New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams, pictured at a special council meeting on Jan. 29, 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent protests across the country demanding an end to police violence and a reimagining of public safety, the New Orleans City Council created a committee that was billed as a way to highlight the voices of “historically marginalized communities” and “examine the allocation of City resources across the entirety of our local justice system to make recommendations on investments and associated policy priorities.”

Named for New Orleans civil rights leader Jerome “Big Duck” Smith, the committee was to consist of members nominated by each of the sitting council members, along with representatives from the city’s Chief Administrative Office, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, the New Orleans Police Department, the New Orleans Health Department, a youth representative and someone who was formerly incarcerated. 

“I’ve heard loud and clear the calls from our historically vulnerable and marginalized residents for greater consideration of their perspectives in establishing local justice system policies and priorities,” said then-Council President Jason Williams in a July 2020 press release following the committee’s creation. “To chip away at institutional racism and form a smarter approach to public safety, it’s important that we listen to these voices.”

But nearly two years later — as the city grapples with how to address an increase in violent crime —  those voices are not being heard. To the frustration of several appointed members, the committee has still never met. 

“It’s disappointing, because I know a lot of people who were appointed are working on things to make a safer community —  to promote public safety by investing in front end initiatives,” said Sade Dumas, Executive Director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, who was originally appointed to the committee by Councilman Jay Banks in October 2020.

“Honestly, I’m ashamed to have my name associated with a process that has so thoroughly dishonored everything that Mr. Smith has fought for,” said Marvin Arnold, a member of Eye on Surveillance, who was appointed by Councilwoman Helena Moreno. “Several members of the committee, including myself, are actively organizing against many harmful City initiatives. If our leaders are serious about change, step 1 is listening to voices they literally nominated to be heard.” 

Smith could not be reached for comment regarding his namesake committee.

‘A disservice to this social justice icon and the community at large’

The “Big Duck” committee was established by a council ordinance in July 2020, which stipulated appointed members of the committee would begin their year-long terms in August. At a time when many members of the public were calling for an overhaul of criminal justice and public safety funding — shifting resources away from police, criminal courts and jails in favor of expanded social services — committee members were tasked with reviewing how the city spends its money and providing alternative budget recommendations, “including solutions outside of law enforcement to help support community needs,” the ordinance read. They were supposed to meet no less than four times a year.

But the confirmation process didn’t start until the fall of 2020, and the final councilmember to make an appointment — Helena Moreno — didn’t do so until January 2021. That was after Jason Williams — who had been chair of the Criminal Justice Committee,  left the council and took office as Orleans Parish District Attorney. (An appointment for the Chief Administrative Office was never confirmed during the first year of the committee’s existence.)

During that first year, the committee never met. That was despite some members pressing the council members to organize the meetings. Ernest Johnson, who is the director of Ubuntu Village NOLA, was appointed by then-Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen and confirmed in October 2020. Johnson said he repeatedly emailed council members to express frustration that they hadn’t met, which he said was disrespectful to Jerome “Big Duck” Smith. 

“To have a committee named after him and not hold a single meeting since its establishment is a disservice to this social justice icon and the community at large,” he wrote in an email to all the council members in January 2021. “I hope we will be able to meet soon to share our ideas and experiences and make our city a safer place to live.”

Then, in July 2021, a year after the committee was formed, the council unanimously voted to reauthorize it. In doing so, they acknowledged that it hadn’t yet met, citing the pandemic and “other priorities.”

“Unfortunately the committee was unable to meet to do its work due to the pandemic and other priorities before now,” said then-Councilwoman Donna Glapion, who had been appointed to the council to replace Williams. “But this reauthorization is right on time as we are ready to receive a mid-year budget presentation and start the budget season in earnest.”

Glapion encouraged council members to re-file their appointments “in short order.” 

But none did. In September 2021, an appointment by Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño to the committee was approved by the council. That was the last action taken with regards to the committee. 

Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff for Councilwoman Helena Moreno — one of two remaining council members who voted to establish the committee in 2020, along with Joe Giarusso — said that after Williams left to become DA, it should have been the responsibility of the subsequent chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee — Jay Banks — to make sure the “Big Duck” committee met. 

“The following Criminal Justice chair, I guess, didn’t follow up on it,” Tuozzolo said. 

In a phone call, Banks said that the committee never met because the appointments weren’t made. 

“The appointments never came in,” Banks said. “If I recall correctly, there were still appointments that were lingering, I think that’s why it was never convened, because we didn’t have the bodies in place.” 

DA Jason Williams did not respond to questions regarding why the committee never met. 

Appointees hope for revival of committee

With many of the recent responses to violent crime in the city centering around policing, prosecution, and incarceration, Johnson said that he thought the committee could have offered an alternative perspective. 

“Our specific purpose was to establish how we can spend our money more wisely as opposed to punitively, and how we can invest in a community,” Johnson said.  “I think that conversation may have prevented some of the issues that we are seeing  — specifically around the economic justice that we want to see for young people.”

Dumas echoed that sentiment.

“The truth is we don’t have the same resources that we used to have,” she said. “I grew up going to NORD summer camp every year. A lot of after school programs. … And we just don’t have those resources or support for our children in the same way.” (The New Orleans City Council’s recently released eight-point violent crime abatement plan includes a proposal to allocate more resources to NORD.)

Arnold, Moreno’s appointment to the committee from Eye on Surveillance, noted that Cantrell and NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson are advocating for undoing an ordinance passed by the City Council that bans certain surveillance technology — which his organization was instrumental in passing. 

“Fast-forward to today, and the city is trying to eliminate checks and balances for police and has yet to hold a single meeting of the committee,” Arnold said. 

There is some talk of attempting to revive the committee. In his crime reduction plan released during his campaign, Councilman JP Morrell, who was elected in December, said that if elected he would “immediately” reinstitute the “Big Duck” committee.

Dumas said if it’s revived, she hoped the members who were initially appointed would be reappointed so they could actually meet for the first time.

But the current chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, Councilman Oliver Thomas, who was also elected in December, said he hadn’t heard about the “Big Duck” committee at all — despite a familial relation to its namesake. 

“Jerome ‘Big Duck’ Smith is actually my cousin, but I wasn’t aware of the Advisory Committee,” Thomas said in an email. He said he would reach out to Smith, and look into it. 

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...