Dozens of demonstrators, galvanized by a crime wave that has shaken the city, converged Tuesday on Jackson Square to demand more police protection on the streets of New Orleans.
The grass-roots rally, while loosely organized, underscored a growing public perception that violence has become epidemic and that city leaders, specifically Mayor Mitch Landrieu, haven’t done enough to stem the tide of armed robberies, beatings and shootings that plague the city.
Hours after Landrieu kicked off the 2015 Carnival season in an event at Mardi Gras World, a crowd that included citizen activists and victims of violent crime clamored for more cops in both the French Quarter and across the city. Demonstrators waved placards largely supportive of the New Orleans Police Department but critical of city leaders. Several read, “Welcome to Landrieuville! Home of robbers, stabbers & rapists.”
“I’m not going to get scared off,” said Lisa Bochicchio, 48, who was attacked Saturday afternoon while walking down Toulouse Street in the French Quarter. “They weren’t able to get my purse off me. People saw them run off, but nobody saw who it was.”
Karen Sepko, a real estate agent who helped organize Tuesday’s event, said the demonstration reflected a climate of discontent spreading throughout a community that wakes up each day to news of fresh violence. No neighborhood is immune to the crime, she said, as evidenced by a series of armed robberies this week that gripped Uptown.
“People, I think, are really running scared,” said Sepko, who accused the mayor of “having blood on his hands” for failing to adequately staff the NOPD and offer competitive pay to its officers. “These criminals are just running the streets.”
Even as the city marked a third straight year of a declining murder rate, New Orleans saw a 24 percent jump in nonfatal shootings in 2014. The Police Department has yet to provide comprehensive crime statistics for 2014, but a police spokesman said Tuesday that armed robberies in the 8th District, which includes the French Quarter, increased 19 percent last year when compared with 2013. Citywide statistics for the first nine months of 2014 showed a 38 percent uptick in armed robbery, a 25 percent increase in assaults and increases in burglaries, simple thefts and auto thefts.
“The city is increasingly on edge,” said Tamara Jackson, who runs the nonprofit Silence Is Violence campaign. “Folks are not feeling safe these days.”
A string of recent high-profile crimes across the city have weakened the narrative, set forth by the Landrieu administration, that the mayor’s anti-violence initiatives have helped the city turn a corner. Buffa’s, a bar on Esplanade Avenue adjacent to the French Quarter, was held up by two gunmen during business hours Monday night. One of the men put a gun to the head of a patron before swiping $1,200 from the cash register.
Four men allegedly committed four armed robberies Uptown Sunday night in less than a half-hour, before eventually being arrested after a manhunt. Police have said the men may ultimately be responsible for eight to 12 stick-ups.
“I think people are tired,” said John Richie, producer of the documentary “Shell Shocked,” which examined the impact the city’s chronic gun violence has on area teens. “People want a solution, and there are a lot of people who would like to see things get better. It’s just not clear what, exactly, that solution is.”
Numerous violent assaults also have been reported in the recent weeks in and near the Quarter. Bill Callaham, a 66-year-old Sacramento trial lawyer who came to the city to give a speech last month, left with a disfigured face after a trio of men beat him mercilessly as he walked back to his Central Business District hotel.
Photographs of Callaham’s battered face were circulated at Tuesday’s rally, including by a man who purported to represent the National Association for the Advancement of White People — an organization started more than a decade ago by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and gubernatorial candidate David Duke.
“I feel violated,” said Randy Ward, a bartender who works on Rampart Street. Ward, who attended the event with a beer in one hand and a sign in the other that read “New Orleans is not safe,” called for the city to install more crime cameras to catch perpetrators in the act.
The beginning of the rally was muffled somewhat by a band that made an unscheduled appearance at the protest. Eventually, though, demonstrators made themselves heard, chanting for additional State Police troopers and asking: “Where is the plan? Where is the mayor?”
Landrieu has come under fire not just from residents but from the Police Association of New Orleans, which on Tuesday suggested that the mayor has lost the support of the rank and file.
Capt. Michael Glasser, the head of the association, wrote an acerbic letter to Landrieu this week that accused the mayor of turning his back on the Police Department and “always looking outside, never inside” the NOPD in his efforts to reform public safety.
“You have ignored the dedicated men and women of the NOPD, who have demonstrated a quality with which you appear to be unfamiliar … LOYALTY,” Glasser wrote.
Glasser, in a telephone interview, said the Police Department has been asked to fight a losing battle against violent crime, in part because the city is failing to retain veteran police officers and recruit new talent. “We’re suffering,” he said, “but in the end, it’s the citizens that pay the ultimate price.”
In his letter, which was posted on PANO’s Facebook page, Glasser was critical of the mayor’s plans for NOLA Patrol, an unarmed civilian force to be entrusted with traffic control and other non-emergency duties, and Landrieu’s recurring entreaties to the state for assistance in protecting the city’s residents and visitors. The mayor last week pleaded with Gov. Bobby Jindal to dedicate more troopers to the city on a permanent basis, calling New Orleans an “economic driver” for the state that requires a commensurate police presence.
Glasser also accused the mayor of killing a progressive pay package for officers and replacing it with “a nominal and perfunctory raise, knowing full well it would be offset by rising health care costs.”
“The week the raise was announced,” he added, “eight NOPD officers left to join the State Police.”
Landrieu issued a statement late Tuesday saying he stands “shoulder-to-shoulder with the men and women of NOPD to make our city safe,” and he appreciates “the sacrifice our officers make to protect the people of New Orleans.”
Glasser’s letter drew a sharp rebuke from Police Superintendent Michael Harrison in a news conference held Tuesday. “I absolutely do not share in those sentiments of Capt. Mike Glasser,” Harrison said. “The mayor has never turned his back on us.”
Harrison acknowledged that, despite the decreasing murder rate, “public safety continues to be a significant problem for our city.” He ticked off a list of steps the Police Department has taken to bolster manpower, including reassigning 22 administrative officers to street patrol, putting plainclothes officers back in uniform and tweaking the recruiting process to make it more effective.
The Police Department, Harrison added, has also recently created a strategic task force, which he credited for two significant arrests last week. He also noted that state troopers would be returning to the city in just a few weeks for Mardi Gras.
Arden Radosevic, 50, who was manning the bar Monday night at Buffa’s during the armed robbery, said he feels it’s the presence of the State Police that keeps the crime problem under control. “It seems like when we tell people the extra help is gone, it’s an invitation to the criminals to come back,” Radosevic said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.