New Orleans Needs More Money for Services, Not for Police

Sam McCann Senior Writer // William C. (Will) Snowden Former Director, Vera Louisiana
Sep 13, 2022

When the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed in 2021, White House officials were explicit: the $350 billion promised by the legislation was to be used by state and local governments to ensure sustainable, equitable, and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. For communities of color hit hardest by both the pandemic and decades of socioeconomic inequality, it was a chance to build the kind of basic local infrastructure—schools, jobs, and other resources—that build public safety.

Vera has laid out exactly how ARPA money can fund community violence interventions, diversion and mental health treatment programs, and reentry support, all of which reduce the burden we place on police, jails, and courts to address social needs. These strategic investments in public safety are both more effective and cost-efficient than punitive ones. Data consistently shows that increasing police budgets has no meaningful impact on crime rates. Public safety cannot simply be policed into existence; instead, it must be affirmatively created through investment in communities.

But although more than $10 billion in ARPA funds has already been committed to “public safety” nationally, precious few of those dollars have actually gone to community services that prevent crime and make us safer. Instead, cities have doubled down on already-bloated police budgets. About 50 percent of ARPA funds distributed to Los Angeles went directly to the police budget. In Chicago and Oakland, that number was at least 60 percent.

New Orleans is poised to make the same mistake. The city government is distributing its ARPA money in two waves, called tranches. In the first tranche, it’s committed $22 million to police spending with no additional investment in preventive services. But Mayor LaToya Cantrell is set to announce the second tranche of spending this month, which will then be voted on by the city council.

Vera Louisiana and other local organizers sent a letter to Mayor Cantrell and city council members today demanding that the city invest as much ARPA money in community-based support systems that prevent crime upstream as it does in policing. The letter lays out exactly how that investment should be made, citing specific programs that have demonstrated the ability to meet the needs of New Orleanians and ultimately build a safer city.

“Policing and prosecution come onto the scene after crime and harm have already occurred. We simply want the city to meaningfully and robustly invest in services that prevent crime and keep New Orleanians safe,” said Sarah Omojola, associate director of Vera’s Louisiana office. “Unless we start investing at least the same amount into community services as we do into punitive responses, we will never be safe or escape this cycle of overpolicing and mass incarceration.”

If the criminal legal system—from arrests and courts to jails and prisons—delivered safety on its own, Louisiana would be one of the safest places in the country. Yet Louisiana has both one of the highest incarceration rates while also having one of the highest homicide rates in the country.

New Orleans Police Chief Shaun Ferguson knows neglecting investment in educational and economic opportunities sets his department up for failure. “We need to look at the underlying issues that trigger [public safety concerns], like injustices in educational opportunities, injustices in economic opportunities,” he told WWL-TV earlier this year. “We as a police department are dealing with the backend of all of this. That is a result of what was not addressed on the front end.”

Today’s letter lays out how ARPA funds should be strategically invested to alleviate the failures Ferguson identified. It suggests pouring funds into programs that have a track record of success in areas proven to have an impact on public safety, including:

  • $400,060 on Community Violence Intervention (CVI) programs that prevent gun violence. When funded properly, CVI programs have shown promise in reducing shootings and gun violence by up to 30 percent. They leverage community relationships to prevent violence and to support survivors of violent crime through healing, meeting basic needs, and pursuing behavioral changes that minimize the risk of engagement in retaliation. New Orleans should invest $400,060 in the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which visits shooting survivors and their families at University Medical Center and New Orleans East Hospitals.
  • $24.35 million on youth-specific programming that builds skills for young people. The letter calls for $5 million for the Children Youth and Planning Board, Total Community Action, and United Way, which currently provide youth programs throughout the city but are unable to expand their services. It also asks for a $6.85 million investment over two years for youth development programs, which provide young people—particularly those who interact with the juvenile legal system—with exposure to different career paths as well as technical education. The letter also asks for $1 million for the STEM NOLA innovation hub in New Orleans East, which provides young people with avenues for enrichment. It also requests $1.5 million for a home-visiting program designed to improve family health by pairing people who give birth with a postpartum nurse on discharge from the hospital. The program would ensure that family needs are met as early and comprehensively as possible. A further $10 million would create a fund to develop engaging opportunities for youth both in schools and neighborhoods.
  • $10 million for community-based mental health care responses. ARPA funds can also be used to finally fill the mental health care void created in 2005 when Charity Hospital closed after Hurricane Katrina, which eliminated more than 90 mental health beds. In the intervening years, the city’s jails and police have been overburdened by responding to mental health care needs that could be better handled by community care. The city recently created the Alternative Dispatch (AD) program, which sends non-police responders to behavioral health crises, a method both safer and more effective than police responses. However, one AD unit is not enough to meet the community’s needs, and the city should invest $10 million in health professional-led alternatives to police responses.
  • $65 million for affordable housing. Connecting people who are unhoused to immediate stable housing, not jail or prison, is an efficient, cost effective, and just allocation of ARPA dollars meant to ensure an equitable recovery. Allocating funds for the construction of permanently affordable housing units, developing and converting hotels to non-congregate shelters, and expanding wrap-around and supportive services for residents living in non-congregate shelters will alleviate the housing crisis that leaves many residents unsafe.
  • $10 million for a community grant fund intended for safe infrastructure. The City of New Orleans should establish a community grant fund for investments like improved lighting, connected sidewalks, repaired streets, safe parks, and community centers that community members and organizations have collectively determined will ensure safe and thriving neighborhoods.

These kinds of targeted investments would allow New Orleans to increase public safety while addressing some of the needs Chief Ferguson identified earlier this year. Putting more money into police responses while continuing to neglect community supports will only funnel more people into the criminal legal system without addressing the underlying causes of crime. New Orleans has a unique opportunity to curb the cycle of mass incarceration—it just needs to spend ARPA funds the right way.