The Activist and the Chief
Crime-fighters John Casbon and Eddie Compass are out to take down crime statistics – and the police residency law too.
Five books lined up behind his office desk tell the tale of Police Foundation Chairman John Casbon: The State of the Blues; The New Orleans Police Department 1995-1999; The American Heritage History of Flight; The Story of Rock and Roll; The Relationship Edge in Business.
By day, as president and CEO of the First American Transportation Title Co., Casbon crisscrosses the country registering multimillion-dollar airplanes and vessels; by night, he blows a blues harmonica in smoky barrooms; and in between, day and night, holidays and many weekends, he chases his vision of a New Orleans criminal-justice system formidable enough to make the baddest bad guys afraid to roam the streets at night.
His varied interests from African-American music to effective business tactics reflect a personality able to move from one strata of society to another with ease. Communicative in a way politicians can’t afford to be, he has put his time and money into a grass-roots campaign to spread his truth. He has spent hundreds of hours at fundraising events, addressing citizens groups, lobbying politicians, attending policing workshops, and befriending local, state and federal law-enforcement experts from former Attorney General Janet Reno to the most inexperienced street cops.
So far, his brainchild, the New Orleans Police Foundation, has raised and dedicated $20 million to a vision that most social scholars insist will never stop the violence that has given the city a reputation as one of the country’s most dangerous places to live or visit. “Sociologists say police strategies don’t work,” says Casbon. “I say they do.”
Casbon and the 26-member Police Foundation Board’s tenacity in raising money brings much respect and admiration. “I think the Police Foundation is the most valuable organization we have in this city,” says Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson. “None of these people doing this have to do it. They have their own jobs, their own lives, but they care about this city, and they are ready to put their money on what their opinions are.”
With the help of corporate sponsors and 10,000 contributors over its 10 years of operation, the foundation has paid for community and policing projects such as summer camps for children and two crime-statistics accountability programs at a cost of about $600,000, says Executive Director Robert Stellingworth. Before taking the position two years ago, Stellingworth was a special agent in charge of Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Foundation money has paid for two major consultant reports for improving New Orleans law enforcement, $5,000 signing bonuses for the recruitment of experienced police officers, $500 incentive payments to officers who brought in new recruits, and scholarships for officers to attend college. Its Walk the Beat fundraiser, an annual 5K walk/run, has raised about $800,000 in nine years to aid in those efforts.
The foundation recently paid about $300,000 for another crime-statistics accountability program, this one for the district attorney’s office, which will be linked to the one at the police department.
Linkages between the two Comstat programs will improve the two agencies’ cooperation and effectiveness, foundation members say. The program purchased for the DA’s office is part of a foundation-driven comprehensive plan to improve the effectiveness of the criminal-justice system.
“I’m going after every facet of it,” Casbon says.
Systemizing a crime-fighting plan is important, observers say, because only a small percentage of the suspects arrested in Orleans Parish in any given year end up behind bars. “So what we have is a revolving door,” says Rafael C. Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “We are arresting the same people over and over again.”
A Metropolitan Crime Commission study, for example, reported last year that three of the Criminal Court judges acquitted 63 percent of the defendants in the cases they had heard in judge trials in a five-year period. The other nine judges together had an acquittal rate of 28 percent.
Another recent study showed Criminal Court Judge Charles Elloie was responsible for 83 percent of the cases in which suspects were released on commercial bonds after bails were reduced between July 2003 and July 2004. The other 11 judges allowed the remaining bond reductions.
Such statistics alarm Casbon because police alone can’t keep criminals off the street. “I’ve asked for a federal investigation of the Criminal Court judges,” he says. “There are some wonderful judges, and there are a few we need to take a hard look at.”
The solution to crime may be in question, but the problem is clear: New Orleans is not a safe place. The city’s murder rate (285 in 2004) is among the highest per capita in the nation. Some years, the number of homicides has been twice the number committed in the entire country of Canada.
The statistics are grim enough, but the specifics are chilling. The youngest, the poorest, the richest, black and white – are gunned down in broad daylight, at night, in schools and near heavily patrolled areas that average citizens and tourists are lulled into believing are safe.
In April 2003, for example, thugs using an AK-47 opened fire in the John McDonogh High School gym, killing 15-year-old Jonathan Williams and injuring three girls. More than 300 bullets sent hundreds of students scurrying for cover. In September 2003, 21-year-old Japanese tourist Kanako Ohyama was strangled with a belt. At year’s end, Thomas Breiwick, a 56-year-old mariner from Washington attending the International WorkBoat Show, was fatally struck in the head for his wallet while walking to Le Pavillon Hotel.
In 2004, an 8-year-old girl was shot in the back by a stray bullet during a gun battle on North Rocheblave Street. The violence also marred two of last year’s most sacred New Orleans traditions: Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. An innocent bystander was killed and three were injured when a gun battle erupted during the Muses parade on St. Charles Avenue. At the conclusion of Jazz Fest, robbers murdered artist Daniel Breaux, 57.
Such violence creates an atmosphere that sends innocent citizens to the relative safety of their homes before dark. Tokarra Duvernay, who lives down the block from where the 8-year-old was shot, told Susan Finch of The Times-Picayune after the shooting that she doesn’t let her children out of the house after 5:30 p.m. “Bad stuff happens too fast,” she said.
New York consultants hired by the foundation in the mid-1990s said the city needs a police force of at least 2,000 to contain the violence. But despite pay raises that put the department’s new hires among the highest paid in the area, recruitment turned out to be a hamster’s run of futility. Despite years of trying, the department has never achieved its initial goal of 1,885 officers. In fact, police figures show that the department has lost more officers than it hired.
The consequences of living in a dangerous city haunt Casbon, a lanky man with silver hair and tired eyes. “I have been to nine funerals of people I didn’t even know,” he says. “It ripped me apart. It hurt me that there’s such a sense of hopelessness.”
Driven by compassion for crime victims and a John Wayne philosophy, Casbon has earned admiration and trust from many quarters, including the city’s highest-paid crime-fighter, Police Chief Eddie Compass. “In my opinion John Casbon is a hero,” says Compass. “I’m proud to call him a friend.”
Crime and a mission to do something about it brought Compass and Casbon together as a team. They are both focused on the goal of building and equipping a police department forceful enough to overpower the criminal element that makes New Orleans unsafe and gives the city a bad name in the national and international press. Like two generals surrounding the enemy, they tackle two different fronts of the problem, Compass from within and Casbon from the outside, as evidenced by the foundation’s recent public assault on the city’s police-residency requirement.
On the surface, Compass and Casbon are quite different: Compass is black, Casbon white. Compass, a native of New Orleans and a 25-year veteran of the department, is widely described as a tough cop with gritty street smarts. “I wouldn’t want to meet him in a back alley,” Casbon jokes.
Casbon, on the other hand, originally from Florida, is a businessman who lives Uptown, parades with the Krewe of Hermes and spends his vacations skiing in Aspen, Colo.
Each is determined but for different reasons. Compass is a professional, paid to provide public safety; Casbon, a volunteer, wants a safer city that will draw outside investment.
“People come here to have fun. What they don’t want is to get robbed or shot or killed on the way out,” he says. “We can’t grow the city if it’s too dangerous.”
The extent of their cooperation became public on March 10 when Casbon interrupted a ski vacation to be interviewed via telephone with Compass on Errol Laborde’s weekly “Newsbeat” radio show on WGSO-AM/990. Compass surprised the community with a public announcement that he supported a temporary repeal of the controversial requirement that police officers live within Orleans Parish limits.
The requirement, adopted before white flight to the suburbs shifted the racial dynamics of the city in favor of black majority rule, has been a sore spot among city leaders and the police since the city began strictly enforcing the policy in the mid-1990s.
Compass’ willingness to publicly support the repeal was hailed as courageous in some quarters. The residency requirement was viewed as a racial hot-button issue that no black political leader wanted to push. Mayor C. Ray Nagin once supported a repeal but later backed off the idea. Compass himself said in November 2004 that he had no intention of taking a stand because no matter what he said, he would raise the ire of a large portion of the community.
Many black officials and some citizens view the residency requirement as a way to ensure that the department remains racially balanced along the lines of the city’s majority black population, while white officers view it as discriminatory. The different sides remained at a standoff, with most black City Council members refusing to overturn the rule until Compass declared that it impeded his efforts to build an adequate police force.
With politicians reluctant to act, the foundation went to work trying to convince officials that the issue wasn’t as racially polarized as they thought. Two polls commissioned by the foundation bolstered the view that a majority of black officers and citizens opposed the residency requirement. A University of New Orleans poll released in January 2004 reported that the majority of white officers who responded to the survey opposed the residency requirement and 62 percent of the black officers opposed it.
“Among the black officers, it is the youngest and those with the least seniority who are most opposed,” the study reads.
UNO pollster Susan Howell said recently that younger black officers oppose residency requirements at a higher rate than senior black officers because the younger officers have been raised in a more integrated society, where interracial dating and friendships are common.
When city leaders expressed reluctance to accept the validity of the UNO poll, Casbon says, the foundation paid for a second poll to be conducted by Silas Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at Xavier University. Lee, who is black, conducted a November 2004 poll that showed 73 percent of residents believe “it’s OK for police officers to live in other parishes.”
“A lot of this is about politics,” says Casbon. “We have to show them [elected officials] that this is not going to ruin their careers.”
Compass says that the polls did not influence his opinions on the issue.
“I didn’t look at this from a political standpoint,” he says. “I look at it strictly from a public-safety standpoint.” Nagin, he says, did not oppose his decision to take a public position.
An inability to recruit the number of officers needed to do the job was the motivating factor behind Compass’ decision, he adds. “We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising, and in 2005, we have 1,690 officers, for a net loss of four officers in four years. There was nothing left,” he says.
Compass says his recruiters claim they are hampered by the residency requirement because many experienced candidates have already established lives in the suburbs that they don’t want to disrupt. Younger candidates often say they can’t afford to start families in a city where housing costs are astronomical and where poor public schools create a need for private education. In some cases, before measures were taken to stop it, some recruits left the department within months of receiving $40,000 worth of training.
“One or two guys graduated on a Friday and were offered a job in Mississippi on Monday,” says Capt. Marlon Defillo. “You know that was in the works from day one.”
Still, many black citizens and leaders are skeptical about how white, suburban officers will deal with a majority black population. They remember chilling incidents from the past when a mostly white police department brutalized some black residents, Casbon says. Also, they remember the era when black officers were not promoted within the ranks.
But city officials insist the political process itself ensures that the racial discrimination of the past will not be repeated within the department or in policing itself. “Now that we have a black mayor, a majority black City Council and a black police chief, that’s not going to happen today,” Clarkson says. “It’s an unfounded fear.”
Rigorous screening and extensive training help keep unstable people out of the department, police officials say. “There will not be a situation where these individuals will come in and disrupt this city,” Compass says. In fact, repealing the policy “will ultimately result in saving the lives of African-Americans in the community.”
Case closed. •