New Orleans officials struggle with funding strategy to retain, recruit officers

The mayor has already committed nearly $195M in government funding on police perks, a plan intended to retain officers


By Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — Faced with a crime surge that's dragged New Orleans' collective mood to depths not reached since Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, Mayor LaToya Cantrell is preparing to unveil her most consequential spending plan in 2 1/2 years: how to use millions of federal dollars to repair a faltering criminal justice system.

The mayor has already committed to spending a big chunk of the remaining $195 million from Washington on police perks, a plan intended to stop officers from leaving in droves.

At the same time, she is expected to request millions of dollars more to fund a variety of programs designed to tackle crime from other angles. Some are meant to address root causes of crime, and others are meant to intervene after crime has occurred, such as a $1.9 million program to dispatch mental health professionals to people in crisis after a 911 call.

With so much federal money floating around, and with a recent public opinion survey showing cratering support for elected officials, the previously placid New Orleans municipal budget process is expected to take on a new tenor this year as Cantrell faces a much more assertive City Council, which has the final say on spending.

The Cantrell administration's budget is expected to acknowledge that the number of police officers won't be climbing higher than 1,000 again anytime soon, even as City Hall increases actual spending on police and related programs over prior years.

One of the biggest questions is whether council members will agree that Cantrell has struck the right balance between handcuffs and help — and whether she's chosen the right programs. Council budget hearings begin Nov. 1, with approval due by Dec. 1.

Root causes

On Thursday, three teenagers pitched the City Council on funding a policy platform that includes more access to mental health services, a universal basic income for youths and more restorative justice practices. The teens said they were tired of spotty funding. JP Morrell, the City Council's vice president, said he was listening.

"The mayor's budget is a suggestion. So when you see this budget that comes out the 25th — that still has the same completely ridiculous, disproportionate amount of spending, the 19 times on other things that are not youth services — do not be disheartened by it, because this council is the one that has to pass a budget," Morrell said.

Morrell singled out the the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Of the $390 million that New Orleans has received since Congress approved the law in 2021, City Hall has about $195 million left to spend. In Cantrell's plan, a big portion is earmarked for police.

The mayor's office previously said it would spend $75 million in federal money on police bonuses, and benefits such as free health insurance. In an interview Friday, Gilbert Montaño, Cantrell's chief administrative officer, said the administration now plans to spend some of that money on paying down a line of credit that New Orleans took out after Hurricane Ida in 2021, with the savings on debt service directed to officer health insurance.

Either way, the ultimate spend will remain about the same. Montaño said it was necessary given the grim situation on the streets. New Orleans tallied 213 murders this year, through mid-October; in all of 2019, the city logged 123.

"I think the highest priority is to drive crime down," Montaño said. "People have to feel safe where they're at."

Other programs won't be overlooked, Montaño said. "That is a must. It's not an 'or;' it's an 'and,'" he said.

Altogether, the Cantrell administration hopes to spend $42 million next year on juvenile probation, non-police responses to 911 calls, a sobering center, domestic violence programs and youth and homeless services.

Calling for help

Going up against the fearsome rise in homicides and other violent crimes are a dwindling corps of police officers. At a City Council hearing this month, representatives of the Vera Institute, a progressive criminal justice think tank, argued that New Orleans should rethink how it handles 911 calls.

Of more than 230,000 calls to 911 last year, only about 5% involved allegations of physical violence. "I think the cure looks like narrowing the focus of NOPD," said Will Snowden, director of Vera in New Orleans.

Montaño says the city has budgeted $1.9 million next year on a contract with a nonprofit to operate an "alternative dispatch" program, which will send mental health professionals on some 911 calls.

The administration is also planning to boost the budget of LEAD, a "law-enforcement assisted diversion" program that lets officers, at the point of arrest, send people to social workers for services such as housing, instead of to jail.

So far, that program has largely been focused on unhoused people in the French Quarter and Central Business District. With more money, it's planning to expand to New Orleans East.

Programs pitch council

As crime concerns grew in recent months, groups that work outside the typical framework of the criminal justice system pitched ideas to the council.

On Aug. 29, New Orleans Faith Initiative asked that $25 million in federal relief funds be set aside for faith-based organizations to operate crime-reduction programs. Cantrell hasn't signaled support.

On Oct. 11, the administration's Health Department and the nonprofit New Orleans Family Justice Center, which provides services to domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors, touted a program that calls survivors to offer help after police respond to disturbances that don't end with arrests. A three-month pilot program in one of New Orleans' eight police districts reached about 150 people, and the health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, said a citywide program would cost about $1.2 million. Montaño said the administration plans to budget $500,000 for the program next year as it grows.

Meanwhile, crime survivors have requested $1.3 million for a trauma recovery center at University Medical Center. Erika Rajo, a clinical psychiatrist who directs an existing clinic, said the money would allow the hospital to increase its services tenfold to people who arrive at the hospital with gunshots, bruises and other trauma. They would be offered therapy, medical services, legal advocacy and case management for free, she said.

Montaño said the administration was "committed to exploring potential funding sources."

Cantrell programs in question

Cantrell came into office in 2018 promising a "holistic" approach to crime, and her administration has already stood up numerous anti-violence programs. Yet several are now at risk, thanks to legal fights over their funding mechanisms: the Wisner Trust and Forward Together New Orleans, a nonprofit that is affiliated with the mayor.

The programs include one that provides services to shooting victims in the hospital, internship and job programs overseen by the Mayor's Office of Youth and Families and the nonprofit CEO, the Center for Employment Opportunities, which pays formerly incarcerated people to clear blight. Morrell, the at-large City Council member, has expressed skepticism about the programs' transparency and efficacy.

CEO's model, at least, got a boost from a recent large study of a similar program in Chicago, which found that men who received a mix of cognitive behavioral therapy and paid job training were almost two thirds less likely to be arrested for a shooting or killing.

The youth programs also have defenders. "It would be a shame to lose those programs as a resource in our city," said Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights.

Council member Joe Giarrusso, who chairs the council's budget committee, said he saw the legal disputes over Wisner and FTNO an opportunity for the mayor. His message: "Yes, we're willing to work with you on this, but it also has to be done publicly, like it was before."

Montaño said that no matter what happens in court, New Orleans will try to fund "vitally important" anti-violence programs.

"We'll have to figure out a solution, one way or the other," he said.

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