Criminal Justice

Worth remembering: When NOPD drew on community culture to fight crime

In the 1970s, the NOPD's Community Relations Department sponsored rolling talent shows that visited public housing developments.

NOPD archive/Roland House

Crowds enjoy a rolling talent show sponsored by the NOPD’s Community Relations Department in 1976.

It is hard to believe today, but once upon a time there was a whole department of officers within the NOPD who believed in the power of violence prevention and had a mandate to practice it.

  • They were people like Officer Gilbert Johnson, who ran the NOPD Explorer Scout Troop Post 560. The troop took young adults on field trips, encouraged them to play music and taught them about the law through hands-on experiences.
  • Officers Octavia Robinson and Carol Morgan organized NOPD talent shows on the back of flatbed truck at all eight housing projects, reaching thousands of children every year.
  • Officer Roland House, as “Officer Friendly,” was the first cop most children met in New Orleans through presentations he and other officers made to sixth-graders about safety, behavior and motivation.
  • Officer Danny Schott ran the NOPD Youth Boxing Program for teens, girls included!
  • Officers Bertrand Turner and John Fields tutored elementary children after school and helped defuse fights at high schools using positive and non-violent interventions.
  • These and other police personnel worked together across lines of race, class and gender as part of the NOPD Community Relations Department, led by Commander Yvonne Bechet.

Community Relations officers were frequently questioned and challenged by other NOPD divisions, and many in the community mistrusted NOPD’s motives. But the program was no fairy tale, and while it lasted — from around 1968 to the mid-1980s, no one knows for sure — Community Relations had real impact. By one measure, it was the only department in the force with the respect and trust of the community sufficient to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind donations every year. It had to, because even at its height, the department had $0 for such programming.

Critics griped that they were not catching bad guys, so what good were they? The answers turned out to be not only crime prevention as such, but also public relations, criminal intelligence, officer morale and most surprisingly, recruitment. As children touched by Community Relations grew up and looked for jobs, a lot of them went on to careers in law enforcement, the law, education and the arts. Equally important, Community Relations did its part to sustain community trust in the police — something in short supply today.

Our society is undergoing an epidemic of violence that infects all generations, classes and social sectors, from adults to youth, from native-born to immigrant, from our police and military to the general population. Fatal shootings in New Orleans in August were up 126 percent from last year. Fatal shootings in Chicago were up 88 percent during the first three months of 2016.

Whether we are rich or poor, whether we know someone directly involved or not doesn’t matter. Everyone is affected. The time for a business-as-usual attitude is over.

The authors of this column are two people, one black, one white; one male, one female; one Catholic, one Jew. Yvonne is 82 and grew up in the Lafitte housing project. Mat is 55 and grew up in a rural, single-family housing development in southern New Jersey. Yvonne was a cop for 22 years; Mat has been a theater artist and youth educator for 30 years.

We disagree on lots of things. But we agree 1,000 percent on this: the only way to mitigate the epidemic of violence is to treat it as public health issue No. 1. Every sector of our society will have to work together. We must avoid panic and let science, safety and human rights drive our solutions. We need to become as focused on this issue as if we were racing against the spread of ebola.

Of course, the first and foremost strategy must be prevention. Not only science but also common sense dictates that the most efficient way to contain a disease is to keep people from getting it in the first place.

A bevy of NOPD talent show winners enjoy the limelight in the early 1970s.

NOPD archive

NOPD talent show winners enjoy the limelight in the early 1970s.

There’s no magical vaccine against violent behavior, but positive behavior strategies have been proven to lower the number and intensity of violent responses to conflict. Positive programs — like those from NOPD Community Relations Department — can, in their way, “inoculate” people against reckless and risky behaviors. People at high risk of perpetrating or facing violent behavior need skills development, therapy and job placement services. Yes, these cures cost money. But unlike many of today’s pharmaceuticals, they don’t carry serious negative side effects, and they cost a fraction as much.

Today’s NOPD is taking some steps in this direction, such as designating a ranking Community Policing Officer and participating in targeted community-based initiatives, but it is not nearly enough. As part of its efforts to increase effectiveness and trust, the NOPD needs to develop a portfolio of its own community-engaged solutions that lie in not just reacting to crime but taking steps to prevent it, particularly in regards to the positive development of today’s children and young adults. The history of NOPD’s Community Relations Department provides some powerful clues about how to make that happen.

Mat is part of a team of theater artists, writers, researchers and actors working with Yvonne, Gilbert and others to mine this heritage for the lessons it offers. As a first step, we are creating a play about this “mythical” past to be performed next year for audiences that include both police and civilians. Stay tuned.

Yvonne Bechet, retired since 1990, is the highest-ranking woman officer in NOPD history. Mathew Schwarzman is an educator, theater artist and co-author of Beginner’s Guide to Community-Based Arts. Stay in touch with their theater work via Facebook.
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