As City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell kicked off her mayoral campaign Tuesday night in Broadmoor, she said she has been considering the idea of changing the structure of city government to make the chief of the New Orleans Police Department a separately elected position to increase law-enforcement accountability to the public.
Cantrell began her first major campaign event by sharing a brief biography of herself, describing her arrival in New Orleans in 1990 as a student at Xavier University, her decision to move to Broadmoor after she married in 1999 and her growing activism in the Broadmoor Improvement Association before Hurricane Katrina and her efforts to save the neighborhood from becoming a depopulated “green dot” afterward. She was elected to the District B seat on the New Orleans City Council in 2012, and spearheaded efforts such as making restaurants smoke free while focusing on both public safety and housing.
With the city’s murder rate this year erasing gains that Mayor Landrieu made midway through his term, crime has already been a prominent issue in the conversation around the fall mayor’s race. Cantrell said she knows the people in the neighborhoods are reporting the crimes they see to police, but aren’t getting satisfactory responses.
“You’re reporting what’s happening. You’re reporting the drug house on White Street. It’s real,” Cantrell said. “But if we’re going to rid our communities of crime and violence, it’s going to have to have effective leadership to do so.”
One possible way to make the police department more responsive, Cantrell said to applause, would be to change the city charter to elect a police chief independently instead of making him a political appointment by the mayor.
“It’s working in our sister parishes. It’s working in other communities across the country,” Cantrell said. “It’s something we do need to be mindful of, and I want to have that conversation as your mayor.”
The idea is just a topic she wants to explore thus far based on ideas from constituents, and would ultimately require a vote by the public to change the structure of city government, Cantrell said. But it would offer one definite advantage of providing autonomy and consistency in the city’s police force that is insulated from the whims of changing mayoral administrations.
“How can we stabilize public safety in our city that’s not tied to a specific leadership style of a mayor?” Cantrell said in an interview after the event.
Even the most law-abiding of residents feel a lack of trust in the police when they call to report problems and it seems like nothing is done, Cantrell said.
“What I’m hearing is that there will be greater accountability. The people will then hold the chief accountable,” Cantrell said. “What people are feeling right now is that we’re not being very honest about our city in terms of its safety.”
Separating that position politically might also require giving the agency increased control over its budget, Cantrell said. But all those details and issues would have to be worked out in conversations around the charter change, as well as ways to ensure that the reforms instituted by the consent decree are carried forward into the new structure, she said.
Making the city safer will only be possible by ensuring that there is economic opportunity for all its citizens, Cantrell said in her remarks to the crowd. Crucial components of that, she said during 45-minute question-and-answer session afterward, are ensuring that there is affordable housing, that employers pay fair wages, that mental health options are available and reducing the burdensome taxes and fees on residents.
The growth and progress in recent years is undeniable, Cantrell said, pointing to developments and new services just blocks away in Broadmoor such as the Rosa Keller library. But the entrenched problems are just as self-evident, she said, like the criminal activity and infrastructure problems that persist in the same neighborhood.
“You can see growth. You can see progress, but we still cannot rest,” Cantrell said. “It’s a microcosm of the city of New Orleans, demographically and socioeconomically. We have to reach down and build up. It’s time to get it right, and we will not be safe until we do that.”