The small town of Gretna, Louisiana, a suburb just outside of New Orleans, has the distinction of being known as the “arrest capital of America.” In a town of roughly 18,000 residents, a total of 6,566 of those residents were arrested for some sort of infraction in 2013. That amounts to over 33% of the town’s population being arrested in a one-year period. Of those 6,566 arrested, approximately 66% (4,258) were Black adults.
The arrest system is best described as catch and release. Most of those arrested are released within a few hours, with either a fine or a summons to return to court. If the person is unable to pay the fine, they are usually released and put on a payment plan. If the person doesn’t show up for court, they are once again arrested and additional fines imposed.
One such person caught in this revolving door, is a 25-year-old Black man named Eric Cado. After being pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt in November 2011, Mr. Cado was caught in Gretna’s web for 3-years because of missed court dates, unpaid fines, subsequent warrants for his arrest and a day in jail. In the end, Mr. Cado paid the town of Gretna $1,200 in fines, plus $500 bond for his release from jail; all because of a seatbelt ticket.
Gretna is the town who’s police officers stood with their guns drawn at the entrance of the bridge that connects with New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to keep residents fleeing flood waters from entering their city. With all these people being arrested, you might conclude that it’s a dangerous city. Gretna’s crime stats are quite the opposite. Of the 6,566 people arrested in 2013, ONLY 49 were arrested for the following serous crimes: murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. To put that in perspective, Gretna has an arrest rate 5-times higher than Baltimore, MD and 30-times higher than Cupertino, CA, which is 3-times larger.
A former Gretna police officer found the arrest and release practice so disturbing, he filed a lawsuit against the town. Officer Daniel Swear alleges his department had a quota system that required officers to make at least one arrest every other day and issue at least 3 traffic tickets per day. Because of its practice of arresting people to make money, the town of Gretna took in $5.77 million in municipal court fines and fees in fiscal year 2013-2014; which is approximately $324 per resident. In contrast, Ferguson, Missouri, with its own practice of racial profiling, took in $2.46 million in municipal court fines and fees in 2013 and that is about $117 for every resident.