A plan to privately fund beefed-up police presence in the French Quarter by the time a State Police contingent leaves town after Labor Day got a key commitment last week from owners of bars and clubs on Bourbon Street.
Earl Bernhardt, owner of the Tropical Isle and several other bars along the city’s most famous entertainment stretch, said members of the French Quarter Business League voted without reservation to commit about $10,000 per week — about $200 per establishment — to pay for details by off-duty NOPD officers.
The plan, promoted by the state-created French Quarter Management District, is for off-duty cops working through the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment to begin patrolling at least one of three designated areas of the Quarter by Sept. 1.
The Bourbon Street component calls for off-duty officers to work about 200 hours per week patrolling from the 200 block to the 700 block, where gunfire rang out in the early morning of June 29 in a melee that killed a young Hammond woman and injured nine others.
Organizers say the idea of privately funding more police presence in the area has been in the works for months amid a steep decline in police manpower across the city, but they acknowledge that the shooting rampage upped the ante.
“Everybody’s concerned about police security on Bourbon Street,” Bernhardt said. “It was 100 percent, everybody for it, no dissensions.”
Police figures show manpower in the 8th District, which encompasses the French Quarter, Central Business District and Marigny Triangle, has dwindled from about 150 officers four years ago to around 100 today.
Following the shooting, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called on Gov. Bobby Jindal for reinforcements, and dozens of state troopers have been patrolling on Bourbon Street and other areas of the city since just before the Fourth of July.
But they are due to leave after Sept. 1, prompting a fast timetable for the off-duty policing plan.
The Bourbon Street plan aims to have three off-duty, uniformed cops working on Bourbon Street and cross streets from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day, with two officers from noon to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday and a single officer at other times.
It is one of three areas where the management district hopes to enlist residents and businesses to pony up for added police presence.
The other two targeted areas are the “upriver” business district between Royal and Decatur streets and a 12-square-block residential area centered on Royal Street from St. Ann Street to Esplanade Avenue.
But getting residents and business owners in those areas to sign on to the voluntary funding program may be harder to manage.
At a recent FQMD meeting, several residents and shop owners groused about the idea of subsidizing police presence in the city’s tourism mecca, at a cost of perhaps $200 per month per property, depending on how many agree to participate.
The district has set a quick timetable for getting the pilot programs off the ground, aiming to hire an ex-NOPD officer to manage the program by Aug. 24 and to begin deploying off-duty cops in at least one of the areas by Sept. 1, according to Bob Simms, chairman of the FQMD’s Security Task Force.
Asked if the bar owners were worried the NOPD might redeploy on-duty officers elsewhere once the off-duty cops are onboard, Bernhardt responded, “Who are they going to redirect? They haven’t got anybody down here.”
Simms said the French Quarter Business Association is soliciting support for the plan in the Royal Street business area. He also said he has expanded the planned residential zone to reach toward the river to include Chartres and Decatur streets, where there are more businesses that are likely to chip in.
Convincing French Quarter residents to voluntarily contribute to the added policing has proven dicey, with residents falling into two camps, he said.
“There are groups that are, ‘Hell, no. Under no circumstances,’ ” Simms said. “And there’s a group that are, ‘Hell, yes.’ There’s almost no intermediate grade.”
NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas has said staffing was relatively strong at the time of the July 29 shooting, with a total of 27 officers on duty in the Eighth District, including nine officers working Bourbon Street, on foot and horseback.
But Bernhardt and others complain that visible police presence on the street was meager before the state troopers showed up.
Overall, police manpower has dropped more than 25 percent since the start of an NOPD hiring freeze four years ago. Police last year launched an aggressive recruiting campaign, but has struggled to find qualified recruits.
“If we don’t do something, it’s going to cost us a lot more in lost business than we’re putting out for the police,” Bernhardt said. “There’s some reason that they’re not able to recruit police for New Orleans. Somebody needs to analyze why nobody wants to sign up for the force here.”
While the department continues to try to fill a second 30-member Police Academy class for this year, Serpas has said he expects hiring to pick up as the department throttles up its recruiting engine.
A pledge by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to field five recruiting classes in 2014, with 150 total recruits, appears unreachable, however.
“Hopefully, as the Police Department grows, if it will, eventually we’ll be able to end this,” Bernhardt said of the private funding for extra officers.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.