Newell: Kudos to Cantrell's gun violence plan, but it's got a long way to go

This will require a huge amount of buy-in from a lot of very disparate parties and philosophies

Newell Normand
August 21, 2019 - 4:55 pm

Despite a number of ebbs and flows over the decades, New Orleans is still suffering from a ghoulishly high murder rate. The last time the Crescent City had fewer than 145 homicides was 1972, and 90% of all the victims since then were killed by firearms. 

It's against that backdrop that Mayor LaToya Cantrell has rolled out a "Generational Gun Violence Reduction Plan" which you can read for yourself here. There's a lot to unpack in there but there are three core components to the Mayor's approach. 

1) The Gun Violence Prevention Collective (GVPC): fund and develop public health interventions, ensuring that programming is effectively delivered, and measuring the outcomes. The GVPC will use data and best practices to offer individuals likely to be involved in gun violence comprehensive preventative services.

2)  Preventing Homicides by Solving Homicide Cases: Through solving more homicide cases, law enforcement can play a critical role in removing dangerous criminals from our communities, deterring would-be shooters and increasing community trust.

3)  Community Engagement: Cure Violence New Orleans is the local arm of an international violence intervention program based out of Chicago. The program aims to prevent shootings by identifying situations where the likelihood of violence is high and engaging to de-escalate the situations before violence occurs.

Newell invited WWL regular Peter Scharf onto his program Wednesday morning to discuss. Scharf is an Adjunct Professor and Criminologist at LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health. 

"After reading this, I was left with many questions," Newell began. "As you read through the report, what were your thoughts?"

"There are a number of strengths, and a number of issues," Scharf answered. "It's the first plan in 23 years, go back to 1996 and see the Pennington/Serpas plan - that was the last plan we had so that we came out with this plan is very important. Second, the assumptions are very different now then they were when Pennington and Serpas wrote their plan... it was an approach that emphasized police presence, you could call it saturation. This plan is very different in it's assumptions, they're really going to research what works. The NOLA For Life Plan under the former administration and other plans were never assessed, nobody ever knew if they worked. Some probably didn't. This is an area of consensus - they're now going to strengthen homicide investigations. The clearance rate in the homicide squad in years past was below freezing, 23%, 25%. They've improved, but getting that straight is critical. But the cornerstone of the plan is building community trust. It's a gradual build-out, they're not going to do this all at once, they're going to get better as they learn."  

"The one area I thought had some new light and new hope was the rebuilding of the homicide division," Newell said. "That cannot be a vertical silo, it has to be horizontal and cross all disciplines of the law enforcement agency,  understanding that everyone takes ownership of all murders. Hopefully they'll be able to collaboratively bring that about."

Newell identified another potential problem area in regard to the "social side" of this new approach to policing and preventing gun violence, and wondered about the wisdom of trying to aggressively drive down the murder rate without first going at some of the other attendant issues that encouraged those homicides in the first place.

"You want to create more trust - well, the people you create more trust with first are the law-abiding citizens. They want to trust you, but I don't know how you're going to make significant gains when they call the police and get a 30, 40 minute response time. That's how you get trust, is you fulfill the expectation of the public, and then they in turn trust the work you're gonna do. And yet, we're undermanned, underfunded, and we're not giving them the training or the equipment to get there. When I dice this thing up, this all sounds great but there's not been a long-term successful law enforcement strategy to drive down murders. The more you succeed around the silo of murder with drug intervention, armed robberies, guns, burglaries, you indirectly drive murders down, but I have never seen a direct correlational strategy to homicide reduction that over a 20 year period has actually worked!"

"Your points are excellent," Scharf replied. "One of the challenges of the program is building support from conformists. For this to succeed, we've got to get everybody to buy in, everyone all across the political spectrum and it's a very divided spectrum across the city right now in regard to criminal justice philosophy between the DA, City Council, Mayor and everyone in the community. How do you get consensus, where is the middle ground? All the things you mentioned are important. Calls for service, wait times, quality of service, demeanor, building trusts, building informants - all those are essential elements of a successful plan and given the long-term iterative process the Mayor has outlined, I think that's a very realistic challenge, to have every element of the police and justice system support what they're trying to do."

Hear the rest of the interview in the audio player below.

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