Criminal Justice

New Orleans must hold leaders accountable for violence prevention programs

Deb Cotton faces a long recovery from her injuries.

Deb Cotton faces a long recovery from her injuries.

Deb Cotton has been in University Hospital since she was shot while videographing a second line parade on Mother’s Day — one of 19 victims of a 19-year-old apparently trying to wreak vengeance on a rival in the parade. After numerous surgeries, Cotton is out of intensive care. At least several more months in an extended care facility lie ahead. The Lens visited with her Wednesday evening. Here, edited for clarity and conciseness, are her reflections on what she — and the city — are going through.

The moment before I was shot I had a surreal vision. I saw the shooter with the gun in his hand no more than 10 feet from me but he looked just like my nephew Austin, a young man I’ve helped raise off and on through some very tough circumstances. Austin, whom I love very much and who couldn’t make me more proud, had just graduated from college the day prior.

I was looking at the shooter, but there was Austin: same hip-hop clothing, same body motion. Then I saw the shooter’s face, then Austin’s again. It was Austin with a gun; Austin second-lining; Austin shooting. It was like the shooter and my nephew were the same person. And now I understand the message the universe was telling me in that surreal visual: They actually are the same person.

That young man who shot me is all our young men. He’s us. All those young men that we’re throwing into prison, those young men who are killing us, the ones we’re demonizing — they’re us. We made them. We raised them. (Or didn’t.)

Maybe it’s too late for the young man who shot me. Maybe he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail. But we can change what’s happening out on the streets. We have the resources to deal with this problem. We always have. What we’ve lacked is willpower.

Where we’ve screwed up is in letting our gatekeepers, our political leadership, take advantage of the least of us. We turned away when homeless men and women became as familiar as fire hydrants and homelessness became acceptable. We winked and looked the other way as cronies of Congressman Bill Jefferson looted charity and support programs meant for underserved neighborhoods. (Is it any surprise that the communities most ripped off by such schemes are the areas where we’re seeing the most murders and violence?) By not drawing a line in the sand against these leaders who take from those who can’t speak up, we ensure our downfall.

We pay our taxes for these programs that are supposed to support people who have less than we have, and when politicians build stupid programs with the money or fly off with it in their pockets, we yawn. That makes us culpable in the murderousness that has us all so alarmed.

Funds pour in from all over the place, and what happens to them? Where’s the accountability? Until we face down these political monsters, we’re going to continue to churn out these alienated, violent criminals.

Money can be strategically invested to save and rehabilitate many of these young men. All of them? No. But this is a small town, not a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles, where I come from. Take the whole population of black males between, say, 13 and 30 years — the target demographic. Pull out the ones at risk, the troublemakers, and you’re looking at what, 1,500 kids? We know who these people are. Assign every one of them a case manager. And start getting them everything they need.

They’re so crippled; their needs are so great, and it’s not just about job training. You need a lot of different skills to make it through life: how to read; how to parent; how to maintain composure around a difficult boss; how to deal with your own son when he comes to you with problems. There are organizations here that know how to impart those skills. And instead we throw money at fake programs run by well-connected pastors and their political cronies?

I’m no Pollyanna. I’m not saying this is so easy that why didn’t someone just do it, already. But, yes, I’m saying that solutions are not as hard as we’re making them out to be. Our lack of willpower is undeniably wrapped up in fear of the Black Man and getting too close to him, being the first to reach out. It means taking an approach that’s not easy and, for some, not popular. It means saying, I’m taking responsibility for helping this part of our society start to heal.

For those who can’t re-enter the community with us, there are progressive strategies for criminal justice. We know what they are: alternative sentencing programs, restorative justice, earlier intervention — but we haven’t committed to do them. Instead we keep throwing kids into prison, knowing that prisons as badly run as the Orleans Parish lockup are good for one thing only: turning young men into angrier and more skillful criminals. They’re factories.

We’ve welcomed input from the Vera Institute and other experts. They’re developing new standards of criminal justice. We officially adopt these ideas but then use almost none of them. Awhile back, moves were made toward turning prostitution and possession of small amounts marijuana into misdemeanor offenses. But Police Chief Ronal Serpas has already tried to get them rolled back. We can’t even get reforms in place before they try to tear them down.

Everyone says enough is enough, but the city keeps barreling down the same murderous road to the same murderous outcomes. We won’t get change until people stop being so deferential to politicians, until we start demanding accountability for the money, until resources are applied to programs that we know can make these young men whole.

Those who are sick of poverty and its problems, OK, move to Mandeville. But if you want to live here in New Orleans, you’ve got to continue to invest in the lives of these young men who have been left behind, left out.

NOLA for Life? Go out in the street and ask a young brother about it. He won’t know what it is, let alone how to work the programs to get the help he needs. If people would be more afraid of continuing down the path we’re on that than of pissing off the mayor then we might begin to see some serious changes with these young men.

Akein Scott, 19, has been charged with second-degree attempted murder in connection with the second-line parade shooting on Mother's Day. His brother, Shawn Scott, 24, has also been charged.


Akein Scott, 19, has been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the second-line parade shooting on Mother's Day. His brother, Shawn Scott, 24, has also been charged.

What should happen to the one who shot me? I don’t know. Maybe it’s too late for him. He’ll probably get a lot of time. Maybe most of his life will be spent in jail. I would like to meet him, talk to him, connect with him some kind of way. I feel bad for him throwing his life away like that over a momentary bad decision.

As for myself, everything happens for a reason. After I came to and realized I could wriggle my toes, that I wasn’t paralyzed, I said to myself, OK, I’m still here. Now what do I do? Why did this happen to me? Not, “Poor me, why didn’t this happen to someone else?” But, “What was the reason this happened? Where do I go with it?” The answer is that I need to be part of the salvation of these young black men. So do you. So do all of us.

I remember one of my very first experiences in New Orleans. I had just staggered onto a Canal streetcar with all these packages in my hands, from shopping. And there was this young man sitting on the front bench, straight out of the Iberville, with tattoos on his neck and half his head braided, very antisocial looking like he was high on heroin. All of a sudden he’s helping me with my packages as best he can and giving me his seat. I was stunned. Flabbergasted. And the next thing I knew he had settled back down near this uptight looking white guy and they’ve started talking about the Saints.

I love that about New Orleans and I remember adding that to the list of the reasons why this city is right for me. But I was thinking too that if that young man had caught a few more breaks in life, had more support, more educational opportunities, got his hair together, maybe a few less tats, he’d could have more opportunities, more of a future.

Like my nephew Austin has now.

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  • Gallivan Burwell

    Who doesn’t love Deb Cotton? She shames me for the anger I sometimes feel at the “perps” who injure and kill their brothers & sisters for piss ant reasons instead of directing it at the smug & bloated politicians who make hay on their suffering, always showing up after the fact to pull a little TV time. If you haven’t watched the You Tube video where Linda Usdin reads the City Council Deb’s compassionate plea on behalf of the young man who shot her, you need to.

  • ron g. cheek

    It’s not Democrats or Republicans – not black or white, rather it’s the long history of political insiders who have made a career at all of our expenses. Is it Sidney, C. Ray, Marc, or Mitch? Promises on top of promises and never any changes.

    Recently with federal intervention with the NOPD & OPP, Mayor Landrieu says we can’t afford it. Perhaps the answer should be “we can’t afford not too!”

    We had a true opportunity to clean up “everything” after Katrina and wasted each and every penny we received. The Sewerage & Water Board, the French Market Corporation, the Ernest Morial Convention Center, and I can go on and on just continue to waste money on political patronage. What happened to Ms. Cotton and too many others is reflected of the neglect we have all received as citizens. When will we finally say enough is enough?

    Maybe it’s time for the career politicians (Mayor Landrieu, Senator Landrieu, & Governor Jindal) to get real jobs and let someone else make the changes they all have so long promised.

    Together, we the voters can make a difference.

  • Paul,Hoover

    As one of your neighbors, I live in the 1500 block of Ursulines, I am so sorry that you were injured in this incident, and I very much appreciate your thoughts about how the environment that enabled the shooter might be changed. But, I am doubtful about solutions that look to outside actors: the city, the state, the Feds. I worked in Egypt in the 1990’s for a project that brought potable water to about 80 percent of the rural population. One day I met with a delegation from a small city that had not completed a 200 foot line to a pump that would have brought safe water for about 50,000 residents. I asked why they had not dug the trench and laid the pipe. They responded that it was not their responsibility, the state should do it, all the while smoking cigarettes that over the year that had elapsed without safe water, cost more than completion of the pipe run. Our, and I include myself, all of us who,live in Treme, St. Roc, Central City, and other high violence areas, look to outside actors and agencies for solutions. Not likely to happen. If there is a solution it will have to be sought within the community. St. Augestines?
    Paul Hoover

  • Deb Cotton wrote: “Money can be strategically invested to save and rehabilitate many of these young men. All of them? No.”

    Q: How much money have been invested since the 1950’s to “strategically invest in saving these young men?”
    A: HUNDREDS of BILLIONS, probably far more.

    Deb Cotton wrote: “But I was thinking too that if that young man had caught a few more breaks in life, had more support, more educational opportunities, got his hair together, maybe a few less tats, he’d could have more opportunities, more of a future.”

    Q: How many programs have there been since the 1960’s to give these guys more breaks, more support, more educational opportunities?
    A: Thousands, if not more. Are you saying all these past programs, e.g. schools, charter schools, EBT, Food Stamps, DBE, Section 8, one and one counseling, etc. from both the left and the right have been, OVERALL, a complete failure? Apparently so.

    Deb Cotton wrote:
    “NOLA for Life? Go out in the street and ask a young brother about it. He won’t know what it is, let alone how to work the programs to get the help he needs.”

    Q: Do you really think that “young brother” and those 1,500 bad kids will listen to you, any black man, or any white man, or any CASE MANAGER?
    A: That young brother has already been told dozens, hundreds of times not to do the bad things he is doing by police, but all he sees is his MOTHER who has multiple boyfriends and ex-husbands, lying to each other, being unfaithful to each, getting back at each other. That young brother sees ENABLEMENT by his mother and if he knows who he is, his father.

    To think that CASE MANAGERS will save those 1,500 kids is SHORT-SIGHTED as there are another 1,500, and most likely far more, who are right behind them dropping out of school every day….and even from award winning charter and public schools.

    Deb Cotton wrote:
    “New Orleans must hold leaders accountable for violence prevention programs”

    Q1: If New Orleans can hold its leaders accountable, why can’t it hold its PARENTS accountable?
    Q2: How does Section 8 hold PARENTS accountable?
    Q3: How does EBT and Food Stamps hold PARENTS accountable?

    Q4: How does having DBE hold minorities accountable?
    Q5: How can you hold anyone living in New Orleans accountable, but not the parents of these young black men accountable?
    Q6: How does “turning prostitution and possession of small amounts marijuana into misdemeanor offenses.” hold anyone accountable?

    ONE-WAY TICKETS out of Louisiana, just like the 130,000 who left after Hurricane Katrina and FOUND JOBS and a LIFE away from their ex-con family members and relatives.

    It does no good to assign a CASE MANAGER if all that young man is going to do, 10 minutes after the weekly meeting with the case manager, is go outside and hang out, sell or do drugs with his ex-con relatives and ex-con friends.

    It’s called TOTAL IMMERSION.

    You can’t have two competing interests in a young man’s life if you want to turn that young man around. You need to get those young men as far as away as possible and as long as possible from his enabling mother, enabling aunt, enabling grand-mother, ex-con relatives and ex-con friends as they will compete against your CASE MANAGER 24/7 for this young man’s beliefs, habits, hopes and dreams.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “love thy neighbor as thyself” but don’t forget
    that the “Lord disciplines the one he loves”
    – Hebrews 12:6
    Can’t stand the “Proud-to-call-New-Orleans-Home”
    bumper sticker types?
    Too afraid to follow me on Twitter?
    You can still bookmark me on Twitter at

  • kmsoap

    Brilliant and insightful commentary by Deb Cotton. Providing our most at risk young people with mentors/case workers and removing them from dysfunctional environments may be the only way to save them.

  • Bro. Keith “X” Hudson

    The Lens, an arm of City Hall, is always spotlighting one of their own, and yet, it NEVER interviews the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Deb Cotton, is echoing what WE’VE been saying for Decades, and yet white-folks wasn’t listening. Why are they listening now? I’m still awaiting Steve Beatty to publish the interview done at McDonalds whereas the Lens was denying receiving funding from the City of New Orleans, but the paper trail proved otherwise. But, since it’s a white newsletter, it can get away with the hypocrisy! And this story PROVES all the points I made at that meeting about the Lens. If Deb Cotton wants to save this young man, she’s white, she can go down and fill out a visiting form, and visit! And she can go to court, and exercise her ‘white-privileged’ right and get this young man Probation, if she wants, but she’s just doing what white-folks been doing since the beginning of time. Steve Myers, I’m still waiting!! LOL

  • How would you remove them from dysfunctional environments?

    And for how long would you remove them and where would you move them to?

    And what do you call a “dysfunctional environment”? Would like an entire ward of New Orleans be called “dysfunctional”?

    And why would the most a risk young people LISTEN to mentors/case workers?

    Their parents didn’t listen to any church, playground, Big Brother, Big Sister, government social service worker, parole officer, grand parent, or relative so why should their kids listen to any case worker/mentor?

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “love thy neighbor as thyself” but don’t forget
    that the “Lord disciplines the one he loves”
    – Hebrews 12:6
    Too afraid to follow me on Twitter?
    You can still bookmark me on Twitter at

  • nickelndime

    Would THE LENS post another photo of Deb Cotton, please – in a better light? I thought she was what Bernie Mac calls, “Beige,” i.e., NOT of the “Caucasion Persuasion.” Now I read from Bro. Keith that she white, which would mean that she would be highly visible (“stick out”) in the 7th Ward. As far as dysfunction, welcome to Louisiana! (you may have heard of it referred to as the “BAYOU STATE,” but it is really the “BUY-U STATE.” That is why a whole bunch of people flocked here post-Katrina, particularly to New Orleans, to make a lot of money off of poor people who “live” (I use that term loosely) from one minute to the next.

  • Bro. Keith “X” Hudson
    wrote “The Lens, an arm of City Hall, is always spotlighting one of their own,
    and yet, it NEVER interviews the people who actually live in the
    neighborhood. “

    The people in the neighborhood have EBONICS for speaking skills and they kinda know that. Hence, many of that neighborhood don’t want to GO on CAMERA or the WRITTEN RECORD in the past or even now, if you asked them to. Furthermore, if they go on camera, they could get SHOT for speaking out, or if they are part of the problem, tracked down by either police or other turf protecting thugs.

    Most people in those neighborhoods, like 90% are most likely ex-cons, on probation, on drugs, Section 8, EBT, you name it…And most of the women are ENABLERS and they know who does what there.

  • Big Red

    Ordinarily I wouldn’t even respond to such a ridiculous comment but I need to set the record straight for you on one point – I’m Black. No White privilege over here son. As far as going down, filling out paperwork and get the shooter probation… I can’t tell whether you’re delusional or joking but I/no one has the power to go get probation for the shooter. And even if I somehow had that ability, the task would have to be performed by someone else as I’m still in the hospital recovering from the incident.

  • nickelndime

    Namecalling “i.e., ridiculous” is not allowed, Big Red. Bro. Keith gots a right to his opinion. You were second lining – well, why dey aynts got yo story ‘n yo picture in DA LENS? You was hit 2!?! Did you have to get kilt? I livs in da 7th. I don’ts fit da stereotype dat AhContraire paints. I aynts been arrested – yet! I aynts a drug dealer, drug user, a prostitute, a sex offender, or a pimp. U mite say dat in da ward, I stands out. But you aynt’s gonna see me second linin’ either.

  • How about FOLLOWING the MONEY if you want to change Louisiana?

    If you do that, you will see whatever money is left from shell companies and so on from business like gambling, alcohol, lottery, etc..

    You will also see money from contractors, DBE in both Jefferson and Orleans, as you already know.

    And you will also see money from unions, city unions and pension funds….

    Just look at Detroit, the missed a bond payment…

    In Detroit, 42% of all revenues goto fund pension and bonds.
    In New Orleans, like 40% of all revenues goto fund city employee pensions.

    And all you have do is substitute the word, “DETROIT” with NEW ORLEANS” you will see the future…..

  • Flo

    She was videographing the secondline…how dense are you that you missed THAT part?

  • Ed

    While New Orleans politicians are a corrupt force the problem is not the government. Non-Black poor folks seem to be getting without killing each other at alarming rates.

    The problem is the culture. A culture ironically enough you have spent your professional life defending. This culture may have started off as a response to harsh repression but now it has degenerated to a negative, regressive culture that ruins countless lives.

    Until and unless folks are willing to call a spade a spade no amount of government largess will solve the problem.

  • heatherly

    Well I’m with you, Deb Cotton. I’ve just returned to New Orleans armed with the Community Psychology degree I earned after Katrina. I wanted to find a way to give back to the community, and I’m back now with a head full of new ideas and a heart full of compassion; I’m strong and determined and ready to put these assets to work just as soon as I can find a job in the field of violence prevention. It seems there are scant resources/programs aimed at working directly with youth who are at risk for perpetrating violent acts. All of the programs I’ve found so far focus on DV, or how to care for victims of violence *after* it has occurred. These are worthy causes, indeed, but at some point we have to dig in and start working on keeping community violence from happening in the first place. I’m bursting to share my thoughts on the subject with someone who can help me put them to use. Thank you so much for encouraging us to keep at it, Deb. We need your ideas; I know I needed to read this today. Thanks.