During his reforms of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) in the 1990s, then-Superintendent Richard Pennington instituted a ban on cops working detail shifts at privately owned bars — a practice that had existed for decades in New Orleans. There were plenty of problems with the previous system of moonlighting, including the fact that some cops made more money at it than they did from their NOPD jobs. It essentially was a private security system cloaked, literally, in official uniform, and it left many cops tired when it came to working their day jobs. It also gave cops a financial stake in local bars, which in turn encouraged them to turn a blind eye to violations, which ranged from drug dealing to serving minors.
What Pennington proposed in its place was a new system in which businesses could pool their money and hire off-duty cops to patrol a small neighborhood — but cops could not be attached to particular establishments. That old idea got new life last week when the members of the French Quarter Business League (FQBL, formerly known as the Bourbon Business Alliance) unanimously approved a plan that would call for FQBL members to pay off-duty police officers to patrol Bourbon Street. The donations would be voluntary, totaling more than $10,000 per week to put more police on the street. The money for the plan would be pooled, as Pennington suggested years ago.
While some New Orleans neighborhoods have enacted special taxing districts (Lakeview and Mid-City among them) to pay for extra NOPD patrols, the Bourbon Street merchants' system is different because it would involve no taxes. The Quarter's crime problem is serious enough that the FQBL passed the proposal unanimously.
You don't have to walk down Bourbon Street late at night to know this is an idea that's long overdue; just talk to anyone who lives or works near the tourist area.
District C City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey has held several public meetings since a series of June shootings — in the French Quarter, Bywater and St. Roch — and at each, frustrated and frightened residents have received the same answer from NOPD officers: There are not enough of them.
Fifty state troopers began working in New Orleans this summer, but they will depart after Labor Day. The FQBL plan would put extra officers on the street for at least six months, after which the results could be evaluated.
The June shooting on Bourbon Street that injured nine people and killed one was just the latest egregious incident in the tourist-heavy district. On the weekend before Mardi Gras 2013, four people were shot in a thick crowd near the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis streets. Near the same corner, one man was killed and several wounded during a violent Halloween night in 2011. Each time, city and police officials vowed to crack down on crime on Bourbon Street, and each time something heinous happened again on a street that feels more and more out of control as the night goes on. At the time of the June shooting, NOPD "beat books" obtained by WWL-TV showed that four officers were working Bourbon Street. Any more feet on the beat can only help.
The Quarter merchants' plan seems sound, but its success will depend on the NOPD. A report released last week by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found lingering problems with the NOPD's paid detail system. The problems ranged from cops not reporting detail work to their supervisors to failing to enter officers' hours into the computer.
"If paid details are not properly approved and scheduled, NOPD is understaffed while officers work details on city time," the OIG report warned.
Coincidentally, that's one of the major problems that Pennington tried to correct in the 1990s. (For what it's worth, Police Chief Ronal Serpas says the OIG's office used data from the first quarter of 2013, when New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras and hosted Super Bowl XLVII, and that the antiquated payroll system used then has since been replaced.)
In a city reeling from violent crime, some have voiced resentment that the tourist-heavy areas of the city seem to get more attention from police after a violent incident. That's understandable. Everyone wants to live in a safe neighborhood with adequate police protection. But if French Quarter businesses are ready to pony up extra money each week to help make Bourbon safer, it won't be just visitors who benefit but also the thousands of New Orleanians who work and live in the French Quarter. This plan deserves a chance.