Mayor Mitch Landrieu has come under mounting criticism in recent weeks as crime-weary residents have taken to social media and gathered in Jackson Square to demand a remedy to the city’s violence.
But perhaps the sharpest and most visible criticism has been registered by Sidney Torres IV, the flashy former trash company owner who has sought to use his wealth and local celebrity to bring attention to the scourge of crime in the Crescent City.
Known for a business that once cleaned up the French Quarter in a literal sense, Torres has lambasted the mayor in an aggressive advertising blitz, claiming Landrieu has failed to curb violence in the city’s main tourist destination.
The public spat escalated last week when Landrieu, speaking to WWL-TV, suggested Torres consider applying his “millions and millions and millions of dollars” toward crime-fighting “if he thinks it is so easy.”
“It’s his problem,” Torres said of the mayor Monday after releasing two new TV spots that feature local residents describing a state of insecurity in the city. “He needs to understand that this is not going to go away. I’m not going to stop until he comes up with a plan and puts it in place to keep the French Quarter safe.”
Landrieu has been faulted by critics for the New Orleans Police Department’s manpower shortage, thrown into sharp relief by a recent string of high-profile armed robberies and assaults in the Quarter and the Central Business District.
Blame has come from the Police Association of New Orleans, whose president pointed a firm finger at the mayor last week, and from demonstrators waving placards that sarcastically welcomed the city’s visitors to “Landrieuville,” home of “robbers, stabbers & rapists.”
But those critics have lacked the resources Torres brings to bear.
Torres, who launched a Facebook group called Keep the French Quarter Safe, said he’s shelling out $15,000 to $20,000 a week for his media campaign, money he acknowledges could be flowing “into a good cause, but right now it’s bringing attention to what other people have dealt with and the frustration of trying to get the mayor to move and do something.”
For now, he said, the ads are running only in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans markets.
In a telephone interview, Torres vowed to donate as much as $200,000 toward implementing a cogent public safety policy, so long as he and local business leaders can review it and are convinced it is worthwhile.
“I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is,” said Torres, who offered an $8,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a man who burglarized his Esplanade Avenue home last month. “But I’m not going to throw my money in a dark hole and watch it be wasted by someone who doesn’t have a plan.
“That’s how much I believe in and love my city. Believe me, I’d much rather put that money into the pockets of the men and women who are protecting the city and the French Quarter than putting it into TV ads and advertising.”
Landrieu, whose administration has claimed credit for reducing the city’s murder rate for three years straight, has not taken the criticism sitting down. The mayor has pointed to anti-violence initiatives like NOLA for Life, and he has sought to remind residents of the general disarray he inherited in 2010 on many fronts, including the troubled Police Department, which is now subject to a federal consent decree.
“When we came into office, NOPD was headed toward bankruptcy and under investigation,” Landrieu said in a written statement last week. “We immediately instituted our own reforms and invited in the Department of Justice to help us rebuild the department.”
City leaders have sought to reassure the public and the city’s visitors at the beginning of Carnival season — a time of important economic activity and heightened media scrutiny. Last week, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison announced the Police Department was doubling the size of a violent-crime task force that has been credited with making key arrests.
While the city has struggled to retain veteran police officers and recruit new ones, Landrieu has asked the State Police to station a contingent of troopers in New Orleans on a long-term basis. The city also is preparing to roll out an unarmed civilian force known as NOLA Patrol, which will be tasked with traffic control and other non-emergency duties in the French Quarter.
“We encourage anyone who wants to help make our communities safer to make contributions to the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, who is leading the city’s recruitment efforts to hire more NOPD officers,” a Landrieu spokesman said Monday in response to questions about Torres’ ads.
Torres, an entrepreneur and businessman who hails from a prominent St. Bernard Parish family, became locally famous in TV spots highlighting his former company’s trash removal service, a business he sold a few years ago. He said he decided to apply that experience to raising awareness about public safety after a burglar broke into his own home last month and carted off a 60-inch television.
“I feel that it’s a fixable problem, and I look at the mayor as president and CEO of the company,” Torres said. “I believe if he were to look at it like a business and put a plan together, like we did for cleaning the French Quarter, it would be successful in keeping it safe.”
While acknowledging he’s no expert in public safety, one solution Torres has floated is to hire an additional 25 officers and give each the responsibility for one block of the Quarter, a plan he estimates would cost roughly $2.8 million and give Landrieu time to come up with a more comprehensive plan.
He insisted he harbors no political ambition and is not angling for Landrieu’s job.
The response to Torres’ advertising campaign might be reflective of the broader mood in New Orleans, which in recent weeks has focused on a grass-roots rejection of violent crime.
One of Torres’ videos received 35,000 views on YouTube in its first week; in it, Torres warns that French Quarter is “under siege” and urges viewers to hold Landrieu accountable.
The Facebook group, Keep the French Quarter Safe, meanwhile, had garnered more than 5,000 “likes” as of Monday evening.
“To have that kind of viewership, to have that many people go to the page and ‘like’ it, sends a strong message that we want a plan,” Torres said. “I think that there are some frustrated New Orleanians out there who are just tired of it and want something done.”
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian