Members of Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration and the New Orleans City Council urged the public Wednesday to rally behind a coalition of business and faith-based leaders hoping to reduce street violence by beefing up a nonprofit crime-camera network while also expanding grass-roots mentoring programs.
During a presentation at the Jung Hotel, City Councilmen Jay Banks and Jason Williams joined Cantrell adviser Julius Feltus in asking the community — especially business owners with money to donate — to buy into the Partnership for Peace & Public Safety.
They said the year-old initiative has the potential to help authorities make a meaningful dent in crime, perennially cited as one of New Orleans’ biggest problems.
Succeeding would make the city more attractive to the tourists and conventions it depends on so heavily while also potentially drawing industries that have never considered coming to New Orleans because of its dangerous reputation, they said.
“Any assistance I can provide from this position I am in, y’all can count me in,” said Banks, who began his first term on the council earlier this month.
Williams, who is in his second term, added, “It’s not whether we can afford to do it. It’s that we can’t afford not do it.”
A focal point of the partnership’s $1 million first phase involves plans by Bryan Lagarde’s ProjectNOLA group to install more than 300 street-facing surveillance cameras on places of worship and congregation members’ homes in neighborhoods such as the 7th Ward, Gert Town and Central City, all of which are plagued by drugs and violence.
City officials aren't the only ones working to beef up their network of crime cameras on the streets of New Orleans.
The new devices would become part of a nine-year-old network that’s well over 2,000 cameras strong. Financed by donations and maintenance fees, the network is run independently from a network of cameras that former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration brought online in November, and it has repeatedly helped police arrest armed robbery and murder suspects.
Lagarde and Joe Givens, the longtime civic activist helping to lead the initiative, regard the cameras as a substitute for the neighborhood watch captains that were active when New Orleans saw killings drop from a staggering 424 in 1994 to 158 just five years later.
When they capture footage that is useful to authorities, the cameras can spare eyewitnesses from reliving traumatic experiences or facing the risk of retaliation for cooperating with investigators, said Lagarde and Givens, who leads the faith-based nonprofit Isaiah Institute.
Damning video also can convince defendants to give up accomplices or plead guilty without going to trial. In theory, Lagarde said, that could save authorities money that could be used to support underfunded recreational, mentoring and prison re-entry programs that already exist at churches.
A number of business and religious leaders who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting said bulking up and implementing those programs was where they came in.
Catholic priest Pat Williams, Baptist Pastor Joseph Dyson, Rabbi Ed Cohn and Muslim Imam Rafeeq NuMan all said leaders of congregations can convince youths and their parents that mentoring troubled neighbors, engaging in sports or participating in career-preparation programs can help prevent crime.
Dyson said crime suspects sometimes will go to their pastors for help in surrendering to the police.
Meanwhile, hotelier Joe Jaeger, who’s helped plan the initiative, said other big local business names can expect personal, face-to-face visits from him and his associates to solicit donations and fundraising ideas — with pressure, if necessary.
Business leader John Casbon, who’s also collaborated on the initiative, said he is for it.
“We’re in a crisis, and I want to get out of it,” said Casbon, who founded the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation. “I want New Orleans to be safe. I want my family to be able to walk down the street without worrying about being hit or robbed.
“I don’t want to carry a gun. I hate all that crap.”