the most violent offenses. Those ADAs will enjoy drastically reduced case loads (about 20 cases per person) and will be attracted to stay with an increased salary. From the defense perspective, this is not necessarily good news. But as citizens, we should all applaud the extra attention being given to the most serious cases. Stop diverting resources to petty offenses and concentrate on the most serious stuff. If you want to get crime under control, you have to ante up the resources to address it.

What about public defense? Obviously, I'm in favor of increasing resources there as well. Some may say that defense lawyers merely perpetuate the problem by helping guilty people go free. Perhaps that has a kernel of truth, but a well functioning defense system also keeps the system running more smoothly and efficiently, which translates into less wasted resources. It also means people can trust both sides of the law enforcement equation. No one wants to live in a police state where the State has unlimited power, and having a robust defense system keeps it all working in a comfortable balance.

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