The New Orleans Police Department says it will allow Mardi Gras Indian tribes to parade relatively unimpeded during Mardi Gras season and St. Joseph's Day this year, top police officials said at a meeting of City Council's Governmental Affairs Committee held today to discuss the relationship between the department and the Indians.
Representing the police at the meeting were Deputy Superintendent Kirk Bouyelas, Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter and all eight district commanders. NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas was unable to attend the meeting because he was in Indianapolis preparing for next year's Super Bowl in New Orleans, Councilwoman Susan Guidry said. Mardi Gras Indian representatives included Yellow Pocahontas Chief Darryl Montana, Sabrina Mays Montana (son and daughter-in-law, respectively, of legendary late Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana), Guardians of the Flame Big Queen Cherice Harrison Nelson, Creole Osceolas Chief Clarence Dalcour and longtime civil rights leader Jerome Smith.
Department leaders have agreed to end several long-held practices — most controversially, the practice of ordering Indians off the street at 6 p.m. on Mardi Gras day — that have led to a traditionally strained relationship between tribes and the department.
"There is no 6 p.m. law, no 6 p.m. rule," said NOPD Deputy Chief Kirk Bouyelas. Council Member Susan Guidry responded by polling the tribe members present as to whether they had either been subjected to or had witnessed others subjected to the practice. All responded in the affirmative.
"I give up 5,000 hours of my life per year [in preparation for Mardi Gras season and St. Joseph's day] only to be told to get off the streets," Darryl Montana said.
Creole Osceolas Chief Clarence Dalcour asked that police simply treat Indians like they do Mardi Gras parade krewes and late-night revelers.
"We look at this as something we do for the community," Dalcour said. "We are all paying tribute to the holiday in our own way ... I don't understand how it closes when the sun goes down for some people and not others."
Asked for a commitment not to enforce a 6 p.m. curfew on Mardi Gras Indians, Bouyelas at first balked, saying there needed to be further discussion before Mardi Gras and mentioning "permit issues." Bouyelas mention of permits drew an angry response from chiefs who pointed out that permits, which would necessitate tribes sticking to a specific, pre-determined route, undermined the very point of the tradition.
"There will be no permit There's never been a permit," Guidry said. Asked later by Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson-Palmer if police would commit to promising that "they won't be shut down at 6 p.m.," all present police officials agreed.
Bouyelas said NOPD had also agreed to stop following and corralling the tribes with their cars and not to flash their lights or sound their sirens at Mardi Gras Indians, allowing chiefs more autonomy to police their own tribes, welcome news to many present.
"We're working to make sure everyone has a great day ... We're one big family," Darryl Montana said.
Bouyelas also promised to identify and give out contact information for someone in the department who will act as "point person" for complaints about NOPD harassment of Indians on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's day.
Sixth District Commander Robert Bardy, whose Central City district was held up as the model for drastically improved relations between police and Mardi Gras Indians, said overall communication and cooperation had improved.
"We have gone incident-free in the past two years of this administration," Bardy said. "We have had no incidents in Central City."
Still, Bardy and others conceded that there is still room for improvement, which is why NOPD will soon be bringing chiefs in to help train incoming officers in the academy, Carter and Bouyelas said.
"We want to make sure that our officers are aware of the culture, that they're sensitive to it," Bouyelas said.