Reporting from New Orleans — In the squad room of the New Orleans Police Department's 6th District, a large red square is painted on the wall behind the lectern, as if a cop had acted on some Abstract Expressionist impulse.
It is a wordless reminder to officers here, one that could serve as a new motto for the city's criminal justice system.
"It means, 'We don't arrest squares,' " said Sgt. Yolanda Jenkins, a community outreach specialist.
By "squares," she means the everyday citizens and tourists who may be guilty of some minor infractions but who aren't contributing to New Orleans' scourge of violent crime. And cutting them some slack represents a major philosophical shift for a city that has the nation's highest per capita jail detention rate but has struggled to rein in its most serious crimes.
This year, New Orleans is also on track to have the nation's highest per capita murder rate.
In recent months, police, prosecutors and politicians have taken steps to put fewer minor offenders behind bars, in the hope that will free up resources to attack more serious crime. The initiative culminated in city ordinances passed this month that give officers the option of handing out court summonses to anyone suspected of prostitution or marijuana possession, in lieu of hauling them off to jail.
"For us, it's a shift. … We don't need to be arresting people for silly, minor things," said police Deputy Superintendant Kirk M. Bouyelas.
City officials are loath to call it a softening of its stance on vice, noting that the penalties for the offenses will remain the same. But these and other changes will probably mean that thousands of future small-time offenders will not see the inside of the city's notorious Orleans Parish Prison, which, with its violence and lack of hygiene and medical care, was deemed to be violating the constitutional rights of inmates in a September 2009 finding by the U.S. Justice Department.
The changes may also alter the dynamic of law and order in a city that calls itself the Big Easy but has long exhibited extremes of the permissive and the punitive — to the confusion and chagrin of many an out-of-town reveler.
In New Orleans, wobbling drunkenly down Bourbon Street may not earn the attention of police. Nor will a trip to one of the French Quarter's many strip joints. But anyone caught smoking a joint or soliciting prostitution was typically sent to the labyrinthine jail that locals call Central Lockup, known well before the Justice Department report as a place of almost mythic unpleasantness.
For the tourists who find themselves in the parish prison, "it's a shocker," said Sgt. T.K. Lane, who works the Bourbon Street beat — which, she reminded, is not Amsterdam, despite appearances. "A lot of the people we put in jail are really under the impression that anything goes," she said.
But the focus on minor crime resulted in a clogged court system. Bouyelas said that at one point, 70% of the cases police sent to criminal court were for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The problem has been addressed on numerous fronts. In 2008, the City Council began allowing police to issue summonses for low-level crimes such as urinating in public or trespassing. In the spring, the Legislature changed Louisiana law so that police, in many cases, are no longer required to arrest people with out-of-town warrants for such issues as unpaid parking tickets.
In October, the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which has been helping the city rethink its justice system since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, announced it would create a federally funded system to screen for and release non-dangerous suspects awaiting trial, a system already used in more than 400 cities and counties around the country.
Bouyelas doesn't think police will want to issue summonses to tourists found with marijuana, because they wouldn't be likely to show up in court. But he said the city was considering testing a "sobering center," with nurses and a psychiatrist, where drunks could be sent in lieu of arrest.
The failed police response to Hurricane Katrina, with its mass desertions and shooting of unarmed civilians, resulted in Justice Department oversight and a vast federal investigation of police misconduct. But the mistrust found in poor communities predates the storm, and some are hoping the new protocols will help mend the relationship.
If low-level offenders know they won't be going to jail, said local activist Norris Henderson, "it de-escalates the encounters people have with the police, because the civilian now knows he's going to get a citation. … I think the Police Department is acknowledging that we have a problem."
Criticism of the changes has been scattered. Late Tuesday night, Officer Marshall Scallan worked the Bourbon Street beat, navigating a tide of misrule and issuing warnings to a group of known hookers and other troublemakers.
With the new approach on pot and prostitution, he said, "you're going to see a lot more of it out here." The idea of a sobering center he found almost laughably touchy-feely for such a rough-and-tumble town.
Fans of the new ways, including Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, counter that New Orleans must try something different.
"Maybe it'll work and maybe it won't," she said. "But it won't work if we don't try it."