New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is preparing to launch a series of programs and policy changes aimed at reducing gun violence in the city, including an initiative to bring social services to residents likely to find themselves in harm's way.

A top adviser to the mayor said this week that the administration's task force on gun violence expects to release a full plan by Aug. 1. The initiatives will include a plan to partner with universities or other entities to design and test new social service programs, tailoring them to people at high risk of being a shooting victim or perpetrator.

“If social behaviors lead to gun violence, we believe that social interventions might be able to prevent it,” said Joshua Cox, a senior adviser to Cantrell.

The plan also includes the continued use of a "violence intervention" program and potentially some changes within the New Orleans Police Department's homicide squad, Cox said.

The plan from Cantrell’s task force could represent a shift from former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s effort to tackle gun violence, known as NOLA for Life, which Cantrell's transition team faulted before she took office last year for not sustaining an early reduction in gun deaths.

The number of homicides dropped between Landrieu’s first and last full years in office, even though the killing rate remained far above the U.S. average for large cities.

While Landrieu’s initiative included social services, it leaned heavily on the criminal justice system and the mass indictments of suspected gang members, like a sweeping 51-count racketeering indictment against the “110’ers” gang accused of killing 5-year-old Brianna Allen in Central City.

The use of those indictments dropped off by the end of Landrieu’s tenure in office, however, and the Cantrell draft plan emphasizes a public health approach instead of handcuffs. 

The most novel part of the plan is for the city to create an interdisciplinary entity — perhaps collaborating with local universities — to pilot and evaluate social service interventions for at-risk populations.

The as-yet-unnamed entity would draw on social science research that argues that violence, like disease, is a contagion that can spread through social networks. The city hopes to identify people who are at risk of committing or falling victim to gun violence, who often are the same people, and offer them “off-ramps,” according to Cox.

He said the city hopes to evaluate new interventions as it rolls them out. He pointed to the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, which tests crime reduction projects in Illinois.

A Crime Lab test showed that the Becoming a Man project, which combined counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy and sports for boys, led to a 44 percent drop in violent crime arrests, according to the university.

“Since there's no magic bullet, the next best thing we can do is make sure that we're measuring and rigorously evaluating what we do," Cox said. "So even if what we try is a failure, we actually have data to inform our next decisions and to allow us to make better decisions moving forward."

The preview of the plan issued this week does not offer details on how the city will pay for the initiative or how many people it hopes to reach through it. The city projects it will take a full year, starting in September, to build out the entity, with a follow-up report to be issued in October 2020.

Cox said the city is still evaluating funding sources, as well as whether the entity would be based at City Hall or be a public-private partnership.

The plan to identify residents at risk of falling victim to gun violence could generate civil liberties concerns. When it was revealed last year that the New Orleans Police Department had used software from a Silicon Valley company called Palantir to map crime networks, some watchdogs expressed concern that using technology to guide arrests could lead to biased policing.

But a City Hall spokeswoman was quick to assert that the proposal from Cantrell’s task force is distinct from the Landrieu-era contract with Palantir.

“This is not predictive policing; this is not Palantir,” said LaTonya Norton, Cantrell's press secretary. “In fact, our goal is the opposite of predictive policing. We want to offer social service interventions like a job or mental health services to individuals who are at highest risk of involvement in gun violence.”

Task force member Flozell Daniels Jr., the president of the Foundation for Louisiana in Baton Rouge, said he was aware of civil liberties concerns but sees promise in the plan.

“I think it’s important for us to help the community and to help families really find solutions when they believe that they are at risk of being involved in gun violence, on either side of it, and we haven’t made space for that in the past,” he said.

Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Louisiana, said his group is taking a wait-and-see approach, given the scant details about the initiative released thus far.

Emails obtained by the Lens, a nonprofit investigative website, show that Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist at Northwestern University, has been involved in planning Cantrell’s gun violence reduction project.

Papachristos has obtained data from the Police Department to analyze the social networks of gun offenders.

He has also applied to the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, a grantmaker supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, for funding.

In the application, Papachristos spoke about using randomized-control trial design to test social science interventions in at-risk populations in New Orleans. Although social scientists consider that design to be the gold standard for testing effectiveness, it would also mean some individuals would receive different services in order to test which services work and which ones don't.

“Our goal is to evaluate every intervention as rigorously as possible without denying any person who could take part in services the chance to avail themselves of those services,” Norton said in an email.

She added that since any intervention would be voluntary, it's unlikely that randomized control trials would be feasible.

The other two prongs of the task force’s plans thus far involve continuing the Cure Violence program of violence interruption through conflict resolution, previously known as CeaseFire, and changing procedures at the NOPD's Homicide Section. But those initiatives are still in the planning stages.

Cox said the city hopes to “institutionalize processes for working homicides really well, and making sure that there is a manual or a guidebook that makes clear exactly what should be happening at every moment in a case.”

“We know that one of the best ways to prevent homicides is to solve homicides,” he added.

The plan does not include a recommendation for additional staffing in the Homicide Section.


Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.