In 2016, the NOPD has seen not only a decrease in the number of armed robbery cases reported citywide, but has also seen an increase in the rate at which those armed robberies reported are being solved.
A big part of the reason behind these increases can be attributed to the NOPD’s Tactical Intelligence Gathering and Enforcement Response unit, or TIGER, a hybrid group of officers combining thorough detective work with tactical expertise to drive an intelligence-based unit focused on arresting serial armed robbery suspects.
Made up of detectives, tactical officers and members of the Special Operations Division, the aggressive work of the TIGER Unit has cleared multiple violent crime investigations, either by securing arrests or warrants, since NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison formed the group in early June.
Watch Video: Inside the NOPD's TIGER Unit
“TIGER is designed to work through intelligence-driven policing,” Harrison said. “We are using data to identify persons who are high risk or potential suspects who we know are involved in robberies. Once we identify them, we conduct covert operations to either catch them or gather further intelligence that can lead us to capturing them.”
TIGER, as well as other proactive efforts to reduce armed robberies across the city, have led to a double-digit decrease in the number of armed robberies reported citywide year-to-date.
As of December 19, 2016, there have been a total of 845 armed robberies reported to NOPD citywide, compared to 952 year-to-date in 2015, an 11-percent decrease.
The department has also seen solve rates for armed robberies increase in 2016, going from 30 percent in 2015 to 36 percent in 2016.
Deputy Chief Paul Noel, who commands the department’s Field Operations Bureau, said that while he is extremely happy to see armed robbery report numbers fall in the past year, he is also excited about the increase in solve rates.
“We are well above the national average in armed robbery solve rates for cities our size,” he said, noting that the average is about 26 percent. “At our department MAX meetings each week, that's something that I continue to be impressed by each time. When I started in this position in late December 2015, I challenged the district commanders to do a better job in catching violent criminals, particularly armed robbers. They've done that, and TIGER has played a great role in this accomplishment.”
So much so, in fact, that Noel said he believes the TIGER Unit to be “the most significant new initiative we've installed in this department in 2016.”
Combating violent crimes with intelligence-driven police work
Harrison created the TIGER Unit and tasked it with gathering intelligence and conducting proactive work to combat serial armed robbery cases in the city.
Noel said that the unit works on a model of investigative, intelligence-led approach to attacking violent crime that was used while he served as commander of the Second District.
“One thing we prided ourselves on was having the highest armed robbery solve rates in the city,” he said. “That wasn't by accident – it was from the philosophy we had of relentless follow-up. Every single individual in the district was responsible for helping us solve and capture armed robbers.”
Lt. Christian Hart, one of the leaders in the TIGER Unit who also serves as assistant commander in the Third District, said that the TIGER Unit came into action in response to a string of violent crime that occurred over a five-day stretch around Memorial Day.
“During that time, we had about 24 armed robberies in a five-day stretch that were tied to four in Jefferson Parish and committed by the same individuals,” Hart said. “At that point, it was not a full-time unit. The District Investigative Unit commanders came together and brought detectives, and we worked in collaboration. We made the moves we had to make to get warrants on these individuals and get them served. When it was all said and done, everyone was happy with the work not just us, but the entire department, put into corralling these suspects.”
Hart said that after TIGER’s efforts in capturing the suspects in these incidents, the unit started its full-time operation. When looking for who the unit’s two detectives would be, Hart said, the choices of Matthew Riffle and Charles Hoffacker came naturally.
“Matthew Riffle was one of the first people I had wanted,” he said. “He was a property crimes detective in the Seventh District who came in with the initial investigation. He's very quick and very thorough with his work, which stuck in my mind right away. Charles Hoffacker was suggested by SOD Commander Bryan Lampard, who also helps to lead the unit. Hoffacker had previously worked in Homicide and was with the First District at the time, and he is a great detective. I spoke with him and he said he was very interested in joining.”
Combined with the efforts of numerous SOD tactical officers, the unit hit the ground running and made a big arrest, Hart said.
“Once TIGER was officially formed, the first big case we cleared was two brothers from Alabama who we believe used a silver Chevy truck to perpetrate armed robberies in and around the Eighth District,” he said. “We were able to go back and get video on all three scenes involved, including one involving a shooting. One of our officers was off duty and spotted the vehicle, and we were able to capture the suspects on Interstate 10. It was such a great feeling to have made those arrests. After that, it just kept rolling.”
“If you hit the board, you’re as good as caught.”
Every morning, the TIGER Unit meets for a briefing in “The Habitat,” its operational headquarters located within the Special Operations Division building. Riffle and Hoffacker review cases from the previous day and lead the meeting by reviewing intelligence already gathered in these cases.
“They review anything we have to see if there are any links to previous cases, or if any on the same day could be related,” Hart said of the detectives. “After that, Sgt. Brian Elsensohn puts together a plan of what the unit will work on that day and they go out and make it happen.”
Elsensohn, another TIGER Unit leader who is based in the Special Operations Division, said that the TIGER Unit combines intelligence gathered from multiple sources through numerous means.
“We have robbery intelligence that's shared with the guys in the field, who are also building intelligence of their own,” he said. “It's real-time intelligence that we're moving on. It helps us figure out where these suspects reside or hang out and lets us serve warrants almost immediately.”
Being able to quickly secure warrants is vital to preserve evidence in many cases, Elsensohn said.
“New Orleans is a city, but it's a small city,” Elsensohn said. “When you get arrested, everyone knows you've been arrested, so people they know may try to help them clear evidence. With this work, we're able to arrest people and at the same time execute search warrants on locations we believe are tied to these individuals. That way, there's no lag that can lead to possible loss of evidence. “
Elsensohn said that he feels TIGER’s efforts have helped in taking numerous armed robbery suspects off the streets, whether done by members of the unit or not.
“We have a term we like to say here at TIGER – ‘If you hit the board, you're a good as caught,’” he said, referring to the unit’s intelligence board used to outline cases. “Even on cases where we didn't make the apprehension, we've shared intelligence with the districts that led to the apprehension. We're a force multiplier that's here to assist the districts in their investigations.”
While district investigators are outstanding in their efforts, Hart said, they often have a large case load and are unable to devote large amounts of time to individual cases.
“That’s why TIGER is here,” he said. “We help these DIUs clear these cases by devoting time that they're unable to devote, so it also frees them up to investigate other cases. We are also able to focus on strings of armed robberies that may cover more than one district.”
The model of work that the TIGER Unit uses makes it versatile as to what crimes it can focus its efforts, Elsensohn said.
“You could put us on any type of crime, and the principal of how we investigate and act is the same,” he said. “It's the sharing of real-time intelligence and having the detectives who are embedded and can execute search warrants immediately, interview and interrogate immediately to secure statements and evidence.”
Another aspect of the TIGER Unit’s work is that it has seen nearly 90 percent of suspects arrested confess to committing the crimes.
“They see the evidence we have built against them and they know we have them,” he said. “Many of the suspects arrested also come out and give us more information on other suspects involved. At that point, it's lagniappe for us. Plus, we’re even getting some of these suspects who have confessed to write letters of apology to their victims.”
“When you show a suspect who didn't think they'd ever be caught that you have all of this collected information, they don't know where to turn and start pleading their case that they're sorry. That's how we get these confessions,” Elsensohn said.
The level of enthusiasm each member of the TIGER Unit has in their work also shows, Noel said.
“When you talk to the people that are involved in TIGER, they're so excited about doing this type of work,” he said. “It's a level of excitement that I haven't seen in a while. The men and women who do this work are excited to come to work every day with the one mission of capturing violent criminals, and they're doing a great job. If you want to be a police officer, this is the type of work you want to do. “
“When you have that opportunity to do great detailed police work and see the results of your work lead to arrests and a reduction in crime, that's a great feeling,” Elsensohn said. “It's a feeling of accomplishment.”
Earning their stripes
Hart said his goal for the TIGER unit is to have an entire unit of tactically trained detectives that can handle any type of criminal investigation.
“Each side of the operation comes in and learns about the other and becoming well-rounded police officers,” he said. “I have never been involved with SOD before this. I thought I understood what it was, but I had no idea until I got here and started seeing how their operations are handled. They're pulled in so many different directions.”
The diverse backgrounds and teamwork within the TIGER Unit also help make it successful, Hart added.
“With every unit I've been a part of, I've wanted the input of everyone involved,” he said. “Supervisors make the final decision, but everyone had their say. That's the same philosophy we adhere to in TIGER.”
Additional training for TIGER Unit officers is another goal Hart said he would like to see achieved.
“Not so much as sitting in a classroom, but having an older investigator or older tactical officer be able to mentor younger officers,” he said. “Right now, our detective lineup is static. In the future, we'd like to have detectives rotate in every six or so months to have them get a better idea of what we do and take that back to their districts to help their districts get even better.”
Hart said he feels this type of police work is a model that could be used throughout the department for years to come.
“This is the first time this office has had a unit like this,” he said. “The days of jump-out work are over. With public opinion of police how it is right now, you have to be very careful that you conduct your work as best possible with the most solid information you can gather. With TIGER, that’s the approach we take, and I think this approach is the future of law enforcement.”
Elsensohn agreed, adding that the work of the TIGER Unit not only helps to lower crime rates in the immediate area where the crimes were committed, but could also help to lower the overall crime rate in the city over time.
“I believe that if you do this long enough with the success rate we're seeing right now, crime across the board will see a decrease,” he said. “The young criminal who sees other criminals get sent away for 30 or 40 years on multiple counts because we had such strong cases against them may just reconsider getting involved in criminal activity.”