By Anthony McAuley | | July 12, 2022

In an effort to pressure the city’s elected officials to act more aggressively, nearly 180 New Orleans-area businesses, civic organizations and activists announced Tuesday they have banded together to craft their own plan to combat the unrelenting surge of violent crime, which they believe will send the metro area into a vicious cycle of decline if it isn’t tackled urgently.

The bold push by the private and non-profit sectors, which includes a pledge of $15 million in private and charitable funds over three years, comes a week after crime data showed New Orleans as the nation’s most murderous city in the first half of the year. The homicide rate is on pace to be well above last year’s, which already was the worst since before Hurricane Katrina.

The group, calling itself The Nola Coalition, includes civic organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Baptist Community Ministries and the Metropolitan Crime Commission. More than 100 businesses have formally backed the group, including major local employers such as LCMC Health and Cox Communications.

The coalition also includes well-known locals, such as Democratic strategist James Carville; retired judge Calvin Johnson, who is a longtime advocate for reform of the District Attorney’s Office; and developer and philanthropist Pres Kabacoff.

Carville penned a letter to the editor last month that presaged Tuesday’s announcement when he suggested politicians were in denial and spending too much time blaming each other rather than working to fix the city’s problems.

“I could go back to Washington and get all of that I need,” he wrote. “Why can’t talented people, neighborhood associations, pastors, universities, and civic and business leaders lead the way — again — by developing real strategies that address the numerous challenges we face?” he asked.

The focus of the new group initially is to get past some of the political noise that has characterized the crime debate in recent months, and to show there is a broad consensus for immediate action, said Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., which helped organize the effort.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her police chief, Shaun Ferguson, have been critical of the District Attorney’s office and other aspects of the criminal justice system for undermining police efforts. Cantrell, in turn, was recently criticized by City Council members Helena Moreno and J.P. Morrell for not doing enough on crime.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the group’s platform, though she has said in recent weeks that public safety is her “number one priority.” and has pointed to workforce development programs and other policies she’s implemented.

“Calls for community support for youth investment and public safety are not necessarily new,” said Hecht. “But what is new is that this is an unprecedentedly broad and diverse group of organizations in the city, all saying in a single voice that this is what needs to be done.”

The concept was hatched a month ago by GNO Inc. chairman Richard Cortizas at a board meeting of the regional economic development body and quickly grew into a broad alliance.

Speaking with one voice

The coalition set out its priorities at a press conference Tuesday, which broadly fall into two tracks.

The first track details the efforts the group wants the NOPD, the District Attorney’s Office, and other areas of the criminal justice system to focus on in order to intensify the immediate response to violent crime.

These include increased police recruitment through higher pay and incentives; a faster promotion track for officers based on qualifications and performance; and improved monitoring and accountability based on results.

“This is not a problem without a solution,” said Melanie Talia, CEO of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, a crime prevention pressure group. Talia, a former assistant district attorney in Orleans Parish, said the coalition is calling “for a full court press” to stop the bleeding of NOPD staff, which currently has an unfilled vacancy rate of 20%, or 316 out of 1,542 budgeted positions.

The coalition plan also addresses areas that have proven highly controversial in the past, such as police use of technology and “civilianization” of certain tasks traditionally done by the police.

The coalition advocates for increased investment in surveillance and predictive policing technology, including gunshot detection, license-plate reading systems and facial recognition. It calls for moving certain functions, like traffic and noise violation enforcement, as well as mental health services, to bodies other than the police to free up resources.

Without naming District Attorney Jason Williams’ Office specifically, the coalition echoed criticisms made by NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson earlier this year, who called for more accountability from prosecutors.

“Ensure violent offenders are held accountable, and that there is no ‘revolving door’ that is dangerous to citizens and demoralizing for NOPD,” the coalition said in its launch materials.

The group also listed 10 potential sources of additional funds that could be used to boost spending on police.

They include $155 million in unallocated funds available to City Hall from the American Rescue Plan Act; federal Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services Office grants; and private-sector grants available under programs offered by firms such as Microsoft and Goldman Sachs.

Unacceptable tragedies

In addition to the surge in the sheer number of murders, violent carjackings and other robberies, some individual crimes have stirred coalition members into action. Among them are the more than two dozen children slain in the past year, as well as the horrific murder of 73-year-old Linda Frickey in March amid an epidemic of carjackings, they said.

The coalition also made note of the latest New Orleans Crime Coalition Survey conducted by independent pollster Ron Faucheux. That report last month showed that an overwhelming number of New Orleanians feel crime has worsened sharply over the past year.

It also showed that perception was broadly the same among Black and White respondents, with well above 80% agreeing the crime surge required urgent measures, including increased police powers and resources.

The vicious cycle that coalition members fear comes when crime and quality-of-life issues lead to population loss, which erodes the tax base. Less taxes means less money to address crime and quality-of-life issues, driving additional residents to leave town.

City Hall needs to address the crime crisis with the same energy and focus it gave to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the group said in its presentation.

Double tasking

The second track in the coalition’s plan is less controversial and calls for investment of $15 million — $5 million a year over the next three years — in a wide range of programs aimed at improving opportunity for historically disadvantaged communities and “at risk” youth.

“One of fundamental points we’re trying to make is investment in immediate public safety and generational change have to happen concurrently and with equal focus,” Hecht said.

The NOLA Coalition funding will come from private and philanthropic sources and be administered by United Way of Southeast Louisiana.

The sources have yet to be identified, but the first $500,000 dispersal was announced last month, and will provide grants to 37 area organizations. They include summer programs run by Grow Dat Youth Farm, Son of a Saint, and Friends of Lafitte Greenway.

The NOLA Coalition plans to track and publish progress on its suggested efforts on the new website. The GNO-administered website will curate and link to various dashboards that organizations such as the Metropolitan Crime Commission produce to track crime. The coalition plans to report every 60 days on progress or lack thereof.

City Council member Helena Moreno, for one, welcomed the new coalition and its aims.

“I’m very happy to see so much community support for some of the same public safety ideas we’ve been pushing forward, like civilianization and reorganization of the force to help NOPD focus on violent crimes,” she said. “I’m also pleased to see their commitment to investments in community groups, because policing is not the only solution.”