French Quarter residents sound off on plan to self-fund extra cops

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- Local resident Chris Mortenson listens intently as French Quarter Management Security Task Force speaks to the public during a town hall meeting for residents and businesses to further explain its 'Make Our Streets Safer Initiative' and provide the opportunity to ask questions. The meeting was held at the ballroom of the Bourbon Orleans hotel in New Orleans, La., on Thursday, July 31, 2014.
Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- Local resident Chris Mortenson listens intently as French Quarter Management Security Task Force speaks to the public during a town hall meeting for residents and businesses to further explain its 'Make Our Streets Safer Initiative' and provide the opportunity to ask questions. The meeting was held at the ballroom of the Bourbon Orleans hotel in New Orleans, La., on Thursday, July 31, 2014.

French Quarter denizens asked to pay for extra patrols

A plan to bolster law enforcement presence on Bourbon Street and in other areas of the French Quarter by having neighborhood residents and businesses pay for off-duty New Orleans police officers met with skepticism and some pointed criticism Thursday night at a meeting sponsored by the French Quarter Management District.

Since two gunmen opened fire on the city’s most famous street in the early morning of June 29, killing one person and injuring nine others, district leaders and a group of Bourbon Street bar owners have been hatching a plan to bolster a police presence that has shrunk by a third over a four-year decline in NOPD manpower.

The state-chartered management district has been working with 8th District Police Cmdr. Jeffrey Walls and the city agency charged with coordinating off-duty details, the Office of Police Secondary Employment, on a plan for privately paid cops to patrol key areas of the neighborhood, most heavily on weekends.

But for some of the more than 60 residents and business owners at Thursday’s meeting, that plan looked like an open-ended move to dump the government’s responsibility for public safety on people who live and work in the city’s revenue-generating tourism magnet.

Among them, Decatur Street resident Deborah Hicks wondered why money budgeted for unhired police officers can’t foot the bill to beef up police presence in the neighborhood.

“We already pay more than our fair share in more ways than one,” said Hicks, who said French Quarter residents often are the victims of crime. “This is charging victims to be not protected again. I’m not sure why we’re getting gouged.”

Despite assurances to the contrary from Walls, other speakers questioned whether the NOPD would redirect its officers elsewhere, knowing that residents and businesses were funding added patrols in three areas, in what is billed as a stopgap measure while the department works to hire more officers.

The meeting was called to gauge interest in a voluntary pilot program to pay for off-duty details, a response to mounting crime concerns that reached a tipping point with the Bourbon Street shooting melee.

Following the shooting, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called on Gov. Bobby Jindal for reinforcements, demanding 100 state troopers to help ensure safety in the city. Jindal committed half that number, to remain on the streets through Labor Day.

These days, the State Police presence on Bourbon Street far overshadows the few NOPD officers seen patrolling the strip.

Bob Simms, chairman of the FQMD’s security task force, said the added law enforcement presence has shown up in a decline in reported crimes in the area. But the state troopers are slated to leave on Sept. 1.

Simms said the goal is to get off-duty cops hired for at least one of the three designated areas by then. He called the plan “a Band-Aid to try to help in the short term.”

The added patrols would come at a price, at least for those willing to pay it:

$9,300 per week for off-duty patrols in the area from the 200 block to the 700 block of Bourbon Street and midway down each block on cross streets, with as many as three off-duty officers assigned at any one time. That could mean a cost of $200 per week each for some 45 business owners.

$6,200 per week for the “upriver” business area between Royal and Decatur streets, with one detail officer slated to work at any given time on weekdays after noon, and two on weekends after 3 p.m. Business owners there might be expected to pay about $100 a week.

$3,700 per week to cover a 12-square-block residential area centered on Royal Street from St. Ann Street to Esplanade Avenue. Those off-duty shifts would run from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., with single-officer shifts Monday through Wednesday and two-cop shifts Thursday through Sunday.

Simms suggested the cost there could be $50 per resident per week, assuming about 20 percent of the 350 parcel owners in that area pony up.

The numbers, and just how far the bolstered security stretches, will depend on the willingness of residents and shop owners to participate, Simms said.

“Some of your neighbors are going to get the benefit without paying for it,” FQMD Chairman Robert Watters, a Bourbon Street club owner, acknowledged.

According to the management district, the Bourbon Street part of the plan is “firm, but the other two areas will be sized by the location and number of properties willing to donate funds to cover program expenses.”

The district has been working for several weeks to lock down the Bourbon Street plan with support from the French Quarter Business League, a group of bar owners along the strip.

The goal, according to Tropical Isle owner Earl Bernhardt, is to take back Bourbon Street from the “thugs.”

Simms said the added police presence is needed to stanch a wave of violence he attributed in part to dwindling police manpower.

Once 150 officers strong, the 8th District’s roster has slipped to just about 100 during a four-year hiring freeze that only recently has begun to thaw.

“Bad guys know we don’t have too many officers,” Simms said.

Walls confirmed that the 8th District, which encompasses the French Quarter, the Central Business District and the Marigny Triangle, is down to about 100 officers, saying the State Police have helped create a more visible law enforcement presence.

The district’s officers would have first dibs on the off-duty work under the plan.

But residents seemed to want more answers, including a data-driven plan to deploy officers when crimes most often occur. According to police data presented by Simms, 44 percent of the crimes against persons in the neighborhood take place between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m.

A few hours before Hicks complained that the city should have unspent cash from its hiring shortfall to fund overtime for officers in the French Quarter, a City Council committee voted to shift $4 million of that money to help pay for jail reforms and firefighter pension obligations.

Decatur Street resident Dan Altenloh said the request for more money from residents is a tough pill to swallow without some assurances.

“I think we need to hear a commitment from the city that they’re standing behind us and that they’re doing something to reverse the trend. We didn’t see that,” he said. “I want an end game.”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.