Federal and state authorities say they have received no credible threats of a terrorist plot in New Orleans. But revelers flocking to the city to ring in the new year may notice an increased presence of law enforcement, as police shift into “all-hands-on-deck” mode for an event-filled holiday week capped by the Allstate Sugar Bowl game on Friday.
“We’re at 100 percent staffing through the weekend,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re doing everything we can to make this a safe, fun experience for those who live here and want to enjoy New Year’s Eve, as well as those who are visiting.”
The festivities are an economic boon to the city, as tens of thousands of tourists are expected to take in the fireworks and merrymaking Thursday night and stay for Friday’s gridiron showdown between Oklahoma State and Ole Miss. But at the same time, New Year’s presents a host of familiar challenges for law enforcement, including teeming crowds and traffic jams.
In addition, there’ll be no shortage of libations fueling the celebrating.
“It’s not nearly what Mardi Gras is, but it is a very, very big event,” Harrison said. “We prepare for it like it’s Mardi Gras.”
In the French Quarter, the epicenter of the celebrations, the Police Department will dispatch some 300 additional officers to assist their 8th District colleagues, Harrison said. They’ll be joined by dozens of state troopers looking for fugitives, illegal weapons and drugs.
The State Police, as in years past, will deploy a motorcycle squad and a team of plainclothes troopers tasked with “conducting surveillance, gathering intelligence and blending into the crowd to look for troublemakers,” said Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman.
“We’ll be there on several levels,” Cain said. “We want to be ahead of a problem instead of responding to one.”
State Police urged partygoers to arrange for a designated driver or call a cab if they choose to drink, reminding motorists that 21 people died and 1,038 were injured on Louisiana highways during the holidays last year. Alcohol factored into more than half of the fatal crashes.
“New Year’s Eve is one of those holidays where, unfortunately, we see a spike in impaired driving,” Cain said. He added that, under a so-called “no-refusal initiative,” troopers patrolling area highways are authorized to draw blood from drivers who appear to be under the influence.
Several European cities remain on high alert in the wake of the shootings in Paris last month, and the authorities in Brussels scrapped an annual New Year’s fireworks display for fear of an attack. But American authorities, including President Barack Obama, have stressed there is no specific threat to the United States.
Jeffrey Sallet, the new special agent in charge of the FBI’s local field office, acknowledged the high profile of New Orleans and described his new home as a “symbolic American city” with an “international reputation.” But he added that “there are no credible threats to New Year’s Eve in New Orleans or in Louisiana.”
Sallet, who investigated the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, added that the bureau and its partners have a “very robust response and comprehensive plans in place” to keep the city safe.
Cain said the authorities would “ensure that any information they get — intelligence, warnings — are pushed out not only to state troopers in the area but local partners like sheriffs’ offices and police departments as well.”
The mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, California, he said, are “still in everybody’s minds.”
On the street level, police advised people to walk or take a cab rather than driving, especially to the Sugar Bowl. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Harrison said. “There are some people out there who prey upon visitors.”
Superintendent Tim McConnell, of the New Orleans Fire Department, reminded residents that fireworks remain banned in Orleans Parish and that their use poses “substantial” risks of injury and property damage. Just last year, he noted, fireworks ignited a blaze on the roof of a home belonging to the mother of a local firefighter.
As a precaution, the Fire Department will be fully staffed on New Year’s Eve and, in the hours before the celebrations, will seek to remove some of the debris around the city that could catch fire if exposed to fireworks.
“I want everyone to understand just how tragic fireworks can be and the amount of injuries that occur,” McConnell said.
He also urged revelers to refrain from partaking in the “horrible, horrible tradition” of firing guns into the air at midnight. In 1994, a tourist from Boston was fatally struck by a falling bullet near Jackson Square — a death that generated national headlines.
“It is crucial that people understand the implications” of that illegal practice, McConnell said.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.