New Orleans police Officer Shontrell Johnson surveyed the boisterous party along Bourbon Street shortly before midnight on a crisp fall night. Short but authoritative, she weaved through the crowds until she spotted her target: Patrick Kennedy, 49, a man with a rap sheet longer than the lime-green hand grenade drink container in his hand.

As she approached a bearded and tipsy Kennedy, he bobbed along to the music coming from the Krazy Korner bar. He turned to face an officer from a force that he estimates has arrested him 1,000 times.

But Johnson wasn’t there to pull out her handcuffs. Instead, she checked whether the homeless, self-described “hard-core alcoholic” had received his subsidized apartment, provided through a new pilot program aimed at keeping low-level, nonviolent offenders off New Orleans streets, but also out of jail.

Not yet, as it turned out. But, Kennedy added warmly, “When I get my housewarming party, your ass is coming over.”

Johnson, 34, works for a unit tasked with preventing chaos on a street that’s famous for it. Her duties on the late shift include busting rowdy drunks and stopping the next Bourbon Street shooter. The night before her chat with Kennedy, a man was shot to death just off Bourbon.

But since early last year, Johnson and her fellow officers in the 8th District have also worked to send some of the Police Department’s “frequent flyers” — homeless, addicted and mentally ill people who often wind up in police custody — to social workers instead of jail.

About 20 people have been enrolled so far in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, also known as LEAD. Police targeted many of them based on a list of the most frequent arrestees in the 8th District, which covers the French Quarter and Central Business District.

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Officers William McGeever and Shontrell Johnson move a barricade for a firetruck Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, on Bourbon street in New Orleans. Officer Johnson is part of the Law-Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) where officers talk to individuals into getting social services instead of arresting them. About 20 people are part of the program which gives them access to food stamps, housing and other social services.

“The same folks are just getting arrested over and over again,” said Johnson’s boss, 8th District Cmdr. Nick Gernon. “We can create better outcomes.”

Officials hope that the program will save the city money on jail time, free up cops to go after violent offenders and get help to people who desperately need it. They are following the lead of other cities around the U.S. that have already seen success.

A different approach

The New Orleans program draws from an initiative that began in Seattle in 2011. At the time, officials there were wrestling with widespread heroin use in the Belltown neighborhood just south of the Space Needle.

For years, the Seattle Police Department had relied on the same approach that still rules in most of New Orleans, sometimes derisively called “catch and release.” Officers would lock people up for public drug use and other crimes, only to see them back on the same streets days later, needle in hand.

With the help of outside funding, the Seattle police experimented with a program that let some violators — mostly drug users — avoid jail if they signed up for meetings with a counselor. The participants did not have to promise to stop using drugs or booze. But over the long run, officials hoped, counselors could help them get sober.

A 2015 study found that over the long run, people who signed up for social services were 39 percent less likely to be charged with a felony than people in similar circumstances who did not.

Other cities looked at Seattle with envy. Similar diversion programs have now spread to 20 departments across the country, according to a national support organization.

New Orleans’ program has been in the works for years. Corinna Yazbek, a senior associate at the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans, said she began discussions with the city’s health and police departments in 2015. They hoped that pre-arrest diversion could contribute to then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s goal of reducing the jail population.

The Police Department had added incentive in the form of a reform agreement with the federal government known as a consent decree. NOPD leaders are eager to show that this force isn’t the same one known for cracking skulls and covering up misconduct a decade ago.

The program’s “soft launch” began in November 2017. Vera drew up a list of the most frequent offenders in the downtown area. Meanwhile, Gernon huddled with his cops on how the program should work in New Orleans.

“They had input on what this program was going to look like, and how it was going to work. It wasn’t just a few white shirts in a room sitting around saying, ‘You’re going to do this,’ ” Gernon said, referring to the color of the uniforms that high-ranking officers wear.

Not all of his cops were on board, Gernon said. He recalled one "surly" officer who doubted it would produce results.

'Drinking and fighting'

Over the past year, however, police have begun the hard work of getting help to the people on their short list. They work in tandem with a team of social workers and case managers, led by the city's Health Department, and with the City Attorney’s Office.

That was how social worker Travers Kurr, a soft-spoken Maine native who graduated from Tulane University, wound up standing next to Randy “Boodrow” English as the latter dry-heaved into a plastic trash can in his Central City apartment last month.

Kurr coordinates the diversion program for the Health Department. English, 38, was one of the Police Department’s “frequent flyers.”

Over the prior three years, English had spent on average one out of every three days in jail, according to Vera’s analysis.

English, who has the phrase “NO FEAR” tattooed on his left biceps, claims to be a descendant of the pirate Jean Lafitte. Despite his French ancestry, he insists that the spelling of his nickname is Boodrow, not Boudreaux. His wavy hair teeters out of his skull in a failed mohawk. As he tells the stories about the stitches that criss-cross his head, his face lights up with a grin.

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Randy “Boodrow” English, a formerly homeless man in the French Quarter who's received subsidized housing as part of a special city project where officers can divert frequent offenders into social services instead of jail

“I’m known for drinking and fighting,” he said. “Alcohol is my drug of choice.”

English's bizarre anecdotes can be funny, even for the police officers who are tired of arresting him. But he is also the first to acknowledge the dark side of his years of rough living, many of them huddled in a spot behind a Canal Street hotel.

After English was enrolled in the first phase of the diversion program, Kurr worked to find him a subsidized apartment. When English lost that apartment, Kurr found him another one.

Shepherding clients to a semblance of stable living requires constant prodding and pleading. When Kurr arrived at English's apartment last month, his first move was to check a white board he had installed on the wall to track appointments.

English was in no condition to talk about his schedule. He was sick — he swore not from booze.

“How long he’s been like this?” Kurr asked a visiting friend of English who goes by the nickname “Mayhem.”

More than a day, came the answer.

The visit was supposed to be only a check-in about an upcoming appointment. Instead, Kurr put English into his aging, city-owned Ford Windstar and took him to the hospital. Then he was off to New Orleans East to meet with his next client, who had recently lost his food stamp card.

Incremental improvement

The lofty aims of the diversion program can mask the messy realities on the ground. The path to sobriety and stability is often crooked, and case managers have to be willing to follow its many turns. Many of their clients constantly lose phones and identification cards.

“They are dogged and undeterred,” Yazbek said of the managers. “They don’t give up on people.”

English, for one, hasn’t stopped getting arrested altogether. He even picked up a rare felony charge in October for stabbing a friend with a hypodermic needle. He claims it was just a "prank."

But Gernon still sees English’s story as a qualified success. English is spending more time at home and less time drunkenly trolling the Quarter. He gets arrested once or twice a month now instead of every few days.

“He didn’t get released from the jail and go sleeping at Canal and Royal again,” Gernon said.

Gernon spent years of his career working homicide cases, putting killers away for life. He has a very different attitude toward the “frequent flyers.”

“These guys aren’t shooters. They’re just people that are not able to manage life very well,” Gernon said. “You figure out where they are, and what steps they can take to incrementally improve their condition. By doing that, you start to incrementally improve the conditions surrounding them, all the disorder that they create.”

English’s story illustrates another key principle of the diversion program: Only misdemeanors are eligible. Ordinary street cops still have the discretion to arrest people for minor crimes when they want to, and major offenses like aggravated battery cannot be diverted.

There are other caveats, according to NOPD regulations. A person cannot go into diversion if they have been “physically combative” with the officer, nor can they be incoherent on drugs or drinks. A victim can always insist on charges even if the officer would prefer diversion.

But many of the eligible offenses have no “victim” in the traditional sense, as a three-hour tour of the French Quarter with Officer Johnson demonstrated.

A native of the St. Roch neighborhood, Johnson worked as an armored car guard from 2011 to 2015. She also helped out at a Cops for Kids summer camp with NOPD Officer Daryle Holloway, and he urged her to apply to join the force.

They became friends. But in 2015, Holloway, a beloved officer, was slain in the line of duty.

“I’m trying to live his legacy,” she said.

Both Gernon and Johnson said that when the diversion program was announced, there was no question that Johnson would be one of the first officers involved.

A broken-down paradise 

Johnson said one of her most important duties on Bourbon is “keeping the riff-raff off, like our drug dealers.” She understands her job has a political dimension, keeping business owners and community groups happy at the same time that she’s fighting crime.

Yet even in an age of body-worn cameras and federal consent decree monitors, beat cops still have a lot of leeway over what are known as “quality of life” crimes. Johnson would rather issue a firm warning before arresting someone.

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Officer Shontrell Johnson patrols Bourbon street Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, in New Orleans. Officer Johnson is part of the Law-Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) where officers talk to individuals into getting social services instead of arresting them. About 20 people are part of the program which gives them access to food stamps, housing and other social services.

Over the course of one shift, Johnson told panhandlers on Bourbon Street sidewalks to keep moving, called an ambulance for an incoherent drunk and aided in the arrest of a ragged-looking traveler from California who made the mistake of showing his vape pen full of weed to a trio of cops.

“I came from the West Coast. Weed is legal!” he protested at the station.

Johnson exchanged greetings with the bouncers and business owners as she walked down Bourbon. She pointed out the alcoholics she recognizes.

Her beat is a brokedown paradise for down-on-their-luck drunks, who scoop half-full drinks out of trash cans in a practice known as “Bourbon surfing.”

After turning onto Royal Street, Johnson passed by a well-dressed group of young revelers stepping out of the Court of Two Sisters. They peered at their iPhones as they decided where to go for after-dinner drinks.

Rachel Webb, wearing a knit cap and a backpack, leaned against her bike nearby.

An Ocean Springs, Mississippi, native, Webb used to be a manager at a couple of bars on Bourbon Street, but for the better part of three years, she’s been living on the streets with her boyfriend and a miniature pinscher named Pilot.

Johnson and Webb soon started catching up. Webb said she was tired of being treated like a nobody.

“Y’all are somebody,” Johnson replied. “And that’s why I want you to get all the help you can get.”

Webb just laughed when asked if she’s been arrested. She has no quarrel with Johnson, but she said cops keep putting her in jail for “being homeless, basically … ‘aggressive’ soliciting.”

It’s a complaint that many of the homeless residents in the French Quarter share. English jokes that he’s been arrested for “obstructing the flight of a pigeon.” Even a summons can result in a trip to jail on warrants for failing to appear in court.

When Webb first heard about the diversion program, she worried it might be a ploy to keep her locked in the court system. Then the librarians at the Historic New Orleans Collection gave her articles about the program’s success in Seattle.

Coaxing from Johnson pushed her too. So did the stress of living on the streets.

Arrest diversion

Last week, 8th District officers conducted a test of the diversion program’s next phase. When it rolls out, police officers on the verge of arresting someone for a nonviolent misdemeanor will have the option to conduct a “warm handoff” to a social worker instead.

The officer will still write up a summons. But if the person follows through and meets with a social worker at a later date, the City Attorney’s Office will dismiss the case.

Officials hope to start arrest diversion as soon as monitors overseeing the department’s federal consent decree give approval.

The program has been underwritten by grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, the RosaMary Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund.

The programs are expensive. Seattle’s initiative costs an average of $10,787 per participant per year. But researchers at the University of Washington found that it pays dividends in the form of fewer jail stays and court appearances.

As New Orleans police begin arrest diversion, the Vera Institute will collect statistics on participants’ housing and recidivism rates to evaluate whether it is working as well as its counterpart in Seattle. Yazbek hopes that it will convince city leaders to pay for the program themselves. Gernon said he can see it spreading to other police districts.

In the meantime, the people on the short list of “frequent flyers” are enjoying the first fruits of the intensive efforts from cops and social workers. English is settling into his apartment. And on that October night, Kennedy was looking forward to a housewarming party of his own.

“I’ve been out here since Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “I’m going to sleep for a week.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432