As part of his transparency pledge, new New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas has reinstituted the tradition of police ridealongs for citizens who are willing to sign an indemnity agreement. So far, it seems, no one's taken him up on it. "The only person I've seen do a ride-along in 10 years was the chaplain," front desk officer Vicky Guidry says when Gambit shows up for the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift on Saturday, June 26. "They used to do them when I first got here but they stopped. You're in for a treat."
Gambit was paired with Officer Brittany Marigny, 26, by her shift sergeant. Besides having worked as a police officer in New Orleans since 2004, Marigny may be uniquely qualified to patrol the city's 5th District — which runs east from the Marigny into Holy Cross and the Lower 9th Ward, and north into St. Roch and the Desire area — because of her name.
"I sometimes joke about it when people ask," she says. "I say, yes, I enjoy patrolling the Marigny so much with all you fine people that I asked them to let me change my name."
Guidry's colleague, Officer Nate Phillips, asks why Gambit doesn't ride along in the 3rd District, which runs from Gentilly up to Lakeshore, and "have a good time." What's the difference between the 3rd and the 5th districts?
"We do real work here," he jokes.
Marigny's first call is to the Super 10 discount clothing store on St. Claude Avenue — which sells a variety of outfits for men and women, none for more than $10 — looking for a suspected shoplifter who stole $30 worth of shorts last week and has returned to the store.
"We try not to put on the lights and sirens because it scares people," says Marigny, gunning her Crown Victoria 70 mph on St. Claude, flashing her lights intermittently on the way to the call.
The Super 10 occupies a double storefront on St. Claude, between Universal Furniture and Mr. T's Used Furniture stores. The suspect has just left, and Super 10 manager Tavi Duhe gives Marigny a description: an African-American man in a red shirt, cap, shorts and with a white towel around his neck. Asked whether the man might have stolen the shorts because of the hot weather, Duhe laughs.
"No, it's drugs," Duhe says. So, the suspect planned to sell them? "That's what most of 'em do."
Marigny and another patrol officer drive up St. Claude Avenue in separate cars. They spot a man in a red shirt with a hat on, and a white towel around his neck, walking past the shuttered Charles J. Colton Middle School two blocks away. Marigny's fellow officer does a swift U-turn, pulls over and suggests the suspect sit in the back of her patrol car for a "field interview," which he agrees to do.
Marigny leans down and talks to the suspect through the patrol car's back window, her head only clearing the side of the vehicle by about 6 inches when she stands back upright. She clearly takes pride in her appearance; her stylish bob haircut is rarely out of place.
"That's not him," Duhe says when the officers bring the suspect back in to the discount store. "He was wearing shorts."
Nevertheless, Marigny runs his name through the computer and discovers the suspect has an open warrant for simple battery, so Marigny drives him to the Orleans Parish Prison central lockup at Tulane and Broad avenues. As she drives away from Super 10, the suspect's girlfriend, who was walking 50 yards behind him when he was apprehended, wanders off up the street — swinging a canvas shopping bag and looking distracted.
"Man, this is messed up," the suspect says from the back seat. "This a damn waste of money — simple battery, that's a municipal [court charge]."
Not when it's domestic, says Marigny, who suspects the man's girlfriend didn't want to tell the suspect she had called the police about the alleged felony. At lockup, a printout of the warrant alleges the suspect had accused his girlfriend of having sexual intercourse with her cousin earlier in June. He hit her in the face, grabbed their young child, and started to run away, punching his girlfriend repeatedly in the face when she threatened to call the police, the warrant says.
Marigny leaves the man with sheriff's deputies for intake, and files her report from her in-car Panasonic Toughbook — a new tool for the New Orleans Police Department, which has only been using the online reporting system for a few months.
On the way back to the 5th District, Marigny drives past St. Joseph's Church on Tulane Avenue and crosses herself. She's got the air conditioning on and the windows half open.
"The streets are talking," she says. And what are they saying? "Nothing, right now. But I like to keep the windows open when I roll up on a scene."
Marigny became a police officer after growing up near the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course and graduating from St. Mary's Dominican High School, because she wanted to "effect change in the community," she says.
"Everybody always tells me 'I don't know why you want to be a police officer,'" she says. "They say they're all corrupt."
Marigny doesn't tell people what she does for a living outside of work. If they ask, she tells them she's in sanitation — that way, you don't have to worry about people asking favors, she says as she pulls in to a McDonald's on Louisa Street for a Grilled Chicken Classic, fries, and a caramel sundae.
Marigny doesn't know the new chief, and she didn't know his predecessor, Warren Riley, though she met Riley once, she says, and found him nice enough. Asked about Serpas' decision on June 25 to do some major reshuffling in the NOPD, which includes cutting back on management positions, Marigny is noncommittal. "He kept the positions he needed," she says. "What I think doesn't matter."
She doesn't watch or read the news, because the papers only care about negativity, she says. If she had a bad experience at a restaurant, Marigny says she would tell 100 people, but if she had a good experience, she might mention it to one or two. The same goes for the public's experience of policing, she feels.
Isn't she concerned about the recent indictments of her fellow officers related to the Danziger Bridge shooting, or the shooting and burning of Henry Glover in Algiers following Hurricane Katrina?
"When I took my psych evaluation, it said I don't care about other people," Marigny says. "As long as Brittany Marigny isn't getting indicted or arrested, that's all I can do. I don't know what they did, I try not to pass judgment on other people. I get paid to protect and serve, so that's what I do."
A variety of calls come in throughout the afternoon. Marigny must cite a man at Tulane Hospital for driving around with five children in the back seat without wearing seatbelts; they got in an accident and the other driver is being blamed for the crash. Marigny asks another man to turn down his music after complaints from neighbors. Some people are suspected of breaking into a vacant house to steal copper, and there are some teenagers suspected of breaking into another house down the street. One woman claims a man threw a glass bottle into her car, but she doesn't want him arrested.
Marigny stops in at the Mardi Gras Zone on Port and Royal streets for a free bottle of water. The owner likes police presence, she says, so he'll give officers a drink of their choice every shift.
Marigny can't pull people over for speeding because she doesn't have a radar gun. In fact, she gets impatient because drivers tend to slow down in front of her when they see a police car. She does provide assistance to another officer who is writing a ticket to a driver who blew through a stop sign, however, and can write tickets of her own for such infractions when she sees them.
"Sometimes I give everybody warnings, or I'll let the first person go with a warning and give everyone else tickets," she says. "It all depends on the rule I've set myself for the day. I try to be fair."
There's a call to Project Lazarus, a facility on Dauphine Street for men living with HIV. One of the newer patients had been missing from the facility for two days and recently returned wild-eyed, threatening to kick down the front door.
"He threatened me enough to where I'm really worried," says the facility manager, who suspects the patient is on drugs. "I had a bad feeling about this guy. I didn't want to have him here in the first place, but it's not my call."
Marigny puts on latex gloves and walks around the facility, along with five other officers who also have been dispatched to the scene. There's no sign of the suspect, so the officers tell the manager to call again if he shows up, then they leave.
A couple calls for the second time about losing a cell phone. Marigny listens to them intently, but explains there's very little she can do.
Afterward, she adopts a quizzical expression and says she sometimes wouldn't mind working with her best friend at the Louis Vuitton store inside Saks Fifth Avenue on Canal Street. They make $18 an hour over there, she has heard, and you get a uniform, too. "But I just couldn't do that job," she says.
In the trunk of her patrol car, Marigny keeps her own Louis Vuitton purse with her belongings in it. It's real, she says. Legal. And she has a Gucci one at home, too, somewhere in New Orleans. Also, a young son and daughter whose pictures are the wallpaper on her iPhone. Their father is a firefighter, she says.
At 8:50 p.m., there's a loud party in the Edith Sampson Park at the corner of Piety and Treasure streets in the Desire neighborhood. A DJ blasts hip-hop through a set of speakers as about 200 neighbors of all ages — from toddlers to an old woman who can barely walk, even with her cane — stand around talking, smoking and riding bikes.
The crowd doesn't seem particularly threatening, but it is large. Marigny and a fellow officer get out of their patrol cars with their lights flashing and stand on the corner chatting with a few of the neighborhood kids. They slowly deliver the message that it's time to go home, and despite drawing a few dirty looks, appear to have communicated successfully after about 10 minutes.
Members of the crowd start to dribble away, begrudgingly, heading back into the neighborhood streets. Marigny and her colleague stand around chatting with some of the stragglers and repeat the message that it's time to leave the park. Eventually, even the old woman with the cane heads home.
Back in the car, Marigny seems relieved. "They listened," she says. "That's good." She adds that the last time a party was broken up in similar circumstances, police shot a reveler. But she can't talk about it. Instead, she asks with a smile. "You don't watch the news?"
Marigny prides herself on maintaining good relations with the people of the 5th District. She recently arrested one neighborhood kid on a curfew violation, but after she made a series of follow-up calls on him, they became friends. He tells her she's the best cop on the streets, she says, driving back to the precinct building on Burgundy Street.
Nevertheless, she finds the public's distrust of the police hard to take.
"They just look at you funny, like you're an insect or something in a petri dish," she says. "People look at you like you're the criminal, like you stole the tablecloth that's been in their family for generations or something. Sometimes they cuss you out and ask you what the eff you're looking at.
"That's when I say, 'I'm looking at you.'"