By Beth Donze
Marc Morial was just six days into his first term as mayor of New Orleans when he received a call from his police chief: a 9-year-old named James Darby had been killed in an Uptown park, caught in the crossfire of a revenge-seeking 19-year-old who had shot into a group of Mother’s Day picnickers.
Violent crime had become so prevalent in New Orleans, one hotel manager had stopped slipping the Times-Picayune under the doors of his guests because of the incessant stories on the city’s murder epidemic. By the end of 1994, homicides had reached an annual record high of 424.
“I thought, ‘This is now my responsibility. I have to do something.’ I was momentarily paralyzed. What do we do?” recalled Morial, who held an emergency meeting after Darby’s 1994 murder to enact stopgap measures such as a nighttime curfew, the transfer of 200 police officers from desk jobs to the streets, and an injection of $1 million into NORD.
But Morial knew piecemeal measures wouldn’t be enough.
Along with comprehensive police reform, curbing vio lent crime would demand an all-hands-on-deck approach: city government working in concert with the organizational expertise and smarts of the city’s faith and business communities.
This coalition’s unprecedented pooling of talent, energy and resources ultimately had a hand in reducing violent crime by more than 60 percent in the eight years Morial was in office.
Lessons from this success story were retold by the former mayor to a packed UNO ballroom Nov. 1 during a panel discussion announcing the NOLA Partnership for Safety and Peace, a new collaboration that hopes to replicate the successes of the 1990s by uniting the faith, business, academic and governmental communities of today in the fight against crime.
Immediate goals of the initiative include installing at least one high-definition crime camera on every church in the city, and expanding mentoring programs for at-risk youth, primarily the children of the incarcerated.
Jittery business climate
“We can’t arrest ourselves out of (violent crime). You’ve got to work together and form partnerships, and that’s exactly what we did,” said John Casbon, the business executive tapped by Morial to found the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, a group of business leaders dedicated to everything from equipping the NOPD with better protective gear to advocating for police pay raises.
When the foundation began collaborating with the administration, New Orleans’ highly publicized street wars had become so unnerving, insurance companies were calling local businesses to say they were fearful of renewing coverage and loan packages.
“We can (reduce crime) again, but we cannot do it if we don’t have the faith-based churches with us. It takes all of us to do it,” Casbon said. “If we pull together, we can move mountains, we can do things you can’t imagine because we’ll be one, not all separated. It will be about ‘we,’ not ‘me.’”
Youth must be engaged
While the strategies from the 1990s might not be identical to those needed in 2017, Morial, now president and CEO of the National Urban League, said there is much to be learned from the old template.
Morial said the next mayor, who will take office in May, must approach the issue of NOPD size with the understanding that although New Orleans is a city of 400,000 residents, it operates like a city of 1 million because of the tourists and suburbanites who work, play and attend school here. Government and business leaders must convince citizens that their economic fortunes – and the success of the whole community – are tied to a well-paid police force and one that is “not just bigger, but better” because of tougher hiring standards, Morial said.
The former mayor said investing in youth also played a key role in his administration’s crime-prevention model. Morial doubled NORD’s budget, created 5,000 summer jobs for teens and challenged young people to offer their ideas for civic improvement by coordinating a “Mayor’s Youth Conference,” composed of student-delegates from every public, private and parochial middle and high school in the city. Morial recalled one recommendation offered by a group of female delegates: NORD’s programming was heavily skewed toward boys. The city quickly remedied this.
“We never really would have seized on that if we didn’t have the young people at the table,” Morial said.
Faith leaders are plugged in
J.C. Dyson, pastor of Holy Faith Temple Baptist Church in Treme, reminded the audience that another ingredient in the Morial-era crime reduction was community policing – getting law enforcement out of their cars and engaged in neighborhood activities to acquaint them with residents and their concerns.
Often, the first step in community policing was sitting down with the people who knew the assets and weaknesses of their neighborhoods best: priests, ministers, rabbis and their respective congregations.
“When our community became excited about what was happening with (community policing), churches came together to demand quality of life – I’m talking hundreds of churches and their congregations who began to sit down and discuss their issues,” Dyson recalled.
“The success that we had was from communities coming together – blacks, whites, Baptists, Jews – all denominations (and) non-denominations,” Dyson said. “It was a coalition of churches that was not concerned about what we looked like, but (about) quality of life.”
Churches: beacons of hope
Father Patrick Williams, on the panel representing the Archdiocese of New Orleans as vicar general, said faith-based communities are uniquely poised to promote public safety on two levels: they are good at mobilizing people on a practical level, as hubs of life-affirming programs and community interaction; and they also animate people on a spiritual level, by answering questions like, “Why should I care about violent crime if it doesn’t affect me?”
“We all want public safety, but there are deeper issues and moral imperatives that we have as human beings to say that (crime) is something that we cannot tolerate,” said Father Williams, pastor of St. Pius X Church. “We have a moral imperative to have people live their lives in freedom and safety and to reach their full potential.”
Father Williams recalled an interview in which a 14-year old, when asked why he had committed a crime, had answered: “I’m not gonna live past 17 anyway. What difference does it make?” Faith communities help people recognize that there is, indeed, hope, he said.
“Communities that do not have hope are communities that are destined to fail,” Father Williams said. “As faith communities, we can lift that hope, because ultimately our hope comes from beyond us.”
Current climate challenging
Kenneth Polite, a former U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s eastern district, observed that a significant disadvantage of today versus the mid-1990s is the evaporation of federal monies.
For example, the federal crime bill in place when Morial was mayor included $8 billion to hire 100,000 police officers across the country and an additional $6 billion for prevention programs such as “Weed and Seed,” in which law enforcement would “weed out” the worst criminals in a neighborhood and then give money directly to churches that would in turn plant “good seeds” – programs they designed themselves.
“That (level of federal funding) is nowhere right now,” Polite said. “We need even more engagement (between law enforcement and the public) today to essentially make up for billions of dollars of shortfall in investments from our federal government.”
Also, despite better than ever cooperation than ever among federal, state and local agencies, public confidence in law enforcement and criminal justice has plummeted, making rebuilding relationships between officers and residents even more crucial, he said.
“We are in the information business when it comes to law enforcement; we rely on the public coming forward, and that does not happen if he public lacks trust in our public institutions,” said Polite, citing a recent example of a stabbing in which 20 people recorded the crime on their phones but had not come forward.
We can take steps now
Polite, a parishioner of St. Peter Claver Church, offered some immediate actions that could be taken in the crime-fighting arena. He challenged area business owners to re-evaluate their hiring practices and consider hiring ex-offenders, noting that 300 formerly incarcerated return New Orleans every month looking for jobs.
Polite also encouraged faith community members to join his own initiative, the Crescent City Keepers, in which at-risk teens, including the vulnerable children of the incarcerated, are paired with a faith-based organization. The church community “adopts” the teen by providing mentors and wrap-around services for the entire family.
“That’s a powerful tool, and you don’t necessarily have to wait for the government or the U.S. attorney’s office to deliver that child to your doorstep – because you have those types of children already in your neighborhood,” Polite said.
Cameras as safety tools
Installing crime cameras on every church, which the partnership has dubbed the “21st-century neighborhood watch,” is another action that could be taken relatively quickly, the panelists said.
Pastor Dyson suggested that these newly equipped churches could host town hall meetings to view the footage and discuss what is seen with their congregants.
Casbon said there were business leaders in the audience that night who likely would contribute to the new partnership, if convinced there were a serious coalition in the making.
“The business community is ready to do this, but we can’t throw good money at a bad place. We’ve got to believe in something,” Casbon said, noting that the faith community’s participation is key not only because of its galvanizing impact on neighborhoods, but because perpetrators of crime often turn themselves into a trusted clergy member before turning themselves into the police.
“That’s the power of (the city’s faith-based community) and so many people don’t understand that,” Casbon said.
The Isaiah Institute of New Orleans and UNO’s Alexis de Tocqueville Project co-sponsored the Nov. 1 panel discussion. To learn more, call Joe Givens at 416-0679; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.