San Francisco May Survive Progressive Police Reform. New Orleans Won't | Opinion

There's a new sheriff in town in NOLA—literally. A former independent police monitor, Susan Hutson, recently edged out a 17-year incumbent in a stunning upset for the office of sheriff, and Hutson will be New Orleans' first Black, first female sheriff when she assumes her post on May 2.

Hutson is a self-styled reformer in ideological alignment with the progressive D.A.s who have taken office around the country, most notably in major cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. But while San Francisco and Chicago may survive progressive police reform, New Orleans will not.

In Chicago, Kim Foxx heads the second largest D.A. 's office in the country. She was first elected in 2016 after running on a criminal justice reform platform, and then reelected in 2020. But Foxx has been under fire for her soft on crime approach in the face of the city's surging crime rate. In Philadelphia, progressive D.A. Larry Krasner has been taking heat for his office's handling of gun crimes in a city that, as of 2021, has the highest murder rate in the country. And in San Francisco, D.A. Chesa Boudin is facing a recall amidst a dramatic surge in crime after he campaigned on contempt for the police and a pledge to stop prosecuting "victimless crimes" like prostitution and open air drug dealing.

And as I see a sheriff minted in the same mold preparing to assume office in New Orleans, I can't help but panic a little. Because we will not survive such an assault on policing.

I'm a fifth generation Northern Californian who moved to New Orleans after college and have now spent half my life here. The city has radically changed in the years I've lived here. It was a truly dangerous place in 2000. After its murder rate peaked in 1994, it remained among the highest murder rates in the country for the next decade. But after Hurricane Katrina, large investments of federal rebuilding money and an infusion of young, educated domestic migrants bent on improving the city changed things; the crime rate dropped radically.

But this positive trend has reversed itself in the last couple of years. While overall crime dropped by seven percent during the pandemic, violent crime increased by 7 percent, with murder increasing by 8 percent.

Bywater, the historic neighborhood I have lived in for most of my years here, has changed, too, over the last 20 years. What started out as a working-class area populated by Irish and German immigrants and free people of color, Bywater was mostly Black when I moved here. After desegregation, the neighborhood experienced "white flight" and disinvestment. In the '90s and aughts, a tough breed of young bohemians started to colonize the neighborhood, many of them gay and lesbian folks fleeing the rural south. These people, a lot of them artists, worked in the hospitality industry fueled by the neighboring French Quarter. I was one of them.

New Orleans cops
NEW ORLEANS, LA - JULY 10: A New Orleans police officer pulls the hood off the statue of educator Sophie Bell Wright, whose father served in the Confederate Navy and Army, after it was covered with the white hood and spray-painted with BLM on July 10, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The statue, one of several vandalized this week, was one of many located throughout New Orleans that protestors say celebrate white supremacy. Michael DeMocker/Getty Images

And over the last twenty years, the neighborhood has gentrified at a staggering pace. Educated, white transplants from other states (like me) have slowly displaced the area's former population. When I first moved to the neighborhood, ramshackle shotgun houses went for $50,000. Now, high-end, renovated shotguns go for $750,000.

And it's the people in the market for those homes that are voting in decriminalizing reformers.

Gentrified neighborhoods throughout the city overwhelmingly voted for Susan Hutson, while the solidly middle-class, Black areas voted for the incumbent, together with the old money, white neighborhoods.

With their long history in the violent city, people who are from here tended to vote for Marlin Gusman. Newer arrivals, not so familiar with the bloody days of decades past, voted for Susan Hutson.

And the new transplants are trying to bring San Francisco to New Orleans.

By now everyone is familiar with San Fransisco's roving bands of criminals robbing stores with impunity, with how Union Square was boarded up, with the feces-covered sidewalks as the city's homeless population has set up camp virtually anywhere.

I've watched life-long residents of SF clamor to get out. I've listened to former dyed-in-the-wool progressives begin calling to oust Boudin. Things do not look good for the reformer, whose recall election takes place on June 7.

I suspect the pendulum will swing and San Francisco, along with many other cities with progressive reformers at the helm, will recall them or elect D.A.s and sheriffs with law enforcement as a priority, rather than unrealistic, utopian reforms.

But Susan Hutson is inheriting a city in the midst of a shocking surge in violent crime in the beginning of 2022. In the first nine weeks of this year, homicides increased by 37 percent over 2021 totals. Everyone I talk to seems to have a story about an acquaintance who was carjacked. Those incidents have increased 60 percent since last year. Shootings and armed robberies are up 18 and 32 percent, respectively. New Orleans is also hemorrhaging police officers.

Under these unfortunate realities, a D.A. who refuses to prosecute non-fatal crimes, and a sheriff who opposes modernizing and expanding our capacity to incarcerate violent criminals and serve the mentally ill roving our streets will prove disastrous.

The West Coast bastion of ultra-liberal politics, with its enormous economy and wealthy tax base, will be able to recover from its dabbling in progressive police reform. But I fear that if implemented here, it will be many decades before New Orleans has a chance to heal from this ill-conceived experiment, which is coming at precisely the worst moment it could.

In New Orleans, middle-class residents are starting to head for the suburbs. I see "for sale" signs going up every day. I just placed one in front of my home after tiring of motorists speeding down my street at dangerously high speeds, endless robberies, and falling asleep to the nightly sound of gunfire popping off mere blocks away. Fleeing metro New Orleans is as difficult a decision as it was leaving my home state 22 years ago. But I have lived through New Orleans at its worst before. And now, entering middle-age and a parent, I am not willing to live through it again.

Meghann McCracken is a screenwriter, essayist, and a graduate student in the Louisiana State University School of Social Work.

The views in this article are the writer's own.