Ignoring victims of violent crime is not the way to show compassion. New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro knows this. So does Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman. New Orleans Police Chief Warren Riley, however, has yet to reach this conclusion; or maybe he's allowing politics to cloud his judgment. At a recent City Council committee meeting on crime victims assistance programs, the DA and the criminal sheriff described what their agencies are doing to assist crime victims. Riley was a no-show, just as he failed to make an appearance at a Jan. 9 memorial service on the steps of City Hall. The memorial was held by the grassroots organization Silence is Violence to honor the memories of local murder victims. Cannizzaro was there, as were Council members James Carter and Arnie Fielkow.
At the council meeting, Gusman discussed the state's Crime Victims Reparations Board, which reimburses victims or their families for various expenses, including medical costs, psychiatric care, loss of income and, in the case of homicides, funeral and burial expenses. The sheriff's office shepherds local applications to the state board. Sadly, most local crime victims never hear about the program. Even though New Orleans saw 3,452 reported incidences of violent crime in 2007 — including murder, rape, child abuse, assault, domestic violence, kidnapping and other crimes — only 150 applications from the city went to the reparations board.
Why are fewer than 5 percent of local crime victims filing applications for available state assistance? The answer is simple: NOPD officers are not giving them the information they need to apply. NOPD representatives at the council hearing said they handed out 77 applications in the past nine months. After she asked why that number was so small, Councilmember Shelley Midura was told it was just a matter of the department getting used to doing it. Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who attended the meeting, was shocked by that response. She pointed out that state law requires local law enforcement agencies to assist victims and to provide them with emergency medical assistance and social support. "That's their duty, and they shouldn't need a law to tell them that," Howell says.
Handing out crime victim assistance information should be standard procedure at NOPD. Politics should not get in the way. At a council budget hearing in November, Councilmember Fielkow asked Riley why the crime victims brochures weren't being handed out. Howell reports that Riley's response was that NOPD couldn't do it because Gusman's photo was on the front of the brochure. She says the council audience chuckled at Riley's answer.
This is no laughing matter, and Riley knows it. Even if he doesn't want to have officers passing out pamphlets with Gusman's face on the cover — Gusman defeated Riley in a 2004 election for criminal sheriff — there are other brochures without Gusman's photo. When Riley allows his personal politics to interfere with his official decision-making process, he puts his own feelings ahead of those of crime victims. Captain Mechelle Delahoussaye, who directs Orleans Crime Victims Reparations for the sheriff's office, says she's having a difficult time getting NOPD police reports, which are required for reparation applications. Some of the reports Delahoussaye is waiting for go back to 2005 and 2006.
The state crime reparation board paid out $327,145 to local victims and their families during fiscal year 2008 — at no cost to the city. Money for the program comes from fines and fees levied at Criminal Court and from federal funds. The program has never run a deficit. As Cannizzaro mentioned during the council meeting, victims of crime are frequently needed as witnesses against criminals. He added that his office now has seven counselors available to go to crime scenes to help establish a relationship with victims and potential witnesses. More important, says Cannizzaro, the counselors are there to console victims and to let them know that others feel their pain.
Cannizzaro, Gusman and victim advocates are doing their best to show crime victims that the city cares. Riley and his officers need to step up and provide the missing link in this chain of compassion.