By Jenn Bentley

The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), in partnership with the New Orleans Department’s Domestic Violence Program, will now ask domestic violence victims about the presence of firearms at every domestic violence incident. This measure is intended to provide additional risk assessment that could allow judges to make better decisions about an offender’s risk of reoffending.

“The addition of the fifth risk assessment question regarding the presence of firearms during the initial stages of an investigation into alleged incidents of domestic violence provides an additional option to proactively address the potential escalation of violence by an accused perpetrator,” said NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson. “If weapons can be removed, the potential for a fatal escalation is reduced and lives can be saved.”

Graphic from New Orleans Domestic Violence Fatality Survey 2020, conducted by the New Orleans Health Dept and The New Orleans Blueprint for Safety

According to the 2020 New Orleans Domestic Violence Fatality Summary, domestic homicides accounted for 8.4 percent of murders from 2012-2018. Of those, nearly 75 percent were considered to be intimate partner homicides. More concerning, 75 percent of intimate partner homicides occurred in cases where there was a history of domestic violence between the perpetrator, victim, or both. In 56 percent of cases, charges included Domestic Abuse Battery, Domestic Abuse Battery (Strangling), Acts of Domestic Violence, Criminal Property Damage (Domestic), Criminal Trespassing (Domestic), Stalking, Violation of Protection Order, Aggravated Assault, and Simple Battery.

“The ability to add this risk assessment question is a direct result of collaboration between advocates and criminal justice partners,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, Director of New Orleans Health Department. “Transferring firearms away from prohibited possessors is an important part of keeping families safe.”

Under Louisiana state law, anyone who has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor is not allowed to possess a firearm for 10 years after their conviction. Anyone who is the subject of a domestic violence protective order is not allowed to possess firearms for the duration of the order. However, last summer, Court Watch NOLA, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that objectively monitors Orleans Parish Criminal Courts raised the issue of judicial noncompliance with this law. Court Watch NOLA then brought together a working group that included the NOPD, the NOPD Consent Decree Monitor, the New Orleans Health Department, and the Family Justice Center, as well as other community leaders, to discuss changes to NOPD protocol.

“Court Watch NOLA is proud to partner with the New Orleans Health Department and the NOPD to ensure that domestic violence survivors are heard by the criminal courts,” said Court Watch NOLA Executive Director Simone Levine. “We will continue to track the Orleans Parish Magistrate Court’s compliance with this law and any other law designed to ensure the safety of crime survivors. Hopefully, with added input from survivors, judges will be able to more comprehensively comply with the law.”

Unfortunately, this largely only makes a difference in cases where domestic violence is prosecuted in court. According to a report from the New Orleans City Council Criminal Justice Committee, a majority – 90.7 percent – of domestic violence cases were being dismissed in Municipal Court, and only 6.6 percent of cases were resulting in a conviction as of December 2019. The Municipal Court handles nearly 3,000 domestic abuse misdemeanor cases each year.

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