U.S. senator introduces legislation targeting crime spikes in tourist areas

By William Patrick | The Center Square

U.S. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana has filed federal legislation aimed at reducing crime in areas where tourism is a key segment of state and local economies.

The Louisiana Republican’s “Tourism District Protection Act” bill would apply nationally, though Kennedy said crime and economic losses are of particular concern in his home state.

“The pandemic lockdowns took revenue away from Louisianians who live in tourism-dependent areas, and now crime is rising across the country,” Kennedy said.

The legislation would allow state and local law enforcement agencies to use funding from existing U.S. Department of Justice programs to bolster public safety efforts amid increasing violent crime and diminishing police resources.

Tourism is a major industry in Louisiana. Visitors to the state spent $20 billion in 2019 and $13.3 billion during the pandemic last year, according to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. The industry is also the state’s fourth largest employer.

New Orleans stands out among Louisiana’s tourist destinations. Millions of travelers visit the city every year for Mardi Gras, music events, sports and other cultural attractions. But violent crime is a growing problem.

New Orleans has had the highest homicide rate increase during the COVID-19 pandemic of any major city in the country, according to a recent study.

The Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC), a New Orleans-based nonprofit, reports 122 homicides to-date in 2021, an increase of 19 homicides compared to the same period last year.

“Overall, New Orleans is seeing a 47% increase in crime compared to 2020,” the group said in a news release.

The organization also released a report this week analyzing Orleans Parish violent crime trends over the past three years. The report cites increases in homicides, shootings, carjackings and armed robbery across the New Orleans Police Department’s eight districts, as well as survey results indicating crime is a leading concern among parish residents.

“While I agree that COVID has played a role in the uptick in crime, it does not mean cities and local jurisdictions can’t work around those issues,” MCC president Rafael C. Goyeneche III said. “The people who live in cities like New Orleans are owed more than that.”

Goyeneche said the NOPD is overwhelmed and underfunded, which affects residents, tourists and businesses.

“On paper, there are about 1,100 police officers, but that includes sick and furloughed officers, police academy trainees and those on vacation. At any given time, there are closer to 1,000 officers on duty. That leaves less than 700 officers to patrol the city’s eight policing districts across three daily watches,” he said.

“They are responding to calls for service,” Goyeneche said. “They are not able to do proactive policing because they don’t have the bandwidth.”

According to the City of New Orleans Open Data website, the NOPD has received 253,000 calls for service in 2021, or more than 36,000 per month as of July 29.

A multi-year pay raise also expired during the pandemic, causing some veteran police officers to opt for early retirement for pension-related reasons. Annual pension payouts are based on the three highest income years of service, Goyeneche said.

Kennedy’s bill would attempt to reverse law enforcement income and staffing problems in tourism-heavy areas by authorizing federal DOJ grants through the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which already provides community training and technical assistance to policing agencies throughout the country.

The proposed legislation also would provide funding through the DOJ Emergency Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Program and the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.

The funding boost would support state and local law enforcement during the current COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent crime wave, as well as related public safety areas like district attorneys’ offices, victim initiatives and crime prevention and education programs.

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