New Orleans is a city of desperate violence, but those neighborhoods most plagued by a wanton disregard for life — parts of Central City, say, or New Orleans East — seem a world away from the neon and wrought iron of the French Quarter.
However, a near-daily litany of burglaries, batteries and robberies filling the police blotter now has many French Quarter locals scared, and they are sharing that fear with visitors.
In the past two months, the New Orleans Police Department has reported over 20 robberies and three shootings within or immediately adjacent to the French Quarter — including a string of violent robberies in which the perpetrators attacked their victims before demanding anything.
Now the city is fighting back — but the NOPD is stretched thin, and has been for some time. It’s laboring under federal consent decrees and a chronic manpower shortage. Officers have been quitting in droves. Frequent revelations of departmental corruption and incompetence — like the “widespread failure” of detectives and supervisors in the Special Victims Section to investigate hundreds of sex crimes cases — provide grist for local headlines. Officers sometimes go years without raises or opportunities to take promotional exams.
There are over 20 separate local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with a presence in New Orleans, but it is the NOPD’s responsibility to provide basic policing — everything from traffic accident reports to murder investigations — for more than 378,000 people over 350 square miles.
In December, new police superintendent Michael Harrison reassigned 22 officers who had been working in administrative positions or detailed to other city departments to the streets.
Just this past week, Harrison issued a call to former and retired officers to join the NOPD’s Reserve Division — a corps of certified officers who volunteer their time. And a new NOPD recruitment video debuted locally during the Super Bowl.
The city says 1,600 NOPD officers are needed, but there are just 1,154. Of those, 103 work in the 8th District, the police precinct covering the French Quarter, Marigny and Central Business District.
And those numbers are continuing to plummet, as officers quit or retire. A report issued by the city’s Inspector General’s Office on NOPD staffing counted 1,215 sworn officers in May 2013 — “sworn” or “commissioned” officers are graduates of the Peace Officers Standards and Training course who have all the powers and responsibilities of a police officer. That’s a decline of 5 percent to today, even as the city’s population has been growing.
After a mass shooting on June 29 on Bourbon Street, that injured 10 people and killed a 21 year-old nursing student, Governor Bobby Jindal sent 100 state troopers to supplement the NOPD in the French Quarter. Their arrival was welcomed by many residents, workers and visitors.
“I felt so much safer when the troopers were here,” says Roy Gant, a Lucky Dog vendor who usually mans his cart in the first few blocks of Bourbon Street. Gant, a former Marine and no stranger to violent encounters in the French Quarter, says the state troopers were very visible and would actually chase criminals down on foot — as opposed to his observations of the NOPD.
“Oh, NOPD just gets on the radio and calls a car to chase them,” says Gant. And by the time a car responds, he says, the perpetrators are often long gone.
But a deployment of state troopers is expensive. Captain Doug Cain of the Louisiana State Police estimates the 100-man deployment, in two 50-officer shifts, cost over a million dollars. Cain says the LSP managed the surge within the department’s budget, and maintains over 100 officers at Troop B in Kenner, which also covers Orleans Parish. Additionally, upwards of 40-50 investigators and other personnel are in the city at all times, many based at Benson Tower.
“Our presence and footprint in the Greater New Orleans area, including Orleans Parish, is significant,” Cain says.
But many of those officers are detailed to specific jobs like oversight of casinos, patrol of the Crescent City Connection bridge and enforcement of motor-carrier laws, such as the weighing and inspection of long-haul trucks that pass through the region. Cain says the LSP is there to help, but it is ultimately the NOPD’s responsibility to patrol Orleans Parish.
In early November the extra troopers pulled up stakes and returned to their home posts throughout the state. Violent crime has risen in the streets they left.
Living and Working in the French Quarter
Despite all the pressures from hundreds of thousands of visitors and the spread of barrooms further downriver from Canal Street, the French Quarter remains a mixed-use neighborhood that is home to over 3,800 year-round residents, according to The Data Center.
Residents of the French Quarter, and the people who work there, say they infrequently see police officers, and when they do the cops seem to stick to Bourbon Street.
Diana Cannon lives and works in the French Quarter. She says she has learned to be street-smart after living in other major cities with their own share of crime, but one particular episode here in New Orleans left her rattled.
“I was in the Marigny, kind of coming back to the Quarter from Royal Street, and I had two guys on bicycles start following me back into the French Quarter,” she says. She managed to get to a safe place, but the episode left her so perturbed that now she always carries a Taser.
“Let’s put it this way,” she says: “‘Always alert’ has always been enough, and now that doesn’t seem like enough anymore.”
Bentley — his stage name — is an exotic dancer at the Bourbon Bad Boys All Male Revue. He says he never feels unsafe on Bourbon Street. But after work is another matter.
“I park over by Basin Street and I never see police officers anywhere in the Quarter but Bourbon Street,” he says. “It can be really dark on that side of the Quarter.”
A lot of people who work in the French Quarter park over by Basin Street and the Mahalia Jackson Theater, says Bentley.
Cannon, who works at Latitude 29 in the in the Bienville House hotel on Decatur Street, says groups always partner up to get to their cars after hours.
“That’s kind of a lengthy walk, and you’re kind of walking across, I feel like, some iffy parts of Rampart Street and then of the Quarter,” she says. “It’s very, very quiet, and in the evenings it’s almost desolate.”
A New Plan
New Orleans’ civic and business leaders are all-too aware of the problems facing the French Quarter. In addition to the recent perceived uptick in crime, there are manifold other problems in the historic core: flagging sanitation; crumbling infrastructure, from sidewalks to ancient water mains; and poor lighting.
For all the recent conversation on New Orleans’ new emerging industries, like technology and film production, the city is primarily fueled by the hotels, bars and restaurants. The most recent numbers from the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center show the city’s hospitality industry employs 81,867 people — nearly 15 percent of all jobs in the metro area.
“The French Quarter is arguably one of the most important historic mixed-use neighborhoods in all of the world, frankly. And it’s fragile. It has a lot of stress,” says Stephen Perry, the President and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We need a strong quality-of-life compliance program that has real teeth that gets the results. We need higher levels of sanitation. And, especially, we need a new lighting program that keeps the Quarter, in a historically-appropriate fashion, lit and maintained so that safety is at the forefront.”
But, first and foremost, Perry says, “We need a greatly ramped-up level of public safety and law enforcement.”
Despite a 5-percent raise for all officers and 82 new recruits who entered the police academy in late 2014, it will be a struggle for the city to meet its recruitment goals.
Even if all those recruits make it through the academy, they’ll have to be dispersed through all eight city police districts, over 24 hours a day — that works out to just about three new officers per district, per 8-hour shift, without factoring in off days and vacations and sick time.
The CVB, which represents New Orleans’ hospitality industry, negotiated a self-assessment program with the city’s hoteliers to add a fee to room night charges, in an effort to bolster the city’s national and international marketing efforts. Members decided to carve off a piece of that money — about $2.5 million a year — and hand it over to the city in a restricted account for the creation of a security and infrastructure project called NOLA Patrol.
The NOLA Patrol project has already begun, with money being spent on some sidewalk and street improvements. The city just signed a $3.9 million annual contract with Empire Janitorial Sales and Services to clean streets and haul trash in the French Quarter and CBD, and lighting projects will follow soon. And then there is the law enforcement component.
The NOPD has been slow to respond to requests for comment on overall staffing and the NOLA Patrol program. However, speaking in September 2014, shortly after NOLA Patrol was announced, former Mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni described some of the program's goals.
“NOLA Patrol will really be a pilot program in which we hire 50 people at the NOPD to assume some traffic functions and some non-emergency tasks that currently require a police officer in the district in the French Quarter,” Berni said.
The new officers will essentially be unarmed security guards without arrest powers, according to Berni, performing tasks such as directing traffic, responding to auto accidents and issuing quality-of-life citations.
But they won’t be police officers.
“The idea is for them to be uniformed, and to have whatever type of vehicle — whether it’s a bike or other kind of small vehicle — be decaled, but they’ll be differentiated from sworn officers. They will not be armed. They are going to be most akin to NYPD’s Traffic Enforcement and quality-of-life agents that you would see in a place like Times Square,” Berni said.
Unarmed officers patrolling the streets bring up new questions about effectiveness and safety, in an environment where violence has become more commonplace. In 2007 two unarmed New York Police Department Auxiliary Officers were shot and killed in Manhattan before fully-commissioned, armed officers were able to respond and kill the gunman.
This past November, after some concern over whether the money would be better spent on just hiring more police officers, the City Council approved the NOLA Patrol program. Now the work starts on choosing vehicles, uniforms and authorities. The job is now listed on the city’s Civil Service website: Police Community Services Specialist, starting at $25,508 a year, or $12.26 an hour.
In the meantime, the city and state just announced 150 state troopers and State Department of Public Safety police officers will be assigned to the city through Mardi Gras.
A contingent of State Police will remain on patrol in the French Quarter and the Marigny after the Carnival season, at least until the middle of May.