NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - If you've ever watched a newscast, you've likely heard this phrase: "If you know who committed this crime, call Crimestoppers." And many people know the phone number to call by heart - 822-1111.
A man named Jimmy Coleman established the New Orleans branch in 1981. Crimestoppers of Greater New Orleans solicits anonymous tips in an effort to help solve crimes. Since its inception, the organization has helped solved over 16,000 crimes and paid out over $2 million to tipsters.
In March at the annual Crimestoppers awards luncheon, CEO Darlene Cusanza said, "We've had a great year. People have continued to call, we've actually processed over 18,000 calls."
The organization touts 143 arrests made in 2016 and 310 cases cleared. Again, that's out of 18,000 calls.
Crimestoppers represents nine Louisiana parishes, including Orleans and Jefferson. We don't have to tell you that violent crime in New Orleans is a big issue. Last year, according to the NOPD, 174 people were killed.
In Orleans parish, the homicide clearance rate stands at 41 percent. According to the NOPD, of those 174 homicides last year, only 40 arrests have been made in connection.
"It is a challenge that we have with even the non-fatal shootings. There are instances where the only piece of evidence that exists is the witness testimony," NOPD Chief Michael Harrison said at a Criminal Justice Committee meeting held in April at City Hall.
We wanted to find out exactly how many homicides were solved last year through Crimestoppers tips, and how much money was paid out in rewards. So back in February we asked Crimestoppers CEO Darlene Cusanza. First, we were told we had to attend a Crimestoppers awards luncheon almost a month after our initial request, just to find out how much money the non-profit paid out last year. At the event March 16, we learned that approximately $90,000 was to be given out in reward totals, but to date, only a little over $60,000 has been claimed.
But Crimestoppers didn't provide the specific crime numbers we asked for. Two weeks later in an email Cusanza wrote: "To disclose information and individual cases and categories of cases, we would be providing enough information to make it possible to ascertain the source of the information and possibly by the process of elimination, the identity of the tipster."
At the end of April, we asked for a sit-down interview with Cusanza. She initially emailed back saying she made it clear that limitations to discuss cases would prevent her from going forward. Then she emailed back a week later, this time on behalf of the board of directors, agreeing to meet and possibly do an interview. When we arrived at her office the following week, former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, board president Mike Meguerditchian, board member Ed Marshall and public relations consultant Malcolm Earhart were there with Cusanza, to greet us. The others did not go on camera but stood in the room during our interview with her.
Again, after repeated requests over a three-month period, we finally had a chance to sit down with Cusanza to get some answers. First, we wanted to know why the information we requested couldn't be provided to the media.
Cusanza replied, "Right. For our Crimestoppers, we are very concerned about any event where someone could be retaliated."
To reiterate, we didn't request any information such as victim's names, case numbers or even dates of crimes. We simply wanted a generic breakdown of the types and numbers of crimes solved.
When asked why Cusanza couldn't give a ballpark figure on the number of homicides solved, she said, "We're not going to do that because we are very concerned about the confidentiality of our tipsters."
"I don't think any of that information would jeopardize the confidentiality of any tipster," said Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans. "If they gave that information out, it would garner confidence in the system and in the Crimestoppers program."
We then decided to see how Crimestoppers organizations in other cities handle giving out the statistics we were looking for. In contrast, the cities we called readily provided the numbers, some in just a matter of minutes. We learned that in Memphis, 24 homicides were solved last year, thanks to Crimestoppers tips. In Birmingham, the number stands at 12. Crimestoppers of Charlotte, NC even posts some of their stats on their website for the public to view. The head of Crimestoppers in Miami even sent us a detailed list of every single crime her organization received tips on in 2016.
We asked Cusanza why we could get that information from other cities but not from Crimestoppers of Greater New Orleans.
"First off, it's not always comparing apples to apples when you're talking about different Crimestoppers organizations, but I go back to the climate of the city that's involved," she said.
There's no denying that New Orleans' violent crime problem is different from other cities, and the fear of retaliation is real. Which is why we wanted to know why reward amounts for information on homicides is generally just up to $2,500 unless a private donation is made to a specific case or there's another special circumstance necessitating a higher reward.
"I just don't think $2,500 is going to be enough of an amount for someone to even think about getting involved in it," Hessler said.
Cusanza explains the reward amount used to be $1,000 but about six to eight years ago, the organization increased it.
"We did a study and we looked at comparisons and we came up with a number of $2,500 which other organizations have since bumped up too," Cusanza said.
Some other cities we looked at offer more. Crimestoppers of Baton Rouge gives up to $5,000. It's the same amount in San Antonio. Miami advertises an up to $3,000 reward. In contrast, Memphis and Albuquerque only hand out up to $1,000. It's $2,500 in Flint, Michigan.
We were curious, could the reward amount in our area be increased even more? Financial statements we found from 2014 and 2015 show the non-profit has about $3 million in the bank.
"The $3 million is a mixture of reward funds and certainly private donations," Cusanza stated.
We asked, with $3 million in the bank, could rewards be raised for homicides, to entice more tips?
"Well first off, again I go back to our stats, I go back to the 143 arrests that were made through Crimestoppers with a reward of $2,500. Those are cases that would not have been solved otherwise," Cusanza said.
But we pressed, couldn't the numbers always be greater? Couldn't they be higher?
"I think when you say couldn't the number be greater, it depends on a lot of things other than Crimestoppers," Cusanza said.
"In New Orleans especially, they need to put some more money out there," Hessler said.
A former NOPD officer himself, Hessler believes homicide detectives would be able to improve their low clearance rate if tipsters had a bigger incentive to come forward.
"Well with the amount of money you've told me they have, that money shouldn't be in a bank, it should be on the street," Hessler said.
Cusanza contends the organization must always have enough money on hand in case a tipster comes forward with legitimate information from a crime in years past.
However, looking at the financials for the non-profit, and the average amount collected by tipsters each year - about $60,000 to $70,000 - CPA Pat Lynch believes there's still enough money left to increase rewards.
"If you never got a nickel for the next four years, you have enough money to fund your mission for the next four years. That seems to be an excessive amount of cash," Lynch said. "Those monies could be used elsewhere, where they're needed."
Supporters of Crimestoppers say the mission of the organization has been effective in getting criminals off the streets.
"We need people to be able to partner with us even if its anonymously so that we can identify these people committing these crimes and hold them accountable," Harrison commented in April.
Despite the donations and public funding it receives, Cusanza says there are no plans to increase rewards to entice more tips, while law enforcement looks for any option it can in the ongoing fight against the violence.
In a statement we received from the Crimestoppers board of directors, they say: "It has become apparent...due to the lack of manpower with in local law enforcement agencies and police departments that tips forwarded don't get worked as fast or effectively as one would expect." They go on to say this lack of manpower has contributed to an overall decline of tips over time.
Chief Harrison wouldn't go on camera for this story, but he sent the following statement to FOX 8 News:
"As Superintendent of the NOPD, I speak for the entire department when I say that our relationship with Crimestoppers is a strong and productive one. We are grateful for the work they do, and for the service they provide. Speaking to the public, I routinely ask them to reach out to Crimestoppers with any information they might have. In instances where NOPD has asked them to raise the amount of rewards offered, they have been quick to do so. The Crimestoppers program has certainly been an asset for our department, and a positive good for the people of New Orleans."