Filed Under:  Local, News

Critics of City Hall’s crime-fighting plans emerge

13th August 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

Officials at City Hall are facing tough criticism of their plans to fight crime from one of the city’s most ardent backers of community involvement in turning the tide of violence in New Orleans. The Rev. Tom Watson, who recently pulled together a citywide summit on Black-on-Black violence and issued several recommendations to curb crime, says the city’s crime czar and other officials have dropped the ball on incorporating community input into policing strategies.

Watson’s chief complaint pertains to the positive, community-centered “rhetoric” that he says emanates from the office of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, but that is “not meeting the [city’s] action on the ground.” Specifically, Watson says, Landrieu and New Orleans Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter are willing to provide access to city officials working on crime interdiction to area stakeholders, but are slow to take up recommendations from local leaders.

While Watson lauds efforts like last year’s “Save Our Sons” initiative launched by the mayor’s office to reduce gun deaths among area males, he laments the lack of funding for crime-reduction programs from City Hall and wonders: “Where’s the money on the ground?” Watson, who has been a fixture of New Orleans political and religious life for decades, also balks at the influence and funding of “outside groups,” like the Chicago-based CeaseFire program, who apply outside solutions, in his view, to local problems with mixed results.

Carter, however, views the city’s crime-reduction efforts more positively and rattled off a list of initiatives the Landrieu administration has undertaken since taking office in 2010 to combat violence, including a September 2011 crime summit; various town hall meetings for neighborhood watch groups; establishing a mentoring component to the “Save Our Sons” initiative; and meeting with faith-based and community groups to address crime.

“We have met with Pastor Watson,” Carter says. “We have met several times, but this is about more than just meeting with him; this is about more than meeting with just one man.” Carter also says that the New Orleans version of the CeaseFire program is very much tied into the needs of the local community. “Every player involved [in CeaseFire New Orleans],” he states, “is a local [resident].”

But Watson has taken his recommendations to City Hall public and hosted a community summit in June to add suggestions from area residents to his proposals to curb violent crime.

In an almost 30-page document, Watson outlines the history of the city’s problems with violent crime and explores the various “root causes” of criminal behavior such as undereducation, substance abuse, mental health issues, and a person’s attitudinal approach to familial and other social relationships.

Watson’s recommendations, put together with input from New Orleanians across the city, include a proposal to use city revenue to fund community-based violence interdiction programs. The suggestions call for revisiting the city’s amusement tax, which was once used to help subsidize community programs. “Like tourists who want to feel safe,” the document states, “the residents who live here want to feel safe, also. We believe that [the tourist] industry should invest a fair share to ensure safety for all and to ensure that New Orleans continues to be a draw and becomes perceived as a ‘Safe City.’

The report also calls for establishing “a home to house our sons” and for creating “services that can intervene in the myriad of factors challenging [male] resiliency and to build protective factors in their lives.” Watson proposes using a restored building at the site of the old Milne Boys Home in Gentilly as the location for a new center that would provide services to male youths.

Addressing the city’s juvenile justice system is also on the list of recommendations developed following the citywide summit. “Sweeping reforms are needed,” the report indicates, “to keep the community abreast of the New Orleans Juvenile Court System [because] of its influence and power to intervene in the lives of perpetrators and their families.”

To do so, local officials should develop an “independent leadership team” comprised of faith leaders, social workers and other experts to help develop effective programming for youth entering and exiting the criminal justice system, according to the set of recommendations.

Other suggestions from the report include referring youths who are being electronically monitored to evidence-based anti-recidivism programs, an idea to institute mandatory “parent management training” for parents with incarcerated youth, and requiring the city’s chief juvenile justice to issue an annual report on the state of the local juvenile court system.

The recommendations are rounded out with ideas to deputize youth workers as “non-weapon carrying” New Orleans police officers who can serve as frontline “violence interrupters;” creating a “parent hotline” for parents “who just don’t have the capacity to raise their young sons;” establishing a so-called “gun stoppers” hotline to anonymously report sightings of illegal gun sales or weapons possession; disseminating a community resource guide filled with organizations that carry out best practices to address local violence; and establishing a “fully funded” municipal-level office dedicated to youth services.

But Watson’s final recommendation in the report—to allow “proven faith-based leaders” to be directly involved in resolving the city’s issues with crime—is a reoccurring theme in the longtime pastor’s quest to gain a receptive audience at City Hall. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to address these issues,” Watson says of efforts to address the city’s stubborn crime rate. “We just have to have the right people at the table who want to partner with each other,” he asserts, adding, “The city, judges and the police can’t do it alone.”

Carter says the Landrieu administration has yet to drill down on the specifics of Watson’s proposals. Carter, a former New Orleans city councilman, would only note that the mayor’s office has received the community-based recommendations. “We have a copy of it,” he said.

This article was originally published in the August 13, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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