When you cross into the New Orleans suburb of Gretna, Louisiana, over the Crescent City Connection bridge there is no sign that says, “Welcome to the Arrest Capital of the United States.”
There is no cutout of a smiling cop telling you to be careful and not violate any local laws. There is no warning telling you that of all the large cities and mid-sized towns in the country, this is the one in which you are most likely to be arrested.
In fact, it is.
Nationally, Gretna is known as the place where, as Katrina’s flood waters stubbornly refused to recede, police stood at the end of the bridge, guns drawn, to block the crowds who were trying to evacuate New Orleans. It is a reputation the suburban refuge has spent a decade trying to live down.
Gretna has an elegant if largely empty turn-of-the-century downtown and new riverfront condos with a view of New Orleans that start at around $349,000. What you would not know from just walking through its well-manicured downtown is that even in Louisiana, a state that leads the country in arresting and imprisoning people, Gretna stands out for the frequency with which it makes arrests.
In 2013, the Gretna police department made 6,566 adult arrests, or a little more than one for every three of Gretna’s roughly 18,000 residents (although arrests include non-residents). That’s about 14 times the arrest rate in the typical American town, according to a Fusion analysis of FBI data. And in a city that is about a third African-American, two-thirds of those arrested in Gretna are black—an overall rate of roughly eight arrests for every nine black adults. Think about that for a second; if you happen to work in an office, try to visualize eight out of nine of your colleagues getting pulled away in handcuffs.
The number of arrests that Gretna makes could make you assume that Gretna is a dangerous place. In fact, the opposite is the case. In 2013, exactly 49 adult arrests by the Gretna police department were for the serious violent offenses of murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. About a tenth of adult arrests, 652, were for drug violations, putting Gretna near the very top of the country in per-capita drug arrests. But the bulk of the arrests are even less consequential, with 948 arrests for drunkenness or disorderly conduct, and 4,258 arrests in the category of “other offenses,” not significant enough for the FBI to track.
This relatively peaceful suburb arrests people at five times the rate of Baltimore. It has a higher arrest rate than Myrtle Beach, a town whose population regularly swells with hundreds of thousands of vomiting college students. At the other end of the scale, the Gretna police make about 30 times as many arrests as the cops in Cupertino, California, a city three times Gretna’s size.
By any measure, this is an extraordinary rate, which Gretna’s police chief explains this way: “A lot of the people that I’ve seen, they’ve been arrested on warrants, then they either don’t show up [in court], or for whatever reason they end up with another warrant,” says Chief Arthur Lawson. “And then here we are arresting them again.”
Louisiana is avid in collecting money from a great variety of criminal fines. There are traffic fines, of course, but there are also fines for not paying the fines, fines for missing court, payments for getting convicted, and payments for probation. If you are convicted you pay the cost of court and if you are lucky enough to avoid jail, you pay, as Graham Bosworth, a New Orleans lawyer and Jefferson County public defender puts it, “for the privilege of being supervised.” In Jefferson Parish, you even pay a $45 fee that goes to fund public defenders.
In this tedious process of collections, Jefferson Parish, the county that surrounds Gretna, is a pacesetter. In 2014, the state put out a report urging its court system to be more vigorous in collecting fees, pointing to the parish’s 24th judicial circuit court as a model, thanks to an increase in collections of 1,100% in 14 years. Unpaid fees yield more penalties, which yield the threat of more jail. The fees create ever more incentive for the state to issue more penalties to support its courts. “The criminal justice system exists mainly to make society safer, and it has lost sight of that goal,” Bosworth says. “Instead it has become a system that exists largely to fund itself.”
An expensive, years-long entanglement with this system can begin with an alleged infraction as minor as turning without a blinker. Eric Cado, a 25-year-old black man, was pulled over in November 2011 in Jefferson Parish for not wearing a seatbelt. After a series of missed court dates, unpaid fines, subsequent warrants for his arrest and a day in jail, Cado owed $1,200 plus the $500 bond for his release, which he finally paid off in 2014. If he had paid the fines off sooner, he would have owed less overall, his case would have been resolved faster, and he wouldn’t have landed in jail.
But when you’re working a series of low-wage retail jobs, like Cado has, showing up in court during office hours and paying mounting court fees and fines can pose an impossible dilemma. “You have to think ‘man, am I gonna be able to eat or is me staying out of jail better than me being able to eat tonight?’” Cado says. This kind of hamster-wheel justice could happen anywhere, but the fact is, it happens more often in Gretna than anywhere else.
Gretna’s municipal court is ground zero for the pay-your-own way approach to criminal justice. In excellent reporting from Missouri, the ways in which Ferguson and its surrounding towns use the courts to squeeze money out of their residents has been well-covered. But the meal that Gretna makes of its citizens’ fines is even more sumptuous.
In 2013, Ferguson took in $2.46 million in municipal court fines and fees, or close to $117 for every resident. By comparison, Gretna, which is slightly smaller than Ferguson, took in $5.77 million in municipal court fines and fees—or about $324 per resident—in its 2013-14 fiscal year, according to Gretna’s 2014 fiscal year financial report. (Gretna’s finance director disputes this figure, arguing that it is $2.12 million, but has refused to explain her calculation. Norton Francis, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute’s State and Local Finance Initiative agreed that Fusion’s calculation and the comparison with Ferguson are accurate.)
There are some big differences, however, between Gretna and Ferguson. Where Ferguson seems to have routinely kept poor people in jail until they paid their fines, it is by all accounts very rare for Gretna to march someone out of the municipal court in handcuffs. In several trips to the courthouse there, every defendant was offered a $50 a month payment plan, and at least one was allowed to bring that down to just $25.
In Gretna those who don’t pay are simply arrested and released again and again. Those arrested for municipal ordinance violations are booked and released within a matter of hours, given a new court date—which might also be missed, and followed by a new warrant and a new arrest. This could sound reasonable in theory—why throw people in the slammer for minor infractions?—but the facts show that it only serves to entrap people in a revolving door they struggle to extricate themselves from.
Is Gretna’s nation-beating rate of arrests a means of raising easy money for the city budget? Or is the money raised by Gretna’s regime of fines and penalties a way of funding civic order? It is tempting to look at the money that Gretna takes in and see there the motivation for a criminal justice system that appears devoted to maximizing arrests for the smallest crimes.
At the end of last year, a former Gretna police officer named Daniel Swear filed a lawsuit against the department alleging that it instituted an illegal quota system for arrests and ticketing, and that his superiors fired him after he raised concerns about the program. Swear charges that officers were required to make at least one arrest every two days and to write three traffic tickets per day. According to the suit, Swear also contacted the FBI with his allegations.
“Quotas create the wrong incentives for police by essentially requiring them to arrest or ticket people who may not have done anything wrong,” says Marjorie Esman, director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “It’s an unfair position for both the officer and the public.”
A spokesperson for the Gretna police department says that it never implemented a quota system, and that Swear was not retaliated against or discharged from employment for any reason, but rather resigned. The FBI and Swear declined to comment for this story.
When I visited Gretna’s police headquarters, Anthony Christiana, the town’s deputy chief, told me that there was no city mandate for more arrests. And, he pointed out, the cycle of catch-and-release policing is by no means cost-free. Arrests are themselves expensive, tying up police and vehicles for hours of well-paid time. Christiana broke down how the costs of a short traffic stop multiply when the police find an outstanding warrant, check it, and far more if they are brought in for booking.
“You run into the hour mark by the time you get them there, get them unloaded, get them into the process,” Christiana told me. “You’re looking at an average of about $100 to $125 an hour just to effect a misdemeanor arrest or an attachment [warrant] arrest that you know this person is gonna roll back out in maybe six hours.”
Gretna’s police take pride in their response time—on at least three occasions in Gretna I heard them referred to as “Johnny-on-the-spot”—but moreover they take pride in seeing trouble before it happens. “We don’t have to a lot of times wait for someone to call us to say hey somebody’s in the neighborhood that doesn’t belong there,” says Lawson, the police chief. “We can ride through the neighborhood and note that somebody that doesn’t live in that neighborhood, someone is hanging out on the corner.”
Yet this vision of proactive policing feels quite different to black residents. Eric Cado, who used to live in Gretna but has moved to a neighboring town, tries not to drive through Gretna to stay away from the police, who have stopped him on more than one occasion. But he works at a Gretna pizza place, so he can’t avoid these streets altogether. “Everyday I’m like, man, It’s hard riding in the car knowing you’re not doing anything wrong but just having that feeling of ‘I might get stopped’ and ‘what might happen,’” he says.
One Sunday this summer I went to one of Gretna’s largely black neighborhoods, McDonoghville, to find out more about what it was like to live with this brand of policing. I visited the New Millennium Community Church, where congregants sit on cushioned chairs instead of pews and communion comes with a one-sip cup of grape juice. There is no collection plate passed around at Sunday service. If you want to make a contribution, you can place it in the basket at the back. If you can’t afford it, no one is watching.
Sitting in the office at the back of the church with the pastor, Randy Stevenson, and his wife Herschel I got something of a mirror image of Lawson’s views. Indeed, on one issue there is clear agreement: Gretna’s police department does not wait to see a problem grow before taking action. “People think that this is a great place, and it is if you compare it to a big metropolis. It’s small, it’s quaint. It has a lot of characteristics that make you feel safe and secure,” says Herschel. “It’s Mayberry. We don’t want you to upset the apple cart is what it all boils down to… It’s like martial law,” says Stevenson, [The attitude is] we’re going to handle the situation before it even gets to be a situation.”
From the point of view of the police, handling “situations” before they happened probably sounds like a good thing. But the reality of this meant a sense that the police were intruding on the New Millennium Church and its parishioners for no good reason. One day, according to the pastor, a police officer had told him that the the hymns the choir sang on the street on Sunday afternoons were over the allowed decibel level. (Christiana says he never heard of this incident.)
To find cases of police overreach, the Stevensons did not have to think long or go far. They sent me just two houses down to speak with Paulette Washington, a 52-year-old neighbor who had recently made the mistake of walking into the street to avoid stepping around the church’s lawn mower and onto its freshly manicured lawn. Hardly had she stepped off the sidewalk than she was confronted by a police officer who insisted that she get up against a car and spread her legs for a search.
It’s the kind of interaction that is routine in the neighborhood, according to the Stevensons, and Washington told me that almost no one was immune. Not long before, Washington told me, she had watched the police stop and search an old man, only to be disgusted by his colostomy bag. What could they have been searching for? “This man is not looking for no doggone marijuana,” she told me, marveling at the pointless humiliation, “He has cancer.”
When I told Arthur Lawson the story of Paulette Washington, he found it difficult to believe that a 52-year old woman had been frisked simply for stepping into the road. “Persons who are in these types of situations,” Lawson said, “tend to bend the story just a bit to what benefits them as opposed to where the actual truth lies.”
It’s hard to see what advantage Washington would get in bending the truth. Undoubtedly situations like this look different from the side of the police. In reporting this story my producer and video reporter asked for a ride-along to get that viewpoint. As I ended an interview with Christiana and Lawson, I asked if we would get that. Christiana turned to his boss, and said it depended on how I presented myself, “if [Mark] was a good guy or going to be a little shit, we would discuss it, see what’s what.”
We did not get the ride-along, so it seems that Christiana must have placed me in the second category. That did not especially surprise me; it seemed plainly evident to me that a story that more or less labelled his town the most arrest happy in the United States was not likely to please the deputy chief of the police department.
Yet as I thought about it more I realized that none of the city officials I had spoken to in Gretna expressed any discomfort with the idea that their town led the country in arrests per person. This was not because they were unconcerned with Gretna’s reputation. On the contrary, it was clear that they were. Christiana in particular took pride in fending off challenges to his department’s integrity. “We follow every single lawsuit personally from my office… And I can tell you right now, in the last 10 years,” he told me, “it’s been doughnut holes. That’s what we’ve paid… That’s an extraordinary achievement.”
Chief Lawson, too—recall that police chief is an elected position in Gretna—was certainly eager to spread the good name of Gretna and his role in building up the place and its property values. “We hear so much: ‘The reason I moved to Gretna [is] because it’s safe,’” Lawson bragged to me. “Twenty years ago… you could buy a house around the corner here for $20,000. You know what, you’d better bring 200 and change to buy that same house today.”
Only later did it occur to me that Lawson and Christiana’s target audience was probably the folks bringing their two hundred and change to buy a house in Gretna or a condo on the levee. For them, the message that Gretna was more diligent in arresting and incarcerating anyone who was disorderly or uncivil (or perhaps merely poor and black) was not a bad one to send.
It was strange to realize that a town that regularly cycled large numbers of people through the criminal justice system could still be attractive to many newcomers. And if it does not appeal to you, it is possible that you are not the sort of resident Gretna is looking for.
Reporters Erika Eichelberger in New York and Travis Henry in New Orleans contributed to this story.
This content was made possible in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation and produced independently by Fusion’s editorial staff. To find out more, explore our interactive map and read more of our coverage of America’s dysfunctional system of policing.