When 27-year-old Tyler Harper regained consciousness in a Jefferson Street parking lot in downtown Lafayette, his face was throbbing and he was surrounded by police.
It was 1:50 a.m. on Christmas Eve, and just moments earlier about a half-dozen guys had attacked the Youngsville musician, approaching him from two directions as he made a phone call between City Bar and the former nightclub building next door.
“They just ran up and started swinging,” Harper recalled a week later, both eyes black, his cheek still swollen.
Two days after Harper’s attack, André Broussard, a 30-year-old graphic designer from Lafayette, was punched twice in the face about 1:45 a.m. after bumping into a man on Jefferson Street. His attacker followed Broussard several blocks before battering him between Buchanan and Vermilion Streets.
“It’s a problem indicative of any urban area of a decent size,” said Robert Guercio, co-owner of Jefferson Street bar The Greenroom and vice president of the Downtown Lafayette Restaurant and Bar Association. “It just comes with the territory.”
But so do efforts to ameliorate the issue. Guercio and the DLRBA are working to create a “virtual surveillance network” — a new generation of neighborhood watch, he explained — that includes private surveillance systems and social media outreach to help identify troublemakers disrupting the downtown scene.
“The goal is to enhance our collaborations so that when we do have these isolated incidents, that we are able to work together to achieve swift justice and help the police in their investigation in whatever way we can and is appropriate,” Guercio said.
After Broussard’s Dec. 26 attack, Guercio wasted no time locating and getting his hands on privately held surveillance footage of the assailant, providing it to the Lafayette Police Department before its investigators could make their own request for it.
The attacker’s image was blasted on the DLRBA’s Facebook page Dec. 27 and has been shared more than 430 times since. By Dec. 30, police issued a warrant for 27-year-old Joshua W. Richard, of Lafayette, who remained at large Friday afternoon.
“My only role was to identify that there was valuable footage that would aid them in their investigation,” Guercio said. “It’s just a matter of helping cut through some of the red tape.”
But such civilian policing does not always help law enforcement and can hamper an investigation, Lafayette Police spokesman Cpl. Paul Mouton said.
“Our only concern is that when someone releases a picture without going through law enforcement first, there’s certain images that we don’t want public for reasons that may harm the investigation,” Mouton said.
In Broussard’s case, for instance — even though it turned out the DLRBA identified the correct man — the image’s distribution eliminated the possibility for Broussard to identify his assailant in a lineup, Mouton said.
“They probably should have checked with law enforcement first before releasing it,” Mouton said.
Guercio defended the DLRBA’s efforts, however, saying it would not release an image if they were only “99 percent sure” it was the culprit.
“Our job is to engage the public at large via social media when we are 100 percent confident that the images that we post are of someone who is guilty of a crime,” Guercio said.
In Harper’s case, Guercio’s efforts to secure private surveillance images were spoiled both by time and the holiday. Before he was able to coordinate with a camera-owner who may have had footage of Harper’s attack, the files were recorded anew. The system only had a seven-day storage period.
That’s one of the issues Guercio says he’s focused on, finding the means to get good and reliable video footage of those causing a problem downtown and spoiling the nightlife for others.
It’s unclear why police weren’t able to secure the footage in the days following the Dec. 24 incident. However, police were able to make one arrest after an officer happened upon the attack while it was still underway.
“For the most part, we’re able to get the video within days of an incident, if not the day of,” Mouton said, although it depends on the accessibility of the business owner or employee who controls the footage.
Police often rely on private camera-owners for usable footage that implicates criminals, Mouton said, since downtown’s aging camera system is limited, with few cameras and poor-quality images.
Yet as the district eyes a new system — no funding has been approved yet. The $700,000 budgeted for neighborhood cameras doesn’t include downtown, which also faces a cut in its police presence after the Lafayette City-Parish Council cut in half the funds that had been available to pay off-duty police officers overtime to patrol the downtown nightlife scene.
“We’re gonna have to work within our means,” Mouton said of the cuts.
The number of officers patrolling downtown on its busiest nights has already been reduced, he said.
In the meantime, Guercio said, the DLRBA intends to increase its collaboration with private property owners and other downtown-based associations, such as the Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, to organize its own security efforts should they be needed in the future.
A push for the new camera system is in the works, and the DLRBA is working to make obtaining private footage an easier task. The aim, Guercio said, is “to help minimize any negative issues so we can focus on the fun stuff.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825