By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Mayor Mitch Landrieu is hoping to land a $2.5 million federal grant to run a violence-prevention program, but while that grant remains uncertain, he’s using $250,000 to start the work.

Landrieu mentioned the pending federal grant in passing during Saturday’s citywide crime summit, called Save Our Sons, which attracted 2,000 people to the University of New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena. The $250,000 is coming from a charitable trust run by the city, generally used for cultural or social-service grants.

The city applied for the $2.5 million grant through the National Institute of Justice, which announced funding for other violence prevention programs in other cities over recent weeks. The institute did not respond to requests for comment Monday regarding the city’s application.

If the city gets the $2.5 million grant, it plans to match it with $1.5 million in its own money, Berni said.

The summit came as New Orleans is seeing an increase in the number of killings in the city. There were 175 homicides in New Orleans last year, and 174 the year before.  Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf said the city is on pace for 190 this year.

“The problem is, Obama’s broke, Jindal’s broke, and Mitch is broke,” Scharf said. “So the ability for the federal agencies to fund good programs is naturally diminished.”

The proposed prevention initiative, called Operation Ceasefire, was pioneered in Boston in the 1990s and has been implemented in cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles with some success.

New Orleans hasn’t decided on a neighborhood in which to focus its own Operation Ceasefire program, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said. But the decision to kick-start the project with money from the charitable trust, rather than wait for the federal grant, was made in the interest of moving forward.

“We just don’t want to stall,” Berni said.

The $250,000 comes from the Edward Wisner Donation, a charitable trust that gives out money to address a wide variety of local needs. Recent recipients have included the New Orleans Opera, Bridge House, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Landrieu put the approval process for Wisner grants on hold earlier this year, saying he wanted to be sure spending aligned with his priorities. The fund was a source of controversy under former mayor Ray Nagin, who used $1.2 million of the money for a sculpture garden at Armstrong Park. The park closed shortly after Nagin left office because of construction problems, including the fracturing of a statue of New Orleans cultural icon Louis Armstrong.

Berni said the Wisner Trust includes not only money that must be granted to local groups, but also a discretionary portion for the mayor. Berni did not respond to follow-up questions sent by email about how much the mayor is allowed to use, or how Landrieu decided to allocate $250,000 to Operation Ceasefire.

With just a fraction of the money he wants, Landrieu made some low-rent suggestions to summit attendees. He encouraged them to start neighborhood watch programs, mentor and volunteer with youth, donate money to non-profits working with youth, and provide job opportunities, particularly to youth who have served jail time.

There have been 4,000 homicides in New Orleans since 1994, Landrieu said, opening his speech by referring to the shooting of nine-year-old James Darby that year.  He compared it to the shooting in September 2010 of 2-year-old Jeremy Galmon.

Young, unemployed black men who know each other commit the majority of the killings in New Orleans according to Department of Justice research, Landrieu said. And he said slayings are more frequently the result of escalated interpersonal disputes in New Orleans than elsewhere, where there are more links between murders and gang or drug activity.

Landrieu also highlighted recent policy initiatives, which have taken aim at the problem: Doubling the budget for the New Orleans Recreation Department and the Job One summer jobs program, employing youth with criminal records to tackle blighted properties, and peer mentoring programs in local schools.

Landrieu highlighted the deaths of five students from John McDonogh High School between September 2010 and February 2011, and said that over the period, “a student attending John McDonogh was more likely to be killed than a soldier in Afghanistan.”

While it may have been short on financial backing, Saturday’s event was hardly lacking in emotion or spectacle. At times, the event was more reminiscent of a rock or gospel concert than a political forum.

A member of the O. Perry Walker College High School Choir leads a rendition of “I’ll Be There.” Photo by Matt Davis

Landrieu’s speech was preceded by half an hour of singing from the O. Perry Walker College High School Choir, including songs such as “Stand By Me” and “I’ll Be There,” seven interfaith prayers, one of which was in Spanish, and an extended solo performance of “St. James Infirmary Blues” by local trumpet player and U.S. Cultural Ambassador Shamarr Allen.

At one point, the audience applauded one of Allen’s extended high notes but then seemed to reconsider whether it was appropriate to applaud as the names of those killed on New Orleans streets were projected onto two screens behind Allen.

After the speech, Scharf said he was pleased to see that Landrieu was acknowledging the homicide issue, instead of “treating it like a public-relations problem.”

“It’s better than walking over dead bodies,” Scharf said.

Basketball coach Gregg Christian from McDonogh No. 35 High school, had bused his ninth-grade, junior varsity and varsity teams to the event.

Christian was impressed with Landrieu’s speech, but he said the success of the summit ultimately will depend on community support. He said gun violence also has hit his school.

“Actually, we had a 16-year-old kid on the team shot in the stomach by some kid on his block,” Christian said. “He’s supposed to be practicing, but he hasn’t been able to come. And so we had to tell the kids that it could happen to anyone.”