Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

At the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting on Tuesday an advocacy group recommended the city use federal dollars to invest in youth services, community violence intervention programs, and $40 million dollar mental health “community solutions center” to address a rise in violent crime over the last two years. 

Will Snowden and Sarah Omojola, of the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit focused on criminal legal system reform, told council members that if they want to reduce violent crime over the long term, they should focus on front-end investments rather than spending more money on police and prosecutors.

“Public safety is a two-sided coin,” Snowden told the committee. “On one side, we have prevention. On the other side, we have accountability,” meaning arrest and prosecution.

“A framework that I wish to encourage city council to utilize is that whenever there were requests for us to invest funds on the accountability side of that coin, that we are at least asking ourselves what similar investments that we made on the preventative side.” 

New Orleans city government is entering the part of the year when elected officials begin setting priorities for the following year’s budget, and departments begin to put their budget requests together. Part of the calculation going forward will be a large influx of federal coronavirus relief funds. 

As part of the federally passed American Rescue Plan Act, New Orleans governmental bodies expect to receive nearly $400 million in funding in total, about half of which has already been allocated. Vera said the city should invest at least $1 million of that in youth programs, $2 million in violence intervention, and $40 million in a community-based mental health “continuum of care.” 

Vera is proposing a 100-bed, mental health “community solutions center” that would offer three tiers of service. First would be a round-the-clock walk-in and drop-off center for people experiencing mental health crises, which would provide an alternative to incarceration. The next would be a “crisis stabilization” tier that would provide five to seven-day stays while people are connected to services. The third tier would be residential care for people with more long-term needs, and would allow 30-60 day stays. 

The organization has been active in opposing the construction of a jail facility known as Phase III, that would house detainees with acute mental illness, and exploring ways to provide services outside of the jail

Of the $2 million in proposed violence intervention funding, Snowden and Omojola said half should go to launching  a “community-led, community-based, violence intervention program,” that would exist outside of city government. They also suggested increasing funding to the Mayor’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which was established by executive order last year and runs several programs that are meant to identify and provide services to individuals deemed most at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gun violence. (The office has faced some criticism, however, for not measuring or providing data regarding whether or not their programs are working to actually reduce violence.)

Omojola said that $1 million for youth services could be used to fund recommendations already made by the Children Youth and Planning Board

Many police calls for ‘public order maintenance,’ Vera says

Prior to Vera’s presentation, City Council data analyst Jeff Asher presented crime statistics that showed a steady increase in shootings and homicides over the past two years, and an increase in both property and violent crime at the beginning of 2022 compared to 2021. 

“We are nowhere near where we were in 1994, but we’ve still seen a pretty dramatic increase,” Asher said.  

Meanwhile, he said, the New Orleans Police Department has the lowest number of commissioned officers on record — at 1,017. NOPD recruitment and retention has been a primary focus of both Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council in their efforts to address violent crime.  

But Vera presented an analysis of publicly initiated NOPD calls for service that they said showed hiring more police would do little to address concerns around violent crime. Most of the calls police were responding to over the last three years, according to their analysis, were for calls related to “public order maintenance” — which they defined as things like traffic issues, or quality of life complaints, such as noise. 

In 2021, the group found that less than 5 percent of calls for service were related to violent crimes. 

“In order to reduce violence — we don’t need more police for that,” Omojola said. “What do we need police to do? Most of it right now is responding to traffic stops, and medical emergencies. Is the supply the right thing for the demand?”

The City Council has expressed interest in providing alternatives to police responses in at least some instances. Last year, Councilwoman Helena Moreno created a task force to study non-police crisis intervention responses to mental health emergencies, which continues to meet, and will ultimately provide recommendations to the council. 

Councilman Freddie King, III, at first appeared skeptical that there wasn’t a need for more police officers given the long response times to calls for service. But Snowden and Omojala suggested that for times when there was not an active incidence of violence happening, police were not necessary. 

King seemed open to the idea.

“I think that’s a pretty good idea to use non-police for something that’s maybe less serious,” King said. 

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...