Earl Bernhardt, owner of Tropical Isle on Bourbon Street, bore witness to a familiar scene last month. A tourist agreed to give someone on the street $5. As the tourist got the money out of his wallet, the man took the cash and pushed the tourist against a wall before fleeing.
Crimes like these have become regular occurrences in the past year, Bernhardt said, and they're escalating in frequency and brazenness. "It just gets progressively worse because the bad guys know that they have no consequences," Bernhardt said. "They're free to do whatever they want to do."
On Aug. 21, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) unveiled a program to "improve public safety and quality of life enforcement and presence in the French Quarter" following recent violence in the neighborhood and on Bourbon Street. The program, dubbed "NOLA Patrol," is expected to launch before the end of the year. It will consist of 50 uniformed, unarmed civilian "grounds patrol officers" who will handle traffic control and other non-emergencies under NOPD supervision. NOLA Patrol officers will have vehicle decals and will be identified separately from NOPD, though they will report to the 8th District police department.
The city wants to add those officers to the French Quarter to free up NOPD officers to handle violent crimes and other serious offenses. NOLA Patrol will handle traffic, parking, sanitation and some quality of life issues.
"Our problem down here in the Quarter is, we don't need any quality of life, we need protection of life. … I just cringe to think what's going to happen when the state police leave.” — Earl Bernhardt
Bernhardt said police are not addressing those quality of life issues now. "I just think this money could be used more effectively," he said. "In a perfect world, where everything's working fine, you would have these people greeting the tourists and giving them directions. That would be fine, but right now we're in a crisis situation and we might as well have a troop of Boy Scouts down here."
In a statement, Landrieu said, "The French Quarter is an important economic engine for the city, region and state, and we all have to do our part to ensure that it is a healthy neighborhood."
Interim NOPD Chief Michael Harrison said the patrol "will be an asset to our 8th District and will help reduce some of our manpower pressures on 8th District officers. It is also a way for NOPD to be more engaged with this community on quality of life issues."
The Louisiana State Police announced Aug. 28 that 100 officers would remain in the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhood through November, extending their stay beyond their initial Labor Day departure date. Since July, LSP responded to 1,600 calls and made 500 arrests.
But who will be a NOLA Patrol officer? And what will he or she do?
Funding for the patrol comes from a share of a 1.75-percent hotel/motel tax (approved by the Louisiana Legislature in 2013), which is split between the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) — with .25 percent going to the city for the French Quarter. According to the city, that .25 percent will generate $200,000 a month to pay for the program. Before its launch, NOLA Patrol and a cooperative endeavor agreement between the city and the CVB must receive New Orleans City Council approval.
According to Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni, planning the program began long before the Bourbon Street shooting in June that killed one person and injured nine others. The program is modeled after similar non-police responders in other cities, particularly New York City's traffic enforcement agents. Those officers (more than 2,500 of them) must pass a 12-week training program before deployment throughout the city. Civilian agents there have endured assaults and even death — one was killed in a traffic accident last year. Several agents and a union also filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department for imposing towing quotas.
The New Orleans plan is two-pronged: improve the quality of life and visibility of law enforcement in the French Quarter; and build NOPD ranks over the long term by using NOLA Patrol as a "recruitment pipeline," Berni said.
"It's a chance to provide us a pool of candidates who would be interested in that line of work," added NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble.
NOLA Patrol plans to partner with local colleges, such as Delgado Community College, to recruit young people interested in law enforcement careers but don't have the completed college requirements. The NOLA Patrol program would offer them a chance to get experience in the field and then complete their two- or four-year college programs for full-time NOPD employment, Berni said. While NOPD applicants must be at least 20 years old and have earned a high school diploma or GED and completed either two years active military service, four years military reserve service, 60 college credits and/or an associate's degree or higher, applicants also can have two years of patrol or other law enforcement experience. NOLA Patrol applicants can be as young as 18.
"A lot of people have an interest in law enforcement, particularly at community colleges or criminal justice four-year programs," Berni said. "They could benefit from work experience from this type of work."
Potential NOLA Patrol hires would have to meet standard NOPD requirements (except for the college degree) and must be physically able to patrol on foot or indoors, write clear summons and reports and have good judgment.
The officers will be assigned work under the 8th District command. Patrol officers will respond to minor accidents and begin filing reports, "which takes up a lot of time and energy" for NOPD officers, Berni said. NOLA Patrol officers also will interact with residents and visitors and respond to quality of life issues, as well as sanitation issues and parking, which make up the bulk of French Quarter complaints, Berni said.
"[The 8th District] responds to thousands of non-emergency calls a year," he said. "All calls, while important, take away from visible deterrents from foot patrols that people feel is needed."
Greg Webster, a valet and bellboy at the Chateau Hotel who has worked in the Quarter for more than 20 years, said a lack of experience among the proposed NOLA Patrol applicants is nearsighted.
"I don't think it's cool to put kids or adults out there without proper training," he said. "To put them out there in this type of environment, which we know is real bad, to put them out here with no guns. Because they're not going to be able to carry real guns."
Webster said he has been waiting for someone to ask him his thoughts on NOLA Patrol since he heard about the program. He said the city should invest the money in recruiting more officers. "What you could do is ... make it more interesting for more people to want to join the police force to help out, legally, than just trying to go under budget with it and just put these people out there," he said.
Jon Robicheaux, a bartender at The Golden Lantern on Royal Street, said the biggest obstacle he sees to solving crime is people not reporting incidents when they happen. "Especially in the gay community, people leaving the club," he said. "They don't want to report it because they don't want people to know they were at a gay bar." In that sense, Robicheaux believes more people on the scene "can't hurt."
Bernhardt agrees that most minor crimes do not get reported, but he doubts NOLA Patrol will be able to prevent or deter strong-arm robberies and other major crimes.
"Our problem down here in the Quarter is, we don't need any quality of life, we need protection of life," he said. "I just cringe to think what's going to happen when the state police leave. They've been keeping these bad guys under control. But you've got all kinds of rough-tough ex-felons that are preying on the tourists down here. They strong-arm them for money. They come up and they're charming right at first. The tourists don't know any better and they'll try to do the shoeshine scam, or some way to get money out of them. And when they do that, they get really hostile with them."
Meanwhile, the French Quarter Management District (FQMD) is planning its own patrol — hiring NOPD officers to work paid details in certain areas. The French Quarter Business League (FQBL) likewise approved a plan last month to hire off-duty police officers to patrol Bourbon Street. Businesses chip in $10,000 per week to pay for the details.
The FQMD wants to add protection in four "pilot" areas — including Bourbon Street — on the "downriver" side of the quarter from St. Ann and Bourbon streets to Esplanade Avenue and Decatur Street; and on the "upriver" side of Royal and St. Ann streets to Decatur and Iberville streets. Another outpost on the lake side of the Quarter, from Burgundy and Iberville streets to Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue, could be patrolled by bicycle. The FQMD plan would add two officers to each area from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week. On the Royal Street mall, an officer would begin patrol as early as noon.
"Our belief is blue shirts on the street will deter crime," said FQMD Chairman Bob Simms. If each area has 20 percent participation, the estimated cost is $40 per week per residential building and $70 per week per business. Simms said that cost would go down if there are more participants. Before FQMD can begin requesting the hires from the NOPD Office of Secondary Employment (as well as the City Attorney's office and the U.S. Department of Justice, under federal consent decree requirements), the FQMD board must approve the plan. The board is scheduled to consider the plan at a meeting Sept. 2.
The plan also calls for improved street lighting and more crime cameras (more than 500 cameras in the Quarter are registered with the 8th District).
Simms says the FQMD does not yet have a position on the NOLA Patrol program. "When we get more details, we'll bring it to the board," he said. "It's hard to pass judgment when you don't understand the intent."
Berni said the city supports paid detail programs, and NOLA Patrol would supplement the details. "We need additional manpower in every district," he said. "Especially in those high-visibility commercial corridors. Making sure there's buy-in into the paid details is an important component ... to patrolling private areas and businesses, in particular this area, which is visited by thousands of people a year."
Bernhardt says he has considered hiring retired police officers through a private service called Pinnacle Security. "We are thinking very seriously about, once the state police leave, hiring some of these guys because, you know, they're veterans," Bernhardt said. "They've dealt with these people before. They know how to deal with them. You can't treat them with kindness and respect; you have to get tough with them because that's the only thing they understand."