City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said Tuesday night that if elected mayor, she would stem crime through improvements at the New Orleans Police Department and reform of the criminal justice system, suspend the city’s traffic camera program, and provide money and programs for infrastructure improvements and affordable housing.
Introduced by a series of supporters, her husband and a video in which she described her work as a community activist in Broadmoor after Hurricane Katrina, Cantrell spoke to a roomful of supporters at the New Orleans Jazz Market in Central City.
“It is time that, at our 300-year mark, the real strength and worth of New Orleans' people have its day,” Cantrell said. “It is time that we live up to who we know we are: world-class.”
But the city cannot become “world-class” while dealing with rampant crime, widespread poverty and inequality, substandard housing, blight and a lack of opportunity, she said.
While billed as a platform announcement, the speech focused more on broad strokes than details and served more as an official launch party for the campaign. While she announced her candidacy months ago online, Cantrell had not previously had the kind of major event that traditionally kicks off a campaign.
On crime, which she and other major candidates agree is the main issue, Cantrell offered multiple promises but few concrete plans for carrying them out. She said violent criminals must be immediately identified and apprehended, but in addition that interventions must be made to prevent those at risk from falling into a life of crime.
"We must get the killers off the street and we must identify the potential criminal and change their heart," Cantrell said. "Nothing stops a bullet like a job."
She said the NOPD “must be replenished, revamped and redirected to be simultaneously an effective crime fighting force and a catalyst for neighborhood crime prevention.”
Cantrell did not say how she would accomplish those goals, other than by appointing a police chief who would have autonomy to “assure effectiveness against crime and the safe and fair treatment of all New Orleanians.”
She also pledged to focus on criminal justice reforms outside of the NOPD, including diversion and alternative sentencing programs, reforms to fines and fees levied by judges, and improved re-entry programs for convicts. Many of those initiatives would require cooperation from other officials and agencies.
Saying the city’s traffic cameras are “costing residents money that could be spent on their families,” Cantrell said she would suspend the program unless it can be proved that it increases safety.
“We will address infrastructure needs, but we aren’t going to do it by nickeling and diming our people,” she said.
Traffic cameras now provide about 2 percent of the city’s budget. Cantrell said she would create a new infrastructure fund and find ways to improve infrastructure without using money from the cameras or raising taxes, but she did not say how other than to note her experience dealing with the budget on the City Council.
She said she would approve merit pay increases for city employees.
Cantrell also proposed moving city offices into neighborhoods, to “create consumer markets in neglected neighborhoods. Providing daytime customers in the East or Lower 9 will begin to spur private dollars to capitalize on a new consumer base,” she said.
She promised to impose larger fines for illegal dumping and littering.
On the issue of affordable housing, she proposed selling blighted properties to those who can renovate them quickly, pushing employers to provide down payment assistance to their workers, providing “property tax relief to struggling families” and supporting policies to create more housing.
Cantrell also turned to a topic that has been a focus of hers on the City Council: the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund, which was established decades ago to support affordable housing and renovations but has been used by the Landrieu administration largely for code enforcement. Cantrell said she would use the $6.6 million fund to provide gap financing to help residents stay in neighborhoods.
The housing fund could become a campaign issue. Mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet, in a crime plan released Monday evening, said she would redirect the money in that pot to the Police Department.
Cantrell also addressed criticism that she can be too blunt or abrasive. That tendency, along with her use of profanity behind closed doors, has been seen as hurting her ability to connect with some groups, particularly in the business community and hospitality industry.
“Some say I’m too passionate,” she said. “Others say I have brass elbows — they look pretty soft to me. I’ve even been described as like a dog on a bone.
“Believe me, I’m going to continue hunting for that bone.”