Liz Dwyer noticed something out of the ordinary as she walked to work in the French Quarter on Monday: a sign, bold-lettered and brightly colored, warning people to stay in large groups and begging for a bigger police presence.
“It definitely caught my eye,” Dwyer, 67, said. “It seems like we’re hearing more and more of this.”
The signs — which say “Caution: Walk in large groups. We love NOPD. We just need more” — began dotting the French Quarter over the weekend, a response to a recent spate of well-publicized assaults and a widely held perception that crime in the city’s old heart has been on the rise since a squadron of state troopers detailed to the Quarter picked up stakes two months ago.
The signs are the brainchild of a pair of homeowners who live within yards of one of the recent attacks, a Dec. 17 stabbing in the 1000 block of Gov. Nicholls Street. While armed robberies and even shootings are hardly unknown in the Quarter, that stabbing was one of several recent assaults in which victims appeared to be targeted out of malice as much as a desire for material gain.
Stephanie and Lee Larrieu, native New Orleanians in their mid-50s, decided something had to be done about the perceived “uptick” in violent crime — one they say began about two months ago, when the State Police pulled out a detachment of troopers sent to the city after a mass shooting on Bourbon Street in June. A number of those troopers had been posted to the Quarter.
“We discussed it about a week ago: ‘What are we going to say?’ We wanted it to be neutral, not political. We didn’t want to blame anyone,” Stephanie Larrieu said, explaining that residents understand that the NOPD is understaffed. The message they wanted to convey is that “right now it’s unsafe to walk around, and we need more police presence so we’re not being attacked by these little thugs.”
Whether or not the Quarter and nearby areas have actually experienced a surge of violence is difficult to say. The NOPD on Monday provided The New Orleans Advocate with 2014 crime statistics for the 8th District, which includes the Quarter and a nearby sliver of the Faubourg Marigny. But the department was not able to provide comparable statistics for other years.
Nonetheless, there is a strong perception among Quarter denizens that the danger level is up.
Employees at the Quartermaster deli, at Ursulines and Bourbon streets, described a recent attack in which a co-worker allegedly was jumped by a group of seven youths as he left work about 1:30 a.m. The victim suffered a cut to his hand and multiple blows to the head.
“The worst thing is they didn’t take anything,” said manager Lynne Lyons, 62. “He still had his money; he still had his cellphone.”
Louis Matassa, a longtime Quarter resident and the son of legendary recording studio owner Cosimo Matassa, recalled a recent incident in which a man was beaten with a beer bottle for apparently no reason outside his family’s store, Matassa’s Market.
“It’s not safe,” he said. “When I was a kid, (you) could stumble home drunk. Now, they’re looking for you.”
Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents & Associates, noted that it’s “always hard to pinpoint a single cause of crime, but there certainly seems to be an increase in the number of violent person crimes that coincides with the departure of the State Police.”
Asked about the new warning signs during a Monday news conference, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pointed out that neighborhoods other than the Quarter feel the brunt of the city’s crime problem. But he acknowledged that violent crime overall has not dropped as much as the murder rate, and he pointed to his recruitment efforts at the Police Department, where manpower has shrunk to historic lows. Landrieu’s budget for 2015 includes money for several new police academy classes.
“We need more people to be in the Police Department,” Landrieu said. “Anybody in this city who is looking for a job, we’ve got them.”
He also made the case, as he has before, that both the State Police and the federal government should be putting more boots on the ground in downtown New Orleans. He noted that the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center both generate tax money for the state treasury, and that the Quarter is a national historic district.
“We’re going to get past this particular issue. I happen to think it relates to manpower,” Landrieu said. “And we are aggressively recruiting police officers to make sure we have the kind of safety we need.”
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, meanwhile, mentioned that the department recently created a new eight-person task force — taking one officer from each of the city’s eight police districts — and temporarily assigned the unit to the French Quarter.
“We’ve had some success with that,” he said, mentioning that officers have managed to identify suspects in recent armed robberies.
Last month, Landrieu persuaded the City Council to OK a plan to create an unarmed civilian police force — a roughly 50-member squad to be called the “Nola Patrol” — that will support law enforcement in the Quarter. The force, which is expected to be in place by Carnival, will focus on enforcing traffic, zoning and other rules; it will be paid with the proceeds of a voluntary hotel tax.
It’s unclear how New Orleans tourism officials feel about the new signs.
Officials from the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, which will partner with the city to create the civilian force, did not return messages Monday.
Mark Romig, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said he had mixed feelings.
“I certainly respect their right to free speech, but that’s not how I would approach this,” he said. “We gotta just stay positive. I know that sounds Pollyannaish, but that’s how I see it.”
For now, that view doesn’t seem to be widely shared in the Quarter.
Jarred Zeringue, 35, who owns the neighborhood restaurants Eat, Vacherie and Café Conti, said local homeowners have “seen way too much crime and not enough police.” He hopes the visibility the signs bring to the neighborhood will engender a police response.
“We want protection, and we’re not getting it,” said Zeringue, who recently bought four stun guns and five canisters of pepper spray to give as Christmas gifts to neighbors and friends.
By word of mouth only, the Larrieus have distributed all but 20 of the 130 signs they had made, at a cost of “somewhere between $100 and $1,000.” If they run out, Stephanie Larrieu said, a part-time resident of the French Quarter who has a printing company has agreed to print more for free.
Staff writers Andrew Vanacore and Gordon Russell contributed to this report.