Paying for a Safer City
With over $2 million in rewards for tips used to solve more than 15,000 felonies, Crimestoppers Greater New Orleans has fought against local crime for 34 years. President Darlene Cusanza discusses how NOLA crime has changed since Katrina, and what her organization is doing about it.
Early on in her tenure with Crimestoppers Greater New Orleans, Darlene Cusanza found herself on the business end of a weapon in an armed robbery. The experience exposed her to the danger crime posed and the myriad intense feelings crime victims experience. In her case, police caught the perpetrator, and, ultimately, the system worked.
Today, Cusanza serves as the seemingly ubiquitous organization’s president and CEO. In addition to working with local law enforcement, media, and the general public to solve and prevent crimes, the 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization is extensively involved in educating youth in crime fighting and prevention.
Under her leadership, Crimestoppers has more than doubled its call volume and cases/crimes solved and expanded its operations to nine parishes – Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, Plaquemines and Washington. The program, which utilizes a 24-hour-a-day anonymous-tip hotline, website and app, has assisted in solving more than 15,000 felony crimes and paid out more than $2 million in rewards for tips.
In addition to fighting crime, the mother of two has served as Cub Scout leader, Girl Scout cookie mom, school PTA officer and room mother.
As the region looks back on a decade of recovery following Hurricane Katrina, Biz New Orleans examines how the fight against crime has changed in the 10 years since the storm.
BIZ: What is Crimestoppers GNO’s mission?
Darlene Cusanza: Our mission is twofold. One, it is to assist citizens to be able to provide information on crimes – that either happened or are planned to happen – in a way that they are completely anonymous and protected. With that information, we work with law enforcement to help solve or prevent the crime. We also work with media to get information out to the public for the need for information and the reward process.
The second part of the mission involves being proactive with crime-prevention education with neighborhoods, adults, and, particularly, with the youth.
BIZ: How is Crimestoppers GNO affecting crime in New Orleans?
DC: Since our inception, we’ve helped solve more than 15,000 felonies. Last year, we helped solve just fewer than 500 cases. That’s more than a crime a day. So, it’s definitely making a difference on fighting crime in the region.
BIZ: How did you get involved in Crimestoppers?
DC: I got involved through a friend at the Louisiana CPA society, where I worked before. He told me they were looking for a part-time director to run the program. I never thought I’d be working in something law-enforcement related. Twenty years later, here I am. It’s been a ride.
Just as I came to Crimestoppers, I was a victim of an armed robbery. God teaches you things in mysterious ways. It gave me a great appreciation for what it felt like to be a victim, as far as what I see and work with every day. It also gave me an opportunity to see the system work. And it did work for me.
I truly believe Crimestoppers is a very vital tool. It makes a difference every day. And that’s been rewarding.
BIZ: What are your daily duties?
DC: Overseeing a small business like Crimestoppers, I work with a volunteer board and also serve as the media spokesperson and crime-prevention expert. I do on-air interviews both on television and radio weekly. I also speak at least once a week to a civic or community organization about crime issues. I also advocate for victims and their families with both law enforcement and the media.
BIZ: What does crime look like in New Orleans?
DC: It looks like many metropolitan areas. There are simple personal crimes, like pickpocketing and crimes like that, because of the high number of people and tourists that congregate in certain neighborhoods.
You also see anything that could be related to drugs, which fuels the violence. A lot of that is isolated to certain areas of the city, like it is in other large cities.
A lot of it, too, is a lack of conflict resolution. People now tend to react very violently when a conflict arises. That’s the part I see escalating.
“You’re seeing federal law enforcement, state and local working together, where we didn’t see or hear
as much of that before Katrina,” says Cusanza, seen here speaking with crime intelligence officers.
BIZ: How has crime changed in the decade since Hurricane Katrina and the associated floods?
DC: We’ve changed how we fight crime in a very positive way. After Katrina, many different agencies joined in to help each other solve crime. You’re seeing federal law enforcement, state, and local working together, where we didn’t see or hear as much of that before Katrina. Because of that, we’ve been able to build criminal intelligence in networks. That’s critical. We know criminals don’t stop their activities at the boundaries of the parish line. Before Katrina we had to get multiple agencies to track information on that one suspect. Now it’s all regionalized. It’s all centralized information. That’s a huge difference from 10 years ago.
Of course, technology has made strides with improved processing of DNA and ballistics to capabilities and proliferation of security cameras.
BIZ: How does crime affect the local business community?
DC: If people don’t feel safe going to a business, they will hesitate to frequent it. Obviously, that affects the bottom line. The business community is concerned about how crime affects them economically, but they’re also concerned with quality of life.
BIZ: How is the business community involved in fighting crime?
DC: So many businesses are getting involved proactively with security by adding lights and cameras, which are proving to be a big help in solving and prosecuting crime. They’re listening to law enforcement and they’re becoming more proactive.
They’re interested in introducing best practices and holding people accountable.
I also think our business community has put up a lot of their own finances into helping improve different situations that affect crime.
BIZ: What are your thoughts on the security force Sidney Torres has assembled in the French Quarter?
DC: More eyes on the street and boots on the ground are important. Certainly it’s very generous of him to put up his own money to increase details and manpower in the French Quarter. It’s all about community involvement. That’s really the key. So anything that helps with that, I think, is a positive.
BIZ: Do you have any statistics to illustrate how fighting crime is changing in New Orleans?
DC: Our call volume and tip volume over the last several years have increased. That’s directly tied to the crime rate. This year, overall violent crime is down in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. What’s up in New Orleans is the murder rate. For us, that directly affects the number of calls we get and the rewards we pay out. For the last three years, the murder rate has gone down. But right now, that’s the one area where we are focusing a lot of our energy because of the increase in frequency and the police manpower concern.
BIZ: “Snitches get stitches” is a notorious local saying. Has there been a greater willingness to speak up more recently?
DC: That mentality is not unique to New Orleans. It’s nationwide. But, in recent years we’ve seen a double-digit increase in the number of calls to our tip hotline. People are concerned. They don’t want to be a statistic. They want to get involved in getting their neighborhoods back. They’re speaking up, meeting, talking and working together.
Darlene Cusanza with Liz Reyes on Fox 8. Cusanza is frequently interviewed
on local radio and TV stations.
BIZ: Can you tell our readers about Crimestoppers GNO’s youth programs?
DC: The youth component of Crimestoppers is probably our best-kept proactive services secret. They include the Safe School Hotline, Crimestoppers’ Teen Ambassadors Against Crime leadership program, our Teen Peace Summit and outreach efforts at schools, which give kids an opportunity to see the resources that are available to them. The outreach program allows us to reach thousands of students and help groom them into crime-prevention advocates. We talk about crime trends, the latest drug issues, and resources available to be proactive so that they can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. It also teaches students about the many career opportunities available in the criminal justice arena.
The Safe School Hotline has also allowed schools to utilize our presentations to supplement their existing safety programming, with the added benefit of offering the reporting of campus concerns via our anonymous hotline. We’re not necessarily looking at violent crime here as much as issues like bullying, vandalism and even self-harm issues. This allows us to bring pertinent information to the school to be investigated and go to law enforcement if that’s what’s needed.
Crimestoppers’ Teen Ambassadors Against Crime is a yearlong leadership program for high school students in which they learn about all aspects of the criminal justice program, debate issues related to the community, and work on a project in which they select a crime-related issue and provide ideas to help solve some of the related problems. Several of our teens who have participated in our teen ambassador program won college scholarships.
The teen peace summit will be held in October at Champions Square. It is expected to have more than 6,000 youth in attendance and will involve guest speakers, music and feature a competition with local high school drum lines.
BIZ: How does the organization raise money for rewards?
DC: I can sing if you want. We also beg, borrow… no. We have fundraisers, apply for grants, have a corporate-giving program, family members sometimes give money to help with their cases. We also have some legislative money available through the court system that helps. But, really, we accept all generosity to help run the program.
We’re having our annual Blues Night fundraiser at The House of Blues on Wednesday, Sept. 9. In addition to our auction, we will take a look back at the contributions and service of law enforcement since Katrina, particularly to those who have lost their life in the line of duty. A song and video, “How Much I Love You,” has been produced for the event. It pays tribute to these officers by showing scenes of work done during and after Katrina. The song is available for purchase on iTunes, with the music video available after the premiere at the event. Proceeds from the sale will assist with operations of our community programs.
CUSANZA’S Recent Awards & Recognitions
• New Orleans Regional Leadership Institute Community Service Award, 2015
• Family Service of Greater New Orleans “Open Door” Top Ten Outstanding Person’s award, 2014
• National Crimestoppers USA Board of Directors, 2013
• Crimestoppers’ Outstanding Media Award for a PSA, 2013
• Young Leadership Council Role Model, 2009
• US Department of Justice – United States Marshals Service Director’s Citizen of the Year, 2008
• Jefferson Chamber of Commerce Community Leader of the Year, 2008
Crimestoppers’ youth focused crime prevention initiatives
• Safe School Hotline – currently operates within five parishes and has solved hundreds of campus crimes.
• Teen Ambassadors Against Crime – yearlong leadership program that provides high school students an opportunity to learn about the criminal justice system
• Teen Peace Summit – in partnership with iHeartMedia radio station Q93 and First NBC Bank, teen peace summit will be held in October at Champions Square. It is expected to attracte more than 6,000 youth.
Upcoming Crimestoppers Events
Wednesday, September 9
The House of Blues
Annual fundraiser featuring auction, food, drinks to benefit Crimestoppers GNO
Sunday, October 11
Night Out Against Crime preview party
Event to prepare and package items for community Night Out parties
Tuesday, October 13
Night Out Against Crime
Neighbors come together in this annual event to meet and discuss local issues and crime prevention with neighborhood associations and local police.
Saturday, October 24
Teen Peace Summit/Youth Congress/Drumline Competition
Crimestoppers, iHeartMedia Q93, and First NBC Bank to host 6,000 youth at event featuring guest speakers and more.