Sidney Torres IV stared at his smartphone, miffed at what he could no longer see.
The souped-up Polaris golf carts that patrol the French Quarter around the clock, furnished by Torres and manned by a special off-duty police detail that he bankrolled last spring amid much publicity, had disappeared from his GPS tracker.
It was early November, and Torres, the excitable former French Quarter garbage mogul, could no longer make sure the New Orleans Police Department detail officers were staying on task.
By then, though, he was no longer paying for the patrols. The French Quarter Management District had assumed oversight of them last summer, with new funding through the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. But to Torres, the effort was still his baby.
It turned out the new stewards opted for a closed adoption. They soon swapped out the GPS system in the three Polaris carts. Bob Simms, head of the district’s Public Safety Task Force, said the new equipment works better, but he added that cutting off Torres was a big part of the appeal.
“We’ve had a few instances where Sidney would show up with a film crew or something because he knew where (the vehicles) were. Officers don’t particularly like that. In general, people didn’t like the idea of that,” Simms said. “It was a general call from a whole bunch of people, including all the people involved in this thing, from NOPD to the (Convention and Visitors Bureau). They actually gave me a directive: Go change the GPS.”
Kristian Sonnier, a spokesman for the visitors bureau, said he wasn’t aware of any particular incident of meddling by Torres, but he acknowledged the decision to cut him out of the loop.
“We didn’t feel that Sidney needed to continue to monitor a service he wasn’t involved in funding or managing,” Sonnier said.
Slighted, Torres said it’s clear to him now that the management district and 8th District NOPD leaders are ruining his creation: a privately funded urban police squad on blue buggies, armed, agile and accountable by remote tracking, like truckers or trash collectors.
He just can’t quite prove it because they won’t let him watch.
“It’s the same behavior, the same old pattern: not doing the job, saying they’re patrolling the area when they’re not. It’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m seeing all these crimes happening and people calling me, (saying) they don’t see the machines out there like they used to. (The program’s operators) don’t want me to have access to the GPS because they don’t want me to report problems.”
‘It’s not working’
Torres, who called out Mayor Mitch Landrieu a year ago in a series of brash TV ads about crime in the Quarter, said the detail squad ran as it should under his watch. He said he would hit the 8th District station as early as 5 a.m. to manage the squad, known as the French Quarter Task Force.
From March to June last year, Torres said, he rooted out officers who stopped “for a coffee break or a girlfriend break or a sleeping break.” He once caught an officer napping on a Polaris and promptly axed him from the program.
Torres relished the international media attention for his brainchild, with a possible Fox TV cop drama to come. From French cable TV to The New York Times Magazine, news outlets found a journalistic plum in the story of a photogenic private citizen and his tech-savvy solution to a public crime problem.
“I’m not saying I need to be running it. I’m saying I built it, I paid for it, it was working, it had a huge success. Now I’m saying it’s not working,” Torres said in an interview.
“It’s laziness and a lack of leadership. As the architect, engineer and creator of it, I’m not happy with how you’re using my product.”
Torres turned over the keys and payroll in late June. He’d spent more than $300,000 to get his unique police detail rolling, he said, and it was time for others to step up.
The tourism industry agreed to pick up the $75,000-per-month tab for the rest of the year. Then last fall, voters in the French Quarter passed a quarter-cent neighborhood sales tax increase to fund an ongoing State Police contingent in the city’s historic heart. Under a pact with the city, passage also meant five years of stable funding for the Polaris-riding cops.
Simms, who developed the patrols with Torres and has overseen them since the funding switch, insists little has changed in the number of hours worked by the officers or miles logged on the Polaris carts, or how they operate.
Those detail officers make up to $46 an hour responding to anything from drunks in doorways to urgent “Priority 2” calls.
Calls to the task force also come in through a mobile app that Torres developed as a 911 workaround so residents and business owners can report trouble directly to the Polaris cops from their phones. National media dubbed it “Uber for cops.”
Novelty has worn off
Torres ultimately donated the Polarises to the cause but kept the technology. That means he can still see the calls that come through the app. But those reports make up a dwindling share of the task force’s action.
The mobile app accounted for 36 percent of the calls handled by the detail cops during the three months when Torres oversaw his patrol but accounted for only 28 percent from Nov. 1 to Jan. 2, according to figures provided by Simms.
The novelty of the app has worn off, Simms said, while the regular task force officers have grown acclimated to the Quarter, leading to more “self-initiated” stops in hotspots like the 900 block of St. Louis Street or Royal Street just off Canal Street.
Police dispatch calls continue to make up a quarter of all calls handled by the task force officers, no different than under Torres, according to figures from Simms.
Police 911 call data show officers on the Polaris carts respond to an average of about 500 dispatch calls per month.
Overall, the average number of weekly calls handled by the Polaris cops has risen by 30 percent since Torres stopped funding the program, with most of the increase coming from self-initiated calls.
But arrests are fewer, and they tapered off toward the end of the year, with fewer than one per day from early October to last week. According to 911 call data, response times by the Polaris cops spiked in July, the month after Torres ceded control. The data only go to mid-August, however.
Simms said the purpose of the Polaris patrols is not arrests but visibility. He cited figures showing that more than 90 percent of the 70 weekly detail shifts are filled, a sign that the task force remains busy — or at least that the detail cops like the money.
Still, Simms said Torres may be right in his suspicion that the officers aren’t out on the street quite as much. It turned out the vehicles don’t do so well in bad weather, he said, and one of them has developed frequent stalling problems.
“They’re open vehicles. When it’s really cold, police officers don’t like to drive them, and I understand that. When it’s really raining hard, even if they’ve got their wet-weather gear on, it’s dangerous. They don’t have a wiper,” Simms said.
He said the carts are being modified now with doors, glass windshields and wipers. In the meantime, some detail officers have turned to available patrol cars.
‘I was so angry’
Torres was known to bird-dog his squad and gripe loudly when he found officers slacking off. He was paying them $50 an hour at the time and expected his money’s worth. Simms said he leaves it mostly to the NOPD to discipline their own. He said he’ll boot officers from the program only if they twice fail to show up for a shift without calling.
“You have to recognize — Sidney, myself, anybody — these police officers do not take direction from us. My job is not to supervise the officers. These officers are taking their direction from the NOPD 8th District sergeant,” Simms said.
That’s not what Torres quite envisioned when he created the patrols as a nimble answer to crime troubles in the city’s six-by-13-block historic heart as the number of New Orleans police officers kept falling.
Torres said he set out to show the city how to bring accountability to the NOPD by closely tracking officers on patrol — doing policing as a business. The mobile app got more public attention, but real-time GPS tracking was always the bigger deal, said Torres, who now fears his task force has fallen victim to lax oversight.
“I did it in a way that tried to fix a police department that’s completely messed up,” Torres said. “They basically took the technology, the creation of what I’ve designed and built, and then started trying to put it into a system that’s broken. It’s important the public knows that.”
That’s why losing his GPS signal — the digital tether to his creation — stung so hard.
“I was so angry. Furious. I didn’t know anything about it,” he said of the switch.
Torres also complains that the management district severely weakened the operation by cutting back on the private security firm that Torres paid to track the patrols day and night.
That firm, Pinnacle Security and Investigations, now works from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. only. An 8th District supervisor oversees the detail officers during the day, Simms said.
Torres, who said he aimed to change the culture of the NOPD, fears that culture has instead changed his creation.
Results hard to determine
Gauging the impact of the off-duty patrols on public safety is problematic.
Torres launched the task force on March 23 and funded it through June 21, a period covering the bulk of the second quarter of 2015, when the French Quarter had fewer crimes against people — murders, rapes, robberies and assaults — than in any of the last nine quarters, NOPD figures show.
Those crimes rose again, by 88 percent, in the three months after Torres handed over the Polaris detail, the data show. Crimes against people were up 44 percent from the third quarter in 2014.
French Quarter property crimes also declined in the second quarter of 2015, but they slid still further in the third quarter, reaching their lowest point in two years, NOPD data show.
There were just four burglaries during the second quarter and three in the third quarter, compared with an average of 14 per quarter dating back to 2013, the data show.
The numbers may suggest that the patrols, regardless of who’s doing oversight, are working, though they are a small piece in an unusual patchwork of French Quarter law enforcement.
NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble declined to comment on the GPS issue or assess the impact of the off-duty patrols, with or without Torres.
“We have a comprehensive plan in place to keep the French Quarter safe, which includes regular duty patrols, NOPD overtime, NOPD details through the (Polaris patrols) and patrols from the Louisiana State Police,” Gamble said by email. “Like with any law enforcement effort, we are constantly working on deployment and tactical efforts.”
Simms said he agrees with some of Torres’ complaints and shares his frustration when the off-duty patrols fall short.
“When (Torres) sees two armed robberies happen in the lower Quarter on the same night, he says, ‘Why is this happening? Where were the Polarises?’ Good question. I think it’s totally valid, because I question it myself,” Simms said.
“I do expect the Pinnacle guys, when they see an officer is stopped for any length of time, to find out why. But to stop for five minutes at a coffee shop? No,” Simms said of holding the officers accountable. “But Sidney would. That’s his passion. And we should all be forever grateful to Sidney for making this happen.”
‘Like raising a child’
Torres acknowledged that giving up control hasn’t been easy.
“It’s like raising a child or having a dog, raising an animal and letting it go. At the end of the day, I do realize I’m not the mayor, I’m not the police chief. I’m a taxpayer who cares about my neighborhood,” he said.
Torres did not respond to questions about sending film crews to shoot the Polaris cops at work.
In any case, someone new will soon be in charge of the French Quarter Task Force.
Simms, a volunteer, said the management district board on Monday approved funding for a full-time operations manager to run the off-duty details day to day.
Torres doesn’t appear to be in line for the job.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.