The following testimony was submitted by ACLU of Louisiana advocacy director Chris Kaiser to the New Orleans City Council on Thursday, June 11, 2020.
NOPD’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets on an entire crowd of peaceful protesters, in response to five unarmed people attempting to cross a police cordon, was a reckless and unnecessary use of force, and an attack on New Orleanians’ fundamental rights to free speech and assembly.
Although NOPD has said the use of projectiles was not authorized, Superintendent Ferguson and others have attempted to justify the use of gas. But NOPD has offered no explanation for why the arrests of five unarmed people by could not have been effected by the dozens of officers on the scene, equipped with full riot gear, without escalation to chemical weapon deployment. Further, it strains reason to suggest that tear gas can ever be deployed narrowly against specific individuals. Tear gas is a weapon used against crowds, not individuals, and that is plainly what happened on the CCC bridge last Wednesday.
The ACLU strongly supports Councilmember Banks’ call to prohibit the use of tear gas, and we join community calls to fully de-militarize the NOPD. At the same time, we emphasize that any reform focused on the use of force must be part of a broader strategy to divest city resources from policing and surveillance, and to reinvest in our communities. The city expends inordinate resources arresting and jailing New Orleanians for conduct that poses no threat to public safety, and maintaining a vast electronic surveillance network, with disproportionate impacts on Black residents.
Almost 65% of arrests made in the last two months were for non-violent conduct, and Black people represented 85% of arrests, while only accounting for 59% of the city’s population. This contributes to severe racial disparities in the jail population as well. Among boys and men aged 15-24 in Orleans Parish, Black youth are 19 times more likely to be locked in jail following arrest than white youth. Currently, we make the NOPD responsible for too many problems that are better addressed without police involvement. In the process, we divert police resources away from true public safety needs.
Instead of investing resources in excessive police activity, the city should re-allocate funding to various pro-social, non-punitive services that promote health and economic well-being. For example, the city should reinvest NOPD funding in community-based mental health services, affordable housing, jobs training, programs to address food insecurity, living wages for city employees, youth programming, and community-based violence prevention programs.
For the health and safety of New Orleanians, it is imperative that the city direct NOPD to do less, and make room in the city budget for our community to thrive.