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Floating a Few Proposals 

New Orleans police officer William Murray and his Third District partner Patrick Mangus are not traffic cops. But, because they improvised the proper hand signals, all 34 floats of the Rex parade passed safely under low-slung oak branches in the 2300 block of Napoleon Avenue. The crowd cheered.

Later, city Emergency Medical Service technicians assisted a mother in labor aboard a truck float on St. Charles Avenue. She delivered twins at a nearby hospital.

And during the Le Krewe D'Etat parade, parents with young children cheered as a spectator stepped into the street and snuffed out a small fire that threatened to engulf a flambeaux carrier and his leaking fuel tank.

Meanwhile, disastrous attempts to imitate Mardi Gras in Philadelphia, Seattle, Fresno, Calif., and Austin, Texas, this year resulted in unthinkable violence: rioters clashing with police, clouds of pepper spray, looting and overturned cars.

How do we explain our success? Because it's our tradition. Each year, we take to the streets for parades, baubles, bands and generally peaceful, creative mirth. "Mardi Gras is in the bones and in the soul and in the heart and in the spirit of the people of this city," Mayor Marc Morial said last week. "And that's why it's successful here. That's why I don't think you can imitate it or duplicate it anywhere else in America."

"I don't know how we did it," Police Superintendent Richard Pennington said. "The officers were really very tolerant."

We suspect the chief answered his own question. Traditional American police strategies of "aggressive policing" and "zero tolerance" of minor offenses simply do not work in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti reported a total of 2,677 revelers arrested citywide during the 11-day Carnival season for all types of offenses, many of them traffic-related. By Ash Wednesday morning, 2,568 were released. That's not bad, considering the mayor's optimistic figure of 2 million people in the city during the 11-day Carnival season. (Make that 2 million and two, counting the truck parade twins.)

But numbers reflect only part of the Mardi Gras' story. Mardi Gras after all is a festival of the spirit. As such, this year was another success.

Still, even success can be improved. Because Carnival is an (art)work-in-progress, the Mayor's Mardi Gras Coordinating Committee will meet this month to review the season. We offer the following suggestions:

· Punctuality. Too many parades got off to a late start this year. Crowds and police get tired -- and sometimes surly. Traffic becomes tangled; trash piles up. Delays can be dangerous, especially at night. On Mardi Gras, people don't want Rex and Zulu to race like NASCAR, but they do want to see these two regal processions start on time.

· Revisit the issue of "rain dates" that favor early, weaker parades. Endymion and other superkrewes should not be scrambling at the last minute for a contingency plan.

· Too many floats are breaking down, not only because of flat tires but also because of the weight of Carnival throws. Perhaps some floats should carry extra throws on a tandem-float. Form floating "pit crews" to repair disabled floats.

· To help bolster Mardi Gras' family image and costuming, encourage more costume contests along parade routes.

· We need more than the 250 portable toilets the city puts out each year, and more disposable wastecans.

· All floats do not need to be skyscrapers. The maximum height allowed for floats is 20 feet from the street. Bring back the old NOPSI parade advance truck with the tree-clearing "float stick," if necessary.

· The city's Web site needs a Carnival page, which should encourage suggestions for improving Carnival from visitors and locals.

· Police should step up enforcement of the law against throwing beads back at parade participants -- especially horses that might panic. During one Uptown parade, we observed a near-fight break out on Napoleon Avenue between horse riders and a crowd of teenagers who were intentionally startling horses.

· Ordinances banning news media vehicles from passing out "throws" such as commercialized cups should be strictly enforced. Why? Just ask the parents whose kids scampered back to their ladders with free CDs bearing "parental advisory" warnings.

· Despite longstanding recommendations from a police study group, the city and NOPD still fail to widely and prominently advertise the investigative agencies a visitor or native can contact concerning misconduct by police or city employees. The contacts are: the city Office of Municipal Investigation (which should have a toll-free number) at 299-3650; the NOPD Public Integrity Division at 826-1410 or (800) 999-4743; or email at pdwebm@new-orleans.la.us.

Admittedly, most of our recommendations fall under "housekeeping." You'll notice we aren't requesting more riot gear for police. The message to the rest of the United States should be clear: if you want to see Mardi Gras, come to New Orleans.

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