Focusing on the 'End Game'

New Orleans Crime Coalition works within the system to improve it



They looked like two opposing pieces on a chessboard caught in a political stalemate.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. sat alone in the audience after addressing the city's crime summit at Gallier Hall on Aug. 11 -- one month after surviving calls for his ouster. City Council President Arnie Fielkow, one of his critics, sat among the speakers at the final summit roundtable, facing the district attorney. Neither spoke to the other. Jordan is black. Fielkow is white. Their political impasse served as a silent reminder that fighting crime in New Orleans often involves overcoming political and racial divisions, often in a media spotlight.

Ironically, the one organization that might have dealt a crippling blow to the beleaguered Jordan did not appear on the crime summit agenda. The New Orleans Crime Coalition, a racially diverse, pro-establishment network of 12 business, civic and community groups, chose instead to continue working with the district attorney and to remain focused on initiatives aimed at reducing violent crime.

"We did not call for the resignation of Eddie Jordan," says Gregory Rusovich, chair of the coalition and a member of the influential New Orleans Business Council. "We were working with Eddie Jordan as others were calling for his resignation."

The coalition's decision, published here for the first time, doubtless disappoints Jordan's many critics. Interviews with coalition members suggest a deliberative, pragmatic, work-within-the system group that's more focused on long-term support for the criminal justice system than lopping off the heads of individual officials. The group has not, however, ruled out calling for the removal of any public safety official in the future.

"If we viewed calling for an individual's resignation as having a more positive impact on violent crime, I can't say we wouldn't do that," says Rusovich, a second-generation New Orleans shipping executive who likes to think of the coalition as the "calm in the center of the storm."

He later added, "The call for resignation would have to have a chance to succeed." Moreover, such a move would require careful deliberation by the coalition's influential members: the Business Council, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, Common Good, the Metropolitan Crime Commission, New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, Bridge House, Greater New Orleans Inc., Jefferson Business Council, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce, Urban League of Greater New Orleans and the Young Leadership Council.

The coalition's primary mission is "to urge city leaders to focus police, prosecution and judicial system resources on convicting and incarcerating violent criminals." The group's support for $6.3 million in federal funding priorities includes familiar, pro-law enforcement objectives such as better pay for prosecutors and more police on the streets. The organization wants $2 million of that money to go toward an integrated information system designed to end wasteful subpoena practices -- by putting cops, jailers, prosecutors, the courts and indigent defenders all on the same proverbial page. Another $600,000 would underwrite a two-year "offender reintegration program." The program includes job training, addiction counseling, anger management, GED courses, computer literacy and follow-up assistance for convicted offenders who have been released from jail.

In addition, at the request of Police Chief Warren Riley, coalition members themselves financed consultant Lee Brown's community policing plan.

While the coalition's mission focuses on ending violence and attacking crime at its source, it leaves to the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups the matter of alleged violations of the constitutional rights of arrested persons.

"There is only so much band width," Rusovich says. "We are very focused on violent crime. Drug rehabilitation is very important to us. We want to make sure the root causes of crime are also taken on here. We'll look to take on more later."

The coalition has a quarterly accountability component maintained by the Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC). In its first report, the MCC "respectfully recommends that the NOPD examine reducing the number of municipal and traffic arrests" by issuing summons instead.

"Locking everybody up is not the answer," says Robert Stellingworth, executive director of the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, another coalition member. A retired local ATF chief who specialized in explosives and arson fatalities, Stellingworth estimates he made "several hundred" gun arrests as a street agent. Nowadays, he is a staunch supporter of the coalition's proposal to "triage" the needs of prison inmates before they are released back into the community.

"The prison pre-release program is more important now than pre-Katrina, because of the dislocation of all the families," Stellingworth says.

The idea of taking a more holistic approach to the crime problem is music to the ears of people who have long worked on social and economic issues. Flozell Daniels, chairman of the board of the local Urban League, says his group's members represent the "under-represented" poor and minorities at the coalition's monthly meetings.

"The criminal justice system is a huge issue for the Urban League, especially as it concerns its impact on black men and their families," says Daniels, who also is executive director of state and local affairs for Tulane University. "We have arrested more people than anywhere in the civilized world and it's gotten us nowhere. Some need to be locked up and the key thrown away, but that is not the majority."

Daniels says the coalition has stayed focused on stopping violent crime and making long-range improvements to the criminal justice system. Sometimes, the group has to work against a tide of distractions -- high-profile crimes, sensational court cases, public protests and political friction.

"We know all of these other things are happening, and we let these events inform the decision-making process but not derail the process," Daniels says. "The coalition's focus is on systemic change -- lockstep, sequential, systemic change -- not personalities. Part of our success has been keeping this group together under what has been a very stressful situation. You have a community under stress and duress."

The recent groundswell against District Attorney Eddie Jordan remaining in office underscores Daniels' point. By mid-July, the coalition, whose evolution began around the time of the Jan. 11 citizens' crime march on City Hall, found itself in the center of a political maelstrom that threatened to tear the group -- and the city -- apart.

Jordan was under fire for his office's release of a suspect in a quintuple murder -- the last straw for the DA's critics. Mayor Ray Nagin, who until then had been trying to work with Jordan, called for state Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. to conduct a systemic review of the DA's office. City Council President Fielkow went further, asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to explore disciplinary proceedings against Jordan -- and the feasibility of appointing a special prosecutor to help prosecute violent crimes.

Police groups that had called for Jordan's removal after a grand jury last year indicted the "Danziger 7" -- a group of seven cops accused in the slaying of a mentally challenged man on the Danziger Bridge after Katrina -- revived petitions for the district attorney's removal. Suddenly, it seemed as though the entire community had Eddie Jordan in its cross hairs.

On July 12, District A City Council member Shelley Midura publicly asked Jordan to resign "as soon as possible." Jordan refused, saying, "You can put that out of your mind, Councilwoman." Public support for Jordan began to split along racial lines, although there remains substantial dissatisfaction with Jordan even among black civic and political leaders.

Just three weeks earlier, on June 20, Jordan stood shoulder-to-shoulder with business and community leaders from the coalition on the front steps of Criminal District Court and, together with police brass, released a 100-day "progress report" on joint initiatives aimed at reducing violent crime.

One of the coalition's major successes was the creation, funding and staffing of a special Violent Offenders Unit in the DA's office. Now Jordan, a coalition partner, was embroiled in a fight for his political life.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the MCC, another coalition member, says the group took a vote on whether to try to push Jordan out of office. "It's an issue we discussed and came to a resolution on as an organization," he says. "The decision was not to call for anyone's resignation. We felt we could do more working within the system. We felt Mr. Jordan had ended the matter by already declaring he did not intend to resign."

A turning point came July 12, the same day that Midura first suggested that Jordan step down and shortly after Nagin's suggestion that Foti's office investigate.

Times-Picayune reporter Laura Maggi asked Goyeneche to comment on Nagin's proposal to have Foti look over Jordan's shoulder. "I thought it was a bad idea," Goyeneche recalls. "The state attorney general's office didn't have experience doing that kind of thing." Instead of Foti, Goyeneche suggested inviting the standards-setting National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) to conduct a management audit of Jordan's office, a recommendation that sparked interest among locals, including Jordan, who were seeking an alternative to calls for the district attorney's resignation.

The next day, Jordan announced he had asked the NDAA to evaluate his office and publicly thanked the MCC for the idea. The DA also announced he would shift all homicide cases to the newly created Violent Offenders Unit, a special prosecution unit formed with major help from the coalition.

On July 17, the Louisiana Supreme Court responded to Fielkow's request for intervention, saying that the justices had no constitutional authority to supervise or remove the district attorney. A day later, Midura issued a second call for Jordan to resign, but again he refused. The High Court's decision left Jordan's critics little recourse until the fall 2008 elections. For a while, at least, the crisis had passed.

The Coalition resumed working with Jordan on long-term reforms. Meanwhile, other officials fell under the harsh light of public scrutiny.

On the day of the city's crime summit, for example, Fielkow was listed as an alternate for Oliver Thomas on the City Council's subcommittee on crime. The reason for Thomas' absence from the summit became obvious 48 hours later, when he resigned after pleading guilty to a federal bribery charge. That scandal overshadowed the crime summit, and the climate of political uncertainty shifted squarely from the district attorney's office to City Hall.

The Jordan controversy appears to have defined the coalition as a businesslike group that refuses to be stampeded into making rash decisions. "We look at the consequences of any action," Rusovich says. "We will do things in a calm manner, with a sense of urgency." Acting both as a critic and supporter of the criminal justice system is "a balancing act, one thus far we have been able to do," Rusovich adds. "We try to demonstrate the logic of what we do. We need to cooperate with the mayor and all the other officials involved, but also to let them know that there is accountability. Accountability and transparency are absolutely crucial."

The New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, another coalition partner, will administer $6.3 million of $24.8 million in federal funding allocated to law enforcement in Louisiana. "My schtick is real simple," says foundation director Stellingworth. "The foundation realizes that the key issue is to restore faith in the criminal justice system in order to sustain the economic recovery."

Meanwhile, District C City Councilman James Carter, who chairs the council subcommittee on crime and the city's crime summit, has been the coalition's main conduit for anti-crime initiatives at City Hall. "He has played an amazing role behind the scenes, working to make sure we stay on track and we have all the information we need," Daniels says.

"The coalition is something that is long overdue and badly needed," says Goyeneche, who has served as president of the MCC for 21 years. "By ourselves we could not effect some of the changes we've seen this coalition do in the last six months."

Goyeneche cites the DA's Violent Offenders Unit as an example of those changes, calling it "just the first of many deliverables."

Nontraditional groups in the coalition have brought fresh perspectives to old problems. Among them is Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, a grassroots group led by civic activist Ruthie Frierson, a realtor and past president of the Junior League of New Orleans. After the storm, she surprised stalwarts in criminal justice circles by calling for citizens to volunteer for jury duty at Criminal District Court. More than 50 people initially responded to the call.

Goyeneche, perhaps more candidly than most observers, admitted he did not know that citizens could volunteer to beef up the depleted jury pool. "I didn't know you could do it until a couple of months ago, but it is allowed under the state constitution."

"The best kind of change comes from a willingness to build partnerships and coalitions," Frierson told Gambit Weekly. "For real recovery to take place, there must be a new culture of involved, self-reliant citizens who expect and demand honest responsiveness from their leaders."

Rusovich refers to stopping violent crime as the "end game" for post-Katrina New Orleans. "We have a serious challenge ahead of us," he says. "We can throw up our hands and complain, or we can calmly sit down and attack the problems."

"We have a serious challenge ahead of us. We can throw - up our hands and complain, or we can calmly sit down - and attack the problems." -  - Gregory Rusovich, Chair, N.O. Crime Coalition - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "We have a serious challenge ahead of us. We can throw up our hands and complain, or we can calmly sit down and attack the problems."
    Gregory Rusovich, Chair, N.O. Crime Coalition

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