The city’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which was created in 2021 via executive order by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, has halted nearly all operations and laid off all of its employees after a cooperative endeavor agreement with the one of the office’s fiscal agents, Urban League of Louisiana, lapsed at the end of last year.
“There are no employees currently working through the Office of Gun Violence Prevention,” said John Lawson, a spokesperson for the city, in an email. “All employees are aware of the need for a fiscal agent and will be rehired once a new agent [is] legally approved within the next two weeks.”
The office has been touted by Cantrell as her comprehensive long-term public health effort to “meaningfully reduce the number of gun-related murders in the city over the next 50 years.” It consisted of several programs — a crisis intervention team which was dispatched to the scenes of shootings and met with victims of gun violence at hospitals to offer services such as housing, employment, and mental health support; a fellowship program for barbers and beauticians to train them in conflict resolution; a program to train “disconnected” youth and facilitate employment opportunities; and a contract with the non-profit CEO Works, which provides “transitional employment” for people coming home from jail and prison.
But it appears that only CEO Works, which is run by the independent non-profit, is still currently operating.
The pause comes following the city’s deadliest year since 2004, and amid several violent weeks to start 2023. Last week, Cantrell announced the creation of a new violent crime reduction task force to address what she described as a “public health emergency.” Among the members is the Office of Gun Violence Prevention director Patrick Young.
The lapse in fiscal agents for the office is in part fallout from the impending shutdown of the Mayor’s non-profit organization, Forward Together New Orleans, which was set to take over the role of fiscal agent from Urban League at the start of this year, according to Young. But the organization froze its accounts and paused funding for several city-sponsored programs after the New Orleans Office of Inspector General issued a subpoena for financial information in September, and announced that it would end all operations in October.
Urban League had served as the fiscal agent since 2012 for the CeaseFire, the gun violence prevention initiative under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and had continued to provide the same service for the OGVP’s Crisis Intervention Team. But in a statement to The Lens, a spokesperson for Urban League said that the city informed them in December of 2021 that 2022 would be their last year serving as fiscal agent.
“We have appreciated the opportunity to do our part to support the City’s efforts and activities designed to reduce violence,” the statement said.
The office’s Jumpstart program, which was already funded through FTNO and operated by Gracefully Mindful Wellness Institute, stopped operating in September after the organization’s funding was frozen, according to a report from WWL-TV.
In an interview with The Lens on January 7 of this year, Young acknowledged that the office no longer had a fiscal agent, and that its CEA with University Medical Center had lapsed, which meant that the crisis intervention team could no longer respond to shootings at the hospital.
But he said that employees were still getting paid with “leftover” funds from the Urban League “until the new CEA is signed,” and that much of the work was continuing.
“We’ve continued to make follow-up conversations with individuals who we saw previously before our CEA expired, right now we’re doing a lot of community engagement outreach and restructuring for this upcoming year,” Young said.
But that does not appear to be the case. A spokesperson with the Urban League said that the office’s employees were only being paid for work done through the end of last year.
(In the Tuesday email, Lawson, the spokesperson for the city that the “last check staff received was Friday, Jan. 13, 2023,” but did not respond to follow up questions about what pay-period the check was for or when employees actually stopped working. He also said that “the office is still engaging with Tulane and the Department of Health to develop a long-term reduction strategy,” but did not respond to questions regarding how that engagement was happening without any employees at the office.)
The office had been the subject of some criticism, perhaps most vocally by City Council President JP Morrell, who has said the office – along with the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families — hasn’t shown that their interventions have had a real impact on reducing violence and have not been transparent with how it is spending money.
On Tuesday, he said that the pause in programs and funding for the office could provide an opportunity to re-evaluate how gun violence prevention efforts operate in the city.
“I think the biggest problem a lot of us had with Youth and Families and we had with Gun Violence Prevention is that they were kind of like departments in search of a purpose, insofar as when you really dug down to what they did, they were basically pass throughs for cash,” Morrell told The Lens. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to create fully staffed departments that are basically like quasi-public grant organizations where there is no competitive process to show who they evaluated and who won.”
Morrell said he thought a lot of the work the Office of Gun Violence Prevention did should instead be housed in the city’s Department of Health.
On Wednesday, at a special meeting on crime, the New Orleans City Council will discuss a motion to direct the city’s health department to develop a violence intervention model “using community-based, evidence-driven interventions,” and identify staffing and funding necessary to implement it.
“We need to get requests from the Department of Health to curate those organizations,” Morrell said. “And have a public process to select them, and make sure that when you’re dealing with public dollars the entire thing is transparent.”