NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson speaks at a press conference at police headquarters on June 18, 2020. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

The New Orleans Police Department presented its budget proposal to the City Council on Thursday, which absorbs an 8 percent cut in funding from this year’s budget by relying on continued officer furloughs, cuts to overtime spending, and leaving non-critical vacancies unfilled, according to Superintendent Shaun Ferguson.

At the same time, the police budget has become the focus of organizations with competing versions of the best way to achieve public safety in the city. In advance of the hearing on Thursday, organizations such as the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition and Step Up Louisiana mounted a social media campaign pushing for a further reduction in the NOPDs budget and a reallocation of resources to social services such as affordable housing, jobs, and libraries, and the public defenders office. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Crime Commission recently warned that cuts to the police department budget and more officer furloughs could exacerbate a recent rise in violent crime.

Thursday was the fourth day of 2021 budget hearings. The city, under Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s budget proposal, is facing across-the-board cuts to personnel and public services as a result of anticipated revenue shortfalls in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which has shut down many local businesses and crippled the tourism industry. 

The NOPD, which currently has around 1,200 sworn officers, gets the largest allocation from the city of any city department. Cantrell’s proposed 2021 budget allocates $177 million to the department — down from $194 million approved for this year.

The 8 percent cut was smaller than some other criminal agencies face in the proposed budget — such as the DA and public defenders, which are both in line for a 20 percent cut — but more than the Sheriff’s Office, which was not cut at all.

Some other departments are facing cuts of more than 30 percent. And while the New Orleans Public Library is not funded through city general fund allocations, Cantrell is supporting a property tax ballot initiative that could cut its tax revenues by about 40 percent. 

At the hearing on Thursday, Ferguson did not dwell on the funding cut, instead focusing on the reforms the department has made, community engagement efforts, and a new Violent Crime Abatement and Investigation Team, which works in conjunction with state and federal law enforcement. He also touted a program designed to encourage officers to intervene and prevent misconduct known as  EPIC — which stands for “Ethical Policing is Courageous” — which he said has become a national model.

“We know that this department is the leader in reform,” he said.

Ferguson’s presentation was a continuation of efforts by the department to portray itself as an outlier in terms of police reform since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis ignited protests across the country — along with calls to defund the police. 

In June, NOPD officers tear gassed demonstrators protesting Floyd’s death as they were attempting to cross the Crescent City Connection. The decision to use tear gas was condemned by civil rights groups, city officials, and health care workers, and ultimately led to the city council passing a law restricting its use by law enforcement.  But while many cities saw days or weeks of clashes between protesters and police, Ferguson said that NOPD had responded to over 130 protests in recent months, and the tear gas incident was the only “negative interaction.” 

He also said that he believed the department was in good shape to move on from the federal consent decree it has been under since 2013. The consent decree — meant to bring the department into alignment with the constitutional standards —  followed a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice finding that NOPD had a pattern of unconstitutional behavior, including frequent uses of excessive force, conducting illegal stops and searches and racial profiling.

Since then, the department has been under the oversight of a federal judge and a team of appointed monitors who periodically report on its progress meeting the terms of the consent decree. 

“We now believe that the New Orleans Police Department is ready to take back its own autonomy, while continuing to progress,” he said. 

‘It’s simply saying this system does not work’

City Council members were generally complimentary of the department, and did not signal that there would be any major changes to the proposed budget. 

City Council President Jason Williams — who is also running for Orleans Parish District Attorney, casting himself as a progressive criminal justice reformer —  addressed the calls to defund the police at one point, but he questioned whether or not there were ways to change public perception of police, rather than exploring the idea of cutting the department’s budget further. 

“Given the changing of culture, people crying out for defund the police, people protesting the departments — whether or not there has been a particular egregious situation in their communities or not — across the board there has certainly been a different perception of police officers and law enforcement,” Williams said. “What are we doing now, or what can the council do to start addressing that perceived lack of trust or actual lack of trust, to redefine the NOPD?” 

Ferguson primarily cited community engagement efforts, which he said allowed the community to see who police really are. He said there was “still much work to be done” and that improving relationships with the community required “breaking down certain biases within individuals so they can see that we are here to help.”  

Williams suggested focusing recruitment efforts toward people who might not normally think to go into law enforcement, and outreach programs in elementary schools to change young people’s perception of the police.

“I would encourage you to figure out a way to get in front of elementary school kids before they have older brothers and siblings helping to frame their narrative about what police mean, and what police do in their community,” Williams said. 

But Sade Dumas, director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said in an interview with The Lens — on Tuesday, before the hearing — that calls to defund were not about reforming the department or improving its relationship with the community, but about actual reallocation of resources.

“I will say as a native New Orleanian, NOPD has definitely come a long way,” she said. “But there’s a lot more work to be done. And when we talk about funding the police, we’re talking about funding people who react to crime, we’re talking about how police officers respond to our circumstances once the crime is committed. This does nothing to prevent crime. So again, it’s not an attack on people. It’s simply saying this system does not work. And we have to do something different.”

Dumas also said that concern over violent crime wasn’t a reason not to reallocate resources away from the police.

“As someone who has been a victim of some crimes and who has been really close to people who have been murdered, I know the reality that is that some people are trying to survive.” Dumas said. “And unfortunately, when we don’t provide resources for people, we create the environment for people to fight each other for the limited resources we have.”

‘The public budget setup is a sham’

There is no specific dollar amount that OPPRC and other groups are calling to have the NOPD defunded by, Dumas said, partly due to the fact that lack of transparency in the budgeting process made it difficult to make specific demands.

The mayor’s budget this year contained significantly less information than previous years, with no breakdown of operational costs by department. 

“It’s really hard to see exactly what an NOPD is requesting X amount of money for each line item versus how much they actually spend, and what they’re spending it on,” Dumas said. “So what we actually would have liked to see is more participatory budgeting. 

OPPRC itself held several informational “Budget Breakdown” seminars which discussed how to interpret the NOPD’s budget, but Dumas said that there was little way for the public to have their voices heard on the issue. In the past, the city has held in-person or phone-in meetings, allowing members of the public to tell the mayor about their budget priorities. 

“This year, I did not see any notices of the mayor, having her virtual listening session to hear what community members wanted to see in our budget,” she said. “And this makes New Orleanians feel hopeless. And it makes us feel that the public budget setup is a sham.” 

A spokesperson for Mayor Latoya Cantrell did not respond to a request for comment. 

Dumas also noted that in July, the City Council passed an ordinance establishing the Jerome “Big Duck” Smith advisory committee which was meant to review allocations of criminal justice resources. The committee consists of community members appointed by the council, as well as representatives from the mayor’s office, the police department, and the health department. In late September, Dumas herself was appointed to that committee by City Councilmember Jay Banks.

But Dumas said that the committee has not yet met.

“It’s really unbelievable to think that there’s public discourse when a committee that was set up to examine this very thing has not met, and a budget has to be passed by December 1,” she said. “That’s less than a month.

Councilmember Williams, who authored the ordinance setting up the committee, said that he was frustrated as well that there had not yet been a meeting, citing logistical issues. 

“It’s a little frustrating for me. I was hoping they could have been chewing on the budget for weeks — and I was hoping months — before we would get to the point where we were actually talking about the budget, so we could have gotten a recommendation from the community.” 

He said he was hoping there was still time for the committee to convene at least one meeting before the end of the budgeting process. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...