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Community leaders collaborate in panel on New Orleans crime

Hope Brusstar, Copy Editor

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On Wednesday Nov. 1, the Alexis de Tocqueville Project and Isaiah Institute of New Orleans co-hosted a public discussion on the current state of crime in New Orleans and various viewpoints on how it should be quelled. Organized by Isaiah Institute Executive Director Joe Givens and UNO Professor Chris Surprenant, the event included five prominent figures from the local faith, law enforcement, and business communities: Rev. Dr. Joseph Dyson; former U.S. attorney Kenneth Polite, Jr.; New Orleans mayor from 1994-2002 Marc Morial; Director of IberiaBank John Casbon and Vicar General of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Father Pat Williams.

According to the NOPD violent crime was at a remarkable high in the 1990s, with occurrences hovering around 10,000 to 11,000 per year between 1990 and 1996 and afterwards steadily dropping until 2005 to 2,000, almost a fifth of its peak. According to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, “Hurricane Katrina disrupted those good trends. Between 2005 and 2014, violent and property crime has generally crept upwards.”

Increasing crime motivated Givens to organize that night’s event in the UC ballroom. Driven by a desire for the well-being of the community, and inspired by measures originally taken which successfully and dramatically reduced crime in the 90s, he said, “We want to go back to what we did in the 90s, because it worked.” To demonstrate a need for a renewed effort, the group explored the multifaceted issue of crime reduction.

“A lot of people recognize there are problems, but don’t even know how we got there or how to begin fixing them,” said Surprenant.

 

Former mayor Morial began the panel discussion by sharing his first experiences after taking office, finding the city crime-ridden and its government disorganized. “I was compelled to become mayor of New Orleans because of the violence problem,” he declared. “The crime enforcement was so bad that one hotel manager stopped putting the Times-Picayune under the doors of his guests [because] the front page was always about last night’s murder.”

Over the course of his term, Morial led an initiative to improve law enforcement in New Orleans. “It included instating a curfew and transferring more than 200 police officers from desk jobs to the streets,” he said.

Morial also recollected the deal he made with Entergy to fund a payroll increase for the entire NOPD. “The police department is not large enough to serve the community,” he said. “This city even though it is a city of 400,000 operates like a city of millions because of the ten million tourists per year.” He wanted to make the police force “Not just bigger, but better.” For him, the key was to “increase pay and increase hiring standards; change the way we do psychological background checks.” But there was a problem. “The only way to raise pay without going to a vote on the people was to raise the franchise fee on Entergy.”

Morial was able to quickly strike a deal with Ed Lupberger, the CEO of Entergy at the time. “We were trying to build a broader coalition that the public had not seen and we were successful because of it.”

From Morial’s account, the business community’s effect on law enforcement is unmistakable. Project NOLA Executive Director Bryan Lagarde was present that evening for a direct example of the influence of the private sector. According to projectnola.org, it is a “nonprofit foundation that operates the largest, most cost-efficient and successful networked HD crime camera program in America.”

Created in 2009, it runs on a network of “over 2,200 cameras, and each can see in a two-block radius.” The Project NOLA headquarters is on UNO’s campus in the TRAC Building, and according to Lagarde, employees are monitoring the live camera feeds 24/7. “Drug deals, stabbings anything that happens unfolds in front of my eyes,” said Lagarde.

 

Meanwhile, the faith community has been unquestionably influential in matters of public safety. According to Dyson, pastor of the Holy Faith Temple, people often approach church leaders about safety issues in the community. “Members of the church came to the pastor and said, ‘Listen, we have a team of people selling drugs on our street.’ And they felt safe doing that and the pastor would notify the city. But since then, things have changed.”

Similarly, according to Casbon, a local business leader, “When two tourists were attacked in the French Quarter and almost bled out, the guy who did it didn’t turn himself into the police. He turned himself into the ministry.” He felt that churches continue to be places people are comfortable confiding in. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Both Dyson and Casbon expressed interest in installing cameras on churches all over the city to participate in the Project NOLA program. The faith community can make big changes in a different way, the way that places of worship have affected their communities for hundreds of years around the world. Givens described a collaboration over three and a half years ago involving 40 church congregations in New Orleans, with each church presenting a community-building project. But the plain failed: “Potential donors said they would rather invest money in the city.”

The desire to increase youth involvement has not been lost. “We’ve got a lot of adults right now we need to bring our young people to the table as problem-solvers,” said Polite. He spoke of an initiative called Crescent City Keepers, a program that involves an endangered teen with a church in the community. “One kid to a church,” he said.

Polite detailed the risks of being a child to incarcerated parents. “These children have a five-times greater likelihood of being incarcerated themselves.” He stressed the importance of focusing on the well-being of troubled youth in the community. “If we want to end the high levels of violence coming from young black men, we need to focus on making them safe. We are only as safe as they are.”

Another issue facing crime reduction involves helping those who have paid their debt to the community. “About every month, we get 300 people from the prisons return to the city of New Orleans,” stated Polite. “If you are a person who is in the management or ownership of a business, reconsider your hiring practices of ex-cons,” he advised.

And meanwhile, law enforcement struggles to remain effective when corruption and police misconduct has engendered some distrust of police in the community. “There’s a credibility gap right now in the government,” said Polite. “We need to reestablish trust in the law enforcement officials.”

The event brought together prominent figures in the community not only within the panel, but also amongst the audience. Over 100 people attended the talk, including a bank owner, an owner of over 18 hotels within New Orleans alone, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and UNO President John Nicklow.

Said Surprenant, “This is the first, I hope, of many discussions on this. And I hope we can continue this conversation between the faith and business communities.”

 

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Community leaders collaborate in panel on New Orleans crime