On an otherwise sunny morning April 29, the family of murder victim Chauncy Smith appeared poised yet pained. During a CrimeStoppers press conference in Metairie, the victim's elegant sisters fought back tears. The three surviving men in the family stood stoically behind them.
The sisters recalled how their brother worked as a volunteer recreation supervisor at a home for the elderly and was a mentor to six small children.
"My brother is gone," Natasha Lewis said.
"He is clearly missed; we loved him," the other sister, Kimberly Smith-Jones, said.
Chauncy Smith was one of two men fatally shot Aug. 13, 2007, after gunmen armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire on more than 25 people leaving an indoor midnight basketball game at Armstrong Park. Police have no motive in the slayings. CrimeStoppers has offered a reward for information about the killers.
How does the Smith family go on? a television reporter asked.
"We come from a family of faith; that is the only way we are able to get through this," Smith-Jones replied.
Actually, government can help — directly. A state law requires cops to inform victims and survivors of available services, which include reparations and other forms of financial assistance.
Smith family members expressed surprise when told of two separate state programs designed to give families of homicide victims up to $10,000 in financial aid as well as tracking information on any arrested suspects in their brother's murder.
For members of the Smith family, who have been cooperating with police for months, news of the two victims-assistance programs apparently came first from a Gambit Weekly reporter, not NOPD.
Yet, Louisiana law requires law enforcement in every parish to inform crime victims and their families of any available "emergency, social and medical services as soon as possible." In addition, every hospital licensed in Louisiana is required to post crime victims' reparation posters "prominently" in emergency rooms.
There are no penalties for noncompliance with the law, championed by the late Sanford "Sandy" Krasnoff, a colorful victims' rights advocate and retired NOPD officer. That may explain why, in New Orleans, the law appears to be largely ignored.
Gambit Weekly first raised questions about the failure of New Orleans police to disseminate victims-assistance information in a Jan. 8, 2007, interview with Police Chief Warren Riley. The chief indicated then that the department was only providing notices of services to victims of domestic violence.
"I can honestly say that's probably not being done across the board," Riley said. "It's probably not and it's not something that we have pushed. But they have that right. And if they request it — any information — we're more than happy to give it to them."
In the interview, we replied that the whole point of the law was to "put the onus" on cops to be more proactive in getting information and application forms to victims. We even gave Riley the legal citation on the law (La. Rev. Stat. 46:1841-44), which spells out the rights of crime victims and witnesses. We also provided contact information for a veteran administrator of the Crime Victim Services Bureau in the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
However, after more than a year of fits and starts, NOPD is just now ramping up efforts to follow the law.
"We realize that we were a little lax, but now we are going to go full speed ahead," says Sgt. Robert Bob Young, the new commander of NOPD Public Affairs.
Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo has assigned Capt. Gwendolyn Norwood, a 24-year police veteran, to run NOPD's new victim assistance program. Norwood replaces a patrol officer who resigned.
Meanwhile, more than a year after Mayor Ray Nagin promised some 5,000 protest marchers at City Hall that he would focus on ending violent crime in New Orleans, there is no information about the reparations program on the city's Web site (www.cityofno.com). "Where is the Mayor?" says civil rights attorney Mary Howell. She says the City of New Orleans Health Department and other agencies should be promoting victim services, not just NOPD.
Fortunately, NOPD is not the only source of information for victim reparations or notification services. Anyone can download the forms from links on the Web sites of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office (www.opcso.org/links.php) and the Louisiana State Police (www.lsp.org/index.html), to name a few.
In Jefferson Parish, information about the victim reparations program is posted on the sheriff's office Web site (www.jpso.com/victims.htm), including basic eligibility requirements, such as what crimes are covered and the types of expenses that are reimbursed. The sheriff's site also provides a contact list for crime victim notice forms as well as for support groups for victims of rape and child abuse and child survivors of homicide victims.
The sheriff's office reported 581 violent crimes in the first quarter of 2008 in the unincorporated areas of Jefferson. Of that total, 161 were robberies, 9 murders, 7 rapes and more than 500 assaults.
The JPSO site also offers a "rights of victims" page summarizing applicable state law, including the right to be notified of the arrest of an accused suspect and to be provided with a private setting when being interviewed by law enforcement.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has appointed Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees the Crime Victims Reparations Board, DARE and other anti-crime programs.
In New Orleans, Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office is the point of intake for all applications for victim reparations. A sheriff's captain represents Orleans Parish at monthly meetings of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and the Crime Victims Reparations Board. The Commission has no funds for advertising the reparations program. By most accounts, Gusman's office has done yeoman's work promoting victim-assistance programs.
However, Gusman does not command the same media attention as the mayor and the police chief. Activists say NOPD should be at the forefront of efforts to promote the programs because officers are often the first to have contact with crime victims.
During an NOPD budget hearing before the City Council on Nov. 16, Howell said distribution of information on reparations and victim notification forms offers victims and their families "some hope and paths they can follow" to get help.
In response, Riley says: "The first thing (victim reparations notices) we can definitely do. The second thing (notification forms) I think we would have to have further discussion, but we're open to it."
Howell says the statutes are "pretty explicit" in requiring cops to give information. The statute concerning victim notification reads, in part: "The form shall be completed by the victim or designated family member and shall be filed with the law enforcement agency investigating the offense for which the person is a victim."
In February, Riley appointed Deputy Chief Defillo to oversee NOPD's victim-assistance program. The officer Defillo placed in direct charge of the program left the force shortly thereafter. The effort appeared to stall, but another NOPD victim-assistance program has emerged.
At Police Academy graduation ceremonies for 30 newly sworn officers late last month, Deputy Chief Lawrence Weathersby said all NOPD recruits are required to take four hours of victim-assistance education while in the academy, as required by state law. Defillo adds that NOPD's training program will "not just educate the new officers, but also the veteran officers."
Meanwhile, Gusman says his deputies get 60-hour and 90-hour courses in victim-assistance education.
As cops prepare to get trained, victims may pay a hidden price for NOPD's history of neglect. Those who do not apply to the state Crime Victims Reparations Board within a year of the crime may not qualify for financial aid for funeral home costs, mental health counseling, lost wages and dental care needed because of injuries suffered in a violent crime, according to state law and public officials.
In New Orleans, there is no shortage of eligible applicants.
This city has been one of the nation's most violent since Hurricane Katrina. NOPD figures show more than 400 murders in the repopulating city since 2005, as well as hundreds more robberies, scores of rapes and thousands of assaults.
Despite the local crime wave, New Orleans is dramatically under-represented among applicants and recipients of state reparations funds. Figures provided by the state Crime Victims Reparations Board show:
— In 2007, NOPD reported 3,452 violent crimes in New Orleans, including murders, rapes, robberies and assaults. Yet, the state reparations board received only 109 applications for assistance from Orleans Parish, resulting in awards for 76 victims and their families in amounts totaling $253,302.
— In 2006, there were 2,253 violent crimes in the storm-ravaged city. Yet, only 45 claims were submitted from Orleans Parish, resulting in awards for 40 victims and their families in amounts totaling $121,587.
— In 2005, the year Katrina struck, NOPD reported 2,875 violent crimes. The state reparations board received 146 claims for assistance from Orleans Parish, resulting in awards for only 62 victims totaling $250,302.
Bob Wertz, a veteran employee of the Crime Victims Reparations Board, says the number of Orleans Parish applicants is returning to pre-Katrina levels — which is still proportionately low. From Jan. 1 to May 1, the board received 69 claims and made 44 awards totaling $143,028.
Homicide victims' families accounted for more than half of the reparations in Orleans Parish in 2007 and so far in 2008. Domestic violence claims are increasing, Wertz adds. "The number of claims (from victims of all types of crimes) keeps doubling as more folks move in and more folks have the wherewithal to report in," he says.
Asked if the number of Orleans Parish applications before Katrina appeared low in light of the city's violent crime rates, Wertz exclaimed, "Oh, yes!" A major challenge in the reparations process is getting victims to complete the process, Wertz says. "It gets down to — do they actually follow-up?"
Meanwhile, criminologist David Kent, vice president of Victims & Citizens Against Crime and a retired NOPD deputy chief, expresses dismay over the police department's outreach efforts.
"Sandy [Krasnoff] would be spinning over in his grave to learn that crime victims are not receiving benefits that he died for," says Kent, who also sits on the state law enforcement commission. NOPD does not need to create a special unit or a major program, he adds. The state would pay for brochures for police to distribute directly to crime victims.
"We're hoping NOPD will tell [victims] to 'Go see Mechelle,'" Kent says, referring to Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Capt. Mechelle Delahoussaye, the parish's liaison to the state Crime Victims Reparations Board in Baton Rouge.
"This is community policing," Kent says of the role victims rights services can play in NOPD's community-oriented crime-fighting strategy. "It has the potential of greatly increasing homicide clearance rates because of improved rapport between victims' survivors and police investigators and long-term successes. We'll also see a few more apprehensions of multiple murderers."
Highly regarded by victims' advocates and state officials, Delahoussaye says she works closely with NOPD officers and provides them with victim notices. Although victims can download forms from the sheriff's Web site, Delahoussaye says, "We prefer they come into the office."
Police chaplains and some veteran NOPD officers have sent victims to the sheriff's reparations office for years. However, many cops at NOPD and in other jurisdictions appear clueless when asked about victim reparations and notification forms.
By press time, NOPD and the Nagin Administration had not placed contact information for the Crime Victims Reparations Board and the new Louisiana Automated Victim Notification System (LAVNS, www.lcle.state.la.us/programs/lavns.asp) on city and police Web sites (www.cityofno.com/Portals/Portal50/portal.aspx) — at least, not prominently. NOPD brass and city officials need look no further than the State Police Web site's "Victim/Witness Assistance" for a model on how to comply with the law (www.lsp.org/assistance.html).
Rose Preston, whose husband and mother-in-law were murdered in Mid-City in 2003, warns that the last thing most violent-crime survivors need are feuds and finger-pointing among public officials.
Preston, an academic and native of South Africa, says she is writing a guidebook for New Orleans crime victims and their families. "Part of what I feel has to be broken is the distrust between the public and the police, the police and the District Attorney, the public and the DA — and City Hall," says Preston, who has remained here since her husband's murder.
To crime victims trying to navigate a complex and still-broken criminal justice system, official discord adds "the ultimate insult to the most unbearable of injuries," she says.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, says the anticipated arrival of two federal victim/witness coordinators should help all efforts.
Nakita Shavers, sister of slain "Hot 8" Brass Band drummer Dinerral Shavers, praised Riley and NOPD for the help and support her family received after her brother's murder. However, despite frequent contact with NOPD officers, Nakita, 21, says she did not learn of the reparations program until she met a representative of another law enforcement agency last year during National Crime Victims Rights Week — more than three months after her brother's death.
"I never knew NOPD was required by law to give victims information," says Nakita, now a senior majoring in both political science and pre-law at Florida A&M. "Whoever is responsible for getting this information out — and is not — should have a price to pay."
Her brother's funeral has been paid for, she said during an interview at the Sound Cafe in the Marigny. Her mother sat quietly at another table. The family received a reparations packet from the DA's office. However, between school and the recent trial and acquittal of her brother's suspected killer, Nakita says she has not found time to apply for aid. She says after Dinerral's murder, her mother lost her state job and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Money can't cure the hurt in your heart," Nakita says. "But if there is [funding] for support, such as mental health counseling, this information needs to get out to crime victims and their families."
As the cafe closes, Nakita's mother looks over her shoulder and asks: "Did you know my son?"
No, ma'am, just his music.
The state reparations fund is financed solely by fines against convicted offenders in all 64 parishes. In emergencies, staffers at the state Crime Victims Reparations Board say they can move quickly to help domestic violence victims. "We can literally cut a check [for a victim] in two hours," says board spokesman Wertz.
For example, when convicted south Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee was still at large, his only known survivor made an emergency request for help getting out of Breaux Bridge, La.
"She was the only living witness," Wertz recalls. "The phone cord that was cut from her house was later used to strangle another victim." The surviving victim got a check hand-delivered by a sheriff's deputy. Lee is now on Death Row.
Applications can be rejected for a variety of reasons, ranging from incomplete information to lack of qualifications. Victims of jailhouse violence and those who have been convicted of a felony within the previous five years are not covered by the program.
"The board's philosophy is to help the truly innocent victims," Wertz says. To qualify as a victim of violent crime, one must be a victim of force or threat of force, he says.
Louisiana's most common reparations cover items such as funeral expenses, mental health costs and lost wages.
Last week, NOPD reported a total of 900 violent crimes — murders, rapes, robberies and assaults — in the first quarter of 2008. That's nearly 20 percent higher than the same period last year. An NOPD press release about the crime stats offers no comment from Chief Riley about where the 900 victims of those crimes could apply for reparations or how to access the new, confidential LAVNS system for making sure arrested offenders are still in jail.
"Sandy would be spinning in his grave," victim advocate Kent says.
Forms for victim reparations are available at the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's offices, 3630 MacArthur Blvd. and 2614 Tulane Ave., or by calling (504) 827-6754 or toll-free at (866) 528-6748. Forms for the reparations program also are available online at www.lcle.state.la.us/programs/cvr.asp.