Hodgepodge of French Quarter security arrangements still in flux as vote on tax approaches _lowres

Advocate file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Additinal off-duty foot patrol officers have begun walking tough blocks in the French Quarter.

hA checkerboard of French Quarter law enforcement pieces continues to rearrange itself as Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration plots how it would divvy up millions of dollars from a ¼ -cent sales tax on the ballot next month to support public safety in the city’s historic cradle — and what to do if the proposed tax fails.

On Bourbon Street, a new cadre of off-duty New Orleans police officers this month began walking the street’s six hardest-partying blocks under a six-week pilot program. Half of the $80,000 seed money is coming from bars and strip clubs.

Those off-duty foot patrols, with one to four detail cops walking Bourbon at any one time, are attached to the French Quarter Task Force, the mobile-app-based, proactive police detail that launched in March, the brainchild of former trash magnate Sidney Torres.

Rolling in Polaris carts across the Quarter, but not on Bourbon, the task force details continue to patrol streets in the historic district, though Torres’ initial bankroll gave way over the summer to funding from the city’s share of a tax the hotel industry imposed on itself.

Members of the task force are grabbing a surprising number of high-priority 911 calls in the Quarter that officers of the New Orleans Police Department’s depleted 8th District force just aren’t getting to, police call data show. Nearly a third of the dispatch calls that the off-duty task force fields are “Priority 2,” the highest level.

Among them, off-duty Polaris cops were the first to respond Sept. 9 when a 35-year-old man was shot dead on Exchange Place.

The data also show that the task force details are responding far more quickly to calls than on-duty officers — in part because the details aren’t required to run down every call. In July, for instance, the Polaris details responded to Priority 2 calls within five minutes on average, compared with 11 minutes for 8th District units.

Reports made through the mobile app, meanwhile, have dwindled from an initial swell when Torres first unleashed the new force with an ad campaign. In August, app calls made up less than a quarter of all reports handled by the off-duty task force.

About 40 percent more calls came through the NOPD’s dispatch system than through the app — a signal that the $46-an-hour detail officers are serving more and more as an adjunct to the 8th District.

Their presence, and the high-profile rousting of so-called “gutter punks” from French Quarter streets, has led 8th District Cmdr. Jeff Walls to shift some on-duty resources to address crime and nuisances that have migrated to the adjoining Faubourg Marigny, said Bob Simms, who oversees the details under the French Quarter Management District.

“You squeeze the sausage, it goes somewhere. We squeezed the Quarter,” Simms said. “I don’t know what else Jeff Walls could do.”

Problems for NOLA Patrol

In the meantime, another policing program — this one championed by Landrieu — hasn’t fared so well, according to neighborhood critics and judging by the city’s own tepid level of enthusiasm.

The administration is now reassessing the “NOLA Patrol,” a civilian police force that Landrieu sold last year as a million-dollar solution to the menial but labor-intensive calls sapping the energy of regular NOPD officers.

The NOLA Patrol started off as a plan for roughly 50 paid civilians trained to handle traffic snafus, zoning issues and other “quality-of-life” troubles plaguing the Quarter. As a bonus, the administration said it hoped to find future police officers among the civilians.

The city turned out a class of 20 trained people who hit the streets in late May armed with bright yellow shirts but little enforcement authority. Since then, the number has dwindled to 14, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said. There are no current plans to train another class.

Just one citizen patroller has been hired as a police recruit. Others have resigned, and one was fired for repeatedly failing to show up to work, Gamble said.

While not yet sounding a death knell for the NOLA Patrol, city officials insist it was always viewed as a pilot program.

“Its goal was to take some of the tasks away to free up police officers, and that’s what it’s doing,” Landrieu aide Ryan Berni said.

Simms, who chairs the FQMD’s Public Safety Task Force, said the NOLA Patrol has been rendered largely ineffective by legal restrictions on the type of work the citizen patrollers can do without law enforcement certification.

Traffic control — even erecting metal barriers — is beyond their scope, leaving the patrollers to slap tickets on windshields or scold artists without permits, among other limited roles.

“What they wanted them to do and what they could do became two different things. As I understand it, they’re just meter maids,” Simms said. “They go off and wander the streets of the Quarter, doing odd jobs the NOPD wants them to do.”

The City Attorney’s Office denied a request from The New Orleans Advocate for any memos or advisory letters on what the citizen patrol can and can’t do, citing attorney-client privilege.

Much riding on tax vote

Earl Bernhardt, of the French Quarter Business League, who owns the Tropical Isle and several other bars, doesn’t think much of the mayor’s citizen squad.

“It’s a complete waste of money. Well, they don’t do anything,” he said. “They just walk around with a T-shirt that says ‘NOLA Patrol’ and that’s about it. They could take that money and use it on something else.”

The city already has redirected some of the money that was budgeted this year for the NOLA Patrol to “infrastructure costs,” Berni said.

Gamble, the NOPD spokesman, said discussions are continuing with French Quarter residents and other “stakeholders” about the future of the patrols and other possible elements of a long-term law enforcement plan for the French Quarter.

In the meantime, a State Police contingent — now boarded and paid for by the hotel industry — has remained in the Quarter since a shootout on Bourbon Street in late June of 2014 injured nine and killed a young Hammond woman.

Whether those troopers remain, in what numbers and for how long may depend on how French Quarter voters respond at the polls Oct. 24 to the proposed 1/4-cent sales tax add-on in the district, Berni said.

The tax, to be used for “funding enhanced and supplemental public safety services,” would be in effect for five years, 2016 to 2020, and would be levied at all businesses bounded by the river, the center line of Canal Street, North Rampart Street (both sides) and Esplanade Avenue (both sides).

The city figures the tax — which would be paid primarily by visitors staying, dining or shopping in the Quarter — would raise $2 million a year, conservatively. If it passes, the hospitality industry has committed another $2 million, while the city has pledged $500,000 for State Police from the city’s portion of the hotel self-assessment, Berni said.

Money also would be available, if the tax passes, to continue paying out $75,000 per month for Torres’ off-duty task force, and also to fund the NOLA Patrol, he said.

“It’s the only way the State Police are going to be funded and dedicated to the French Quarter,” Berni said of the ballot measure.

A public information meeting on the tax measure is scheduled for Oct. 6 at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel.

Encouraging numbers

Along with a beefed-up NOPD task force that Superintendent Michael Harrison has directed toward French Quarter crime hot spots, the cobbled-together strategies to plug holes created by the NOPD’s reduced numbers have reaped short-term results, city officials say.

The first six months of the year saw a nearly 15 percent reduction in overall crime in the Quarter and a 36 percent slide in violent crime reports, according to police.

Up to last week, armed robberies were down 17 percent from the same period in 2014, with simple robberies, burglaries and auto burglaries all down by at least 27 percent, NOPD figures show.

Bernhardt, the nightclub owner, called it faint solace. ?He still harks back to what he considers an ill-advised move in the 1990s by then-NOPD Superintendent Richard Pennington to bar off-duty detail officers from working in bars and strip clubs.

The move was meant to reduce police corruption, but Bernhardt said it continues to leave too few badge-wearing uniforms in the historic neighborhood.

“We’re still having robberies and things like that. I guess it could be worse if we didn’t have this enhanced security,” he said. “But it’s going to start affecting tourism if we don’t get this under control.”

Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.