Orleans Parish DA Addresses Narcotics Enforcement; Fentanyl-Related Deaths Rising

                                                                                                   Courtesy of Jason Williams Facebook


Fentanyl, a powerful and highly addictive opioid that is 100 times more potent than morphine, is killing far too many people in Louisiana. 

According to statistics released by District Attorney Jason Williams at Monday’s City Council Criminal Justice Committee meeting, 284 New Orleanians died from fentanyl overdose in 2020. They account for 78% of overall overdose deaths. In comparison 195 New Orleanians died by murder during the same period.

In 2015, there were only 13 fentanyl related deaths, making up 14% of the 92 drug overdose deaths which occurred that year. Murders in 2015 numbered 164.   

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s New Orleans Field Office blames counterfeit pills as part of fentanyl abuse and that the problem has only grown worse since the pandemic began. Marketed as xanax or oxycodone, fake pills can look just like the real ones but sometimes contain more than twice the deadly amount.   

The Mexican drug cartels have been manufacturing large quantities of counterfeit prescription drugs containing fentanyl as a way to take advantage of Americans’ opioid abuse problems, the DEA explained. While counterfeit pills can look exactly like legitimate prescription drugs, they often contain none of the same ingredients. Instead, unsuspecting users ingest lethal doses of dangerous substances that could cause death. 

Pressing pills containing fentanyl is an “inexact science,” says the DEA. On average a fake pill contains 1.8 milligrams of fentanyl. Their analysis identified counterfeit pills containing more than twice the lethal limit of fentanyl per tablet. One out of four pills seized by the DEA includes a deadly amount of fentanyl.

According to the Centers for Disease Control from September 1, 2019 to September 1, 2020, more than 87,000 Americans died as a result of a drug overdose. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were involved in 59% of overdose deaths.

“We are in unprecedented times, ” said Williams. “My office’s goal is to increase safety and deliver justice. Chemical dependency is a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem. Criminal prosecution will not help address our community’s addiction issues, mental health problems or homelessness,” he continued. Fentanyl overdose makes up the vast majority of drug deaths statewide as well. 

While Williams’ new interim policy calls for dismissing, refusing or diverting all cases for the stand-along simple possession of marijuana cases, the district attorney’s office is accepting everything else. Each and every narcotics charge is individually screened. When deciding to what degree a narcotics offender should be charged – whether with possession or possession with intent to distribute – Williams’ staff looks at the amount of drugs, how they are packaged, amount of cash on hand, if scales for weighing drugs are present, etc.  

Williams believes that many offenders are really suffering from some sort of chemical dependency. He is concerned about the impact a criminal conviction can have on people’s future. They lose their freedom and the right to vote. A conviction might impact their ability to get a job, their education, create housing issues and so much more. Therefore, Williams’ overall narcotics strategy also is geared to reducing addiction.

Williams says he has seen many adults and young people who have been prescribed legal opioids. Only after healing do they realize that their body chemistry has been altered and they find themselves in addiction. 

If the district attorney’s office accepts charges in a case, it generally takes more than a year to prosecute. During that time there is no addiction counseling, no intervention. If the district attorney selects diversion as an alternative to incarceration, the offender would be placed in counseling and treatment intervention within the first month. 

Williams’ office is not receiving many simple possession of marijuana cases anymore. While he used to get 100 to 150 cases per month, now he sees less than 50.  “In order to prioritize focus on lions and bears and not the rabbits and squirrels,” Williams wants to divert more cases into treatment immediately after arrest.  “Treatment best way to get people help they need as relates to chemical dependency.” Council President Helena Moreno told Williams that she is opposed to anyone getting arrested or put in jail for simple possession of marijuana and wishes she had the authority to change the law. She and other councilmembers also voiced a concern that Black men predominately are being arrested for possession. 

Within the next 30 to 45 days, Williams plans on opening satellite offices in libraries across the city to make diversion services more accessible. “We’ll be meeting people where they are and bringing services to people in the community.” Williams is starting in New Orleans East because he thinks they need more services of all kinds. 

“We believe engaging allows us to help rebuild trust in the community,” he explained. Williams says there is a significant lack of trust in the criminal legal system nationally, especially after the recent trial associated with George Floyd’s death. He also says trust-building will result in more effective crime investigation.    

“The danger presented by opioids is greater than any other drug in America. That drug is coming from the East Coast and the West Coast. It is stronger than it has ever been. People have no idea what they are ingesting and causing a number of these overdoses. We cannot wait weeks or months to figure out where these drugs are coming from and get them off the streets as quickly as possible,” said Williams.

Placing more drug offenders in diversion will also help increase attention on violent crime. Working closely with Police Superintendent Shawn Ferguson, Williams is becoming “laser focused” on serial and organized crimes including homicides, shootings, armed robberies and carjacking. Williams believes this new partnership will allow for stronger cases to be built which will in turn increase convictions and prevent more incidents from occurring.       

“This strike force is how we become smart on crime,” said Williams. “By creating real intelligence, it’s a very intentional shift to go after people who are preying on our community and preventing rabbits and squirrels from turning into lions and bears. We know the difference between addiction and trafficking.” The new drug trafficking unit will pursue real violent offenders and explore the connectivity between drug trafficking and serial organized crimes.   

Williams believes that residents across the city want the district attorney’s office and the police to prioritize violent crime and treat addiction differently. “We have limited time, resources and manpower and want to be really disciplined. When you think about how long it takes to process a person whether for simple possession of marijuana or simple possession of another narcotic, the officer is off the street for hours.” This could mean a home invasion or shooting may not be responded to quickly or a perpetrator might get away.   

With the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the return of leisure visitors, the French Quarter and Canal Street are once again drawing crowds and criminal activity. Six shootings have taken place since Monday morning, leaving one person dead and eight wounded. Over the weekend, seven shootings included 12 victims including an altercation on Bourbon Street during which five people were wounded. 

According to the New Orleans City Council’s crime dashboard, there have been 55 murders in 2021 so far compared to 174 for all of 2020, a 21% increase. Shootings are also up 51% with 207 year to date.  Non-fatal shootings have also increased as well as armed robberies and aggravated assault. Williams says that domestic violence has become a breeding ground for other violent cases.

Many criminal justice citizen-advocates claim that crime has increased because criminals know there are not enough officers patrolling the streets. 

Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson told the committee that the recent return of overtime has helped the NOPD’s ability to respond to crime as it occurs. He also spoke enthusiastically about successes in recruitment and training. A class of 21 new police officers graduated last Friday from the academy and will begin a six month rotation before receiving permanent assignments. During that period they will spend time in each of the city’s police districts to learn the culture and other defining characteristics of the area.  

A new class of 27 recruits from 7 states began their training yesterday. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged the recruits to “give it all you have.” Ferguson told recruits that he would instill in them what it takes to be a great public servant. “Know that it will be challenging mentally as well as physically.” 

Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen is anxious to get additional officers to patrol the neighborhoods in New Orleans East where crime has greatly increased. Councilmember Kristin Palmer also called for additional police for the French Quarter as long as adding officers there would not take away officers from other neighborhoods. 

Palmer also called out the Downtown Development District for not giving the 100 blocks of the French Quarter the attention and resources they deserve. Property owners on those blocks contribute a portion of their tax dollars to the DDD for services including security. 

Despite the ongoing efforts to recruit and train more officers, the NOPD is still woefully understaffed.  Seasoned officers are leaving the force faster than they can be replaced. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Friday that growing the NOPD has been a top priority because the agency is the foundation for keeping everyone safe. 

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