Sidney Torres IV views policing the French Quarter as a business — not unlike, say, trash pickup.
“It’s payroll. It’s expenses. It’s everything to do with running a business, and leadership is a big deal, right?” Torres said. “And part of that is being hands-on. I’m so hands-on that at 3 o’clock in the morning, I see a call come across my phone and I immediately make sure my administrator is on it.”
The man who once brought a lemony fresh scent to garbage collection in the French Quarter is now in charge of his own mod squad of off-duty New Orleans cops on the lookout for crime and unruly vagabonds in the city’s historic bosom.
Torres said he has spent more than $300,000 building what he believes is a better mousetrap for French Quarter protection, one he now wants the city to pony up to keep going even as he keeps his hand on the day-to-day operations.
The French Quarter Task Force of privately paid police details on Polaris carts, driven by residents and businesses reporting crime via a smartphone app, is just one part of a complex web of security initiatives pieced together in recent months from just about every public and private agency and funding source imaginable — a jury-rigged response to manpower woes that have forced the New Orleans Police Department to slough off proactive policework while it responds to pressing daily violence.
And it comes as Mayor Mitch Landrieu is set to press voters to approve a more permanent element of that plan: a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for State Police officers in the Quarter that will go on the Oct. 24 ballot and that has inspired talk of copy-cat districts both within and outside of the Vieux Carre.
The tax push, in part, is an acknowledgement that a patchwork of agencies and off-duty details is here for at least the medium term.
How many cops are patrolling the Quarter, what uniform they wear and who supervises them varies by time and location.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the 8th Police District had 175 officers. That’s dwindled to about 113 this year, said district Cmdr. Jeff Walls, whose district includes the Central Business District and Faubourg Marigny as well as the Quarter.
To boost those numbers, the city has turned to a hodgepodge of agencies. There’s the smattering of regular on-duty police officers in cars and on horseback; clumps of state troopers, paid and housed by the hotel industry; and Torres’ Task Force detail officers. They’ll soon be joined by the NOLA Patrol, a small force of unarmed, colorfully clad quasi-cops, created by Landrieu’s office, and a set of off-duty officers funded by Bourbon Street businesses to patrol only that area.
The city says it doesn’t look at the various security efforts in the Quarter as a patchwork. Landrieu adviser Ryan Berni said the current setup was a carefully coordinated plan, discussed over the course of months, aimed at stemming crime.
Residents and businesses in the Quarter so far seem pleased with the reinforcements.
Torres’ app for residents and others to use to report problems and summon help has seen more than 7,000 downloads, with response times usually a few minutes, according to his data.
And if arrests are the benchmark, the combination of police, state troopers and Torres’ off-duty patrols appears to be hammering at French Quarter crime.
Combined, those efforts are paying off, Walls said, citing a 31 percent decrease in crimes against people in the Quarter in the first quarter of the year. The additional manpower has meant officers don’t have to be pulled from Marigny to deal with crime in the Quarter and a task force of on-duty officers could be cut free to work in other areas of the city.
And it’s also set the stage for officers to deal more with “quality-of-life issues.”
“It allows the officers to be proactive rather than reactive,” Walls said.
Some French Quarter residents agree, though in more blunt terms.
“Let’s be very frank about it: NOPD officers on their regular patrol are slaves to their radios,” said Bob Simms, who heads the French Quarter Management District’s Security Task Force. “All they’re doing is going from one call for service to another. Our (Task Force) guys are not responding to calls for service, so they’re more available to jump out and do this sort of stuff.”
Preventing the Wild West
Anecdotally at least, some residents are raving over the new details.
G.A. Cavett said she was outside her St. Louis Street house one morning in late March when she saw a familiar neighborhood pimp “and about five or six of his entourage beating the crap out of another guy.”
“They’ve got this guy bent over a car, and they are pummeling him. The guy somehow breaks loose from the group. And he comes back with a gun. The guy is in shredded clothes. He’s got the gun, and he’s waving it all over the place. The pimp and his entourage pull out their guns. It’s like the Wild West right in the intersection of Burgundy and St. Louis.”
Cavett said she had pulled up the app to report the incident, and one of the off-duty officers rolled up on his Polaris. The culprits fled. Cavett said she is convinced it prevented a shooting.
“My neighbor says she called 911. They (regular NOPD officers) never showed,” Cavett said. “It’s like a whole new day. I tell you what, this app thing is going to be a game-changer. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen tangible results of something that’s really effective.”
Over its first six weeks, the Task Force has claimed success on some violent incidents in the Quarter, including being the first on the scene after a man leaped out of a car on Decatur Street and shot another man in the chest in the early morning of May 3.
But the bulk of its work is more mundane.
Torres gave The Advocate a spreadsheet of about 1,000 incidents reported to Task Force officers through the end of April, including 350 reports to the app.
More than 250 reports were for “suspicious subjects,” 75 for aggressive panhandling, 70 for unspecified “disturbances,” 51 for medical calls, 20 for alarms.
The Task Force credited itself with 92 arrests over about five weeks.
The State Police patrols have racked up their own list of 252 arrests, yielding 337 charges. Of those, 96 were for drug offenses — mostly marijuana possession — plus 26 cases of assault or battery, 22 cases of illegal carrying of weapons and 78 arrests of people with outstanding warrants.
In addition, State Police reported about 850 cases in which they assisted another agency, 840 citations for drivers, 20 weapons seizures and 39 vehicle seizures.
Targeting ‘gutter punks’
But perhaps the most visible impact of Torres’ patrols has through been regular Friday sweeps, alongside NOPD officers working overtime, directed against so-called “gutter punks,” the motley collection of panhandlers, beggars, drunks and trinket sellers who tend to mill mostly on Decatur Street but also throughout the Quarter. Businesses and residents say the unwanted visitors have become more aggressive, perhaps due to slack enforcement of municipal crimes by a stretched-thin NOPD.
Torres credited his Task Force with more than 30 arrests over the course of three such sweeps, aided by on-duty NOPD officers.
The sweeps have become possible due to the reduction in serious crime across the Quarter, Walls said, which has freed up resources to focus on more minor issues.
The sweeps have netted arrests mostly on municipal offenses such as violations of open-container laws, obstruction of a public sidewalk or public drunkenness.
Few of the people cited have landed in jail, and the City Attorney’s Office quickly dropped the charges in several cases. Several of the arrestees had outstanding warrants, often for the same types of municipal offenses. Many have failed, yet again, to show up in court, case records show.
In the earliest sweep, on March 27, Lynda Madison, 44, was arrested after police observed her “sitting on a sidewalk playing music, attracting a crowd of people that were also sitting on the sidewalk, blocking pedestrian passageway,” according to the police account.
Michael Judge, 32, was booked for “sitting on a sidewalk impeding the flow of pedestrian traffic, selling merchandise.”
Judge, whose address is listed as Springfield, Missouri, took his arrest on Decatur Street in stride.
“They just made assumptions and wrote me a ticket for vending without an occupational license. My impression was, it was from the higher-ups. A lot of the cops didn’t even want to be doing it. ... It was just a method by which they could get rid of everybody so everything could look nice and pretty for the tourists.”
Judge doesn’t see much lasting effect from the sweeps. He said he was afraid to return to Decatur for a few nights but that little has changed.
Simms, who has worked closely with Torres in creating the French Quarter Task Force, cited “a significant drop in travelers” since the sweeps began, although he acknowledged that the “gutter punks” seem to have shifted their activity to Marigny or else quickly return to the Quarter on days the sweeps aren’t happening.
“I don’t think you can say we’re arresting gutter punks,” Simms said. “We’re arresting people who are doing something illegal or giving officers a reason to see their identification. A lot of them have outstanding warrants or missing court dates. It’s not all gutter punks. It’s some of the low life, too. What we’re talking about is not homeless people. There’s a different category for that. These people are not homeless. These people have better cellphones than I do.”
Initially, Torres said, Walls explained the complexities of arresting those so-called “travelers,” including issues of handling their pets and problems getting them processed through the jail when they claim medical issues.
To address those problems, Torres said, he donated $2,000 to get the SPCA to participate in the sweeps, added a dog cage to the back of a Polaris and worked with Sheriff Marlin Gusman to ensure nurses were on staff at the jail.
Torres said he, not police, deserves the credit for the sweeps.
“Nobody’s helped us!” he said. “We’re the reason the sweeps are happening. They don’t give us credit,” he said of police.
Morgan Wampold, a spokesman for Gusman’s office, said keeping a nurse on staff is not a new policy and the number of inmates sent to get outside medical help has not significantly varied since the sweeps began earlier this year.
Who should pay?
Torres said he wants the city to take over paying for the Task Force work through the end of the year. Early on, he said, he was forced to hire a private administrator for $20,000 a month to make sure the operation was running smoothly.
Ultimately, he said, he’s willing to give the French Quarter app for free to the city, once he’s convinced that the NOPD can run it on its own.
The pilot project is due to wrap up at month’s end, and Torres suggested that the money Landrieu has earmarked for the NOLA Patrol should go to the Task Force instead.
“At the end of the day, you have something that’s working, and it’s going to be way cheaper,” Torres said. “Why go hire a bunch of people in canary yellow shirts and blue pants to walk around as ‘quality of life’ people when you can have the Polarises doing that, with arresting power where they can pull people off steps if they’re sleeping or they’re urinating or they’re aggressively panhandling? So use that money to fund this.”
City officials said Torres hasn’t approached the administration about taking over the funding of the Task Force details.
It’s also not clear there’s a way the city could legally pony up the money. Changes to the paid-detail system in recent years bar the city from paying for off-duty details.
Along with paying the detail officers as much as $50 an hour through the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment, Torres said he rewards off-duty cops who show up and perform well with benefits the NOPD can’t provide, such as gift certificates to Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
A citywide problem
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, doesn’t have a problem with Torres using his own money to accomplish a public safety objective, so long as the cops have the discretion on whom they arrest.
Goyeneche said the patchwork of policing in the French Quarter is indicative of a citywide problem with police staffing that isn’t going away anytime soon.
“The people in the French Quarter, they’re paying taxes for the 8th District officers. Then you have the business community and tourism people kicking in the money for the State Police, and then you have citizens like Mr. Torres. So here you see a perfect example of citizens paying for additional security that their tax dollars are supposed to be providing with the NOPD,” he said.
The Task Force work goes beyond what officers normally handle on off-duty details.
“They’re asking for a more proactive response, what you would expect out of a typical police patrol as opposed to a detail providing on-scene security for particular locations. I see something wrong with the fact the city has allowed the (department’s) staffing to get to a level where proactive policing isn’t even an option,” said Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans.
“You’re privatizing a public service which theoretically is already paid for.”
Donovan Livaccari, spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, called the Task Force a good opportunity for off-duty cops to make extra money but cautioned that it “really has to be viewed as something in its infancy,” with the jury still out on whether it can be sustained long term.
“I think as far as achieving the department’s goals of policing, it’s much more effective to have everybody under the same command,” he said.
More taxing districts?
The state of security in the entertainment districts is set to keep evolving.
Bourbon Street businesses are getting ready to launch their own set of privately funded police details. They’re also bandying about the idea of establishing their own taxing district to pay for those details over the long term and ensure that everyone along the street pays their fair share.
On top of that, plans for a security district in the Marigny are moving forward in the Legislature. Originally envisioned as a massive district spanning four downriver neighborhoods, the proposal has been scaled back to include only the traditional Marigny boundaries.
Ken Caron, a resident of the Marigny Triangle and president of COPS 8, an organization set up to support the 8th District officers, said there has been some increase in panhandlers in the area in recent months. But the sweeps extend out to that area, addressing musicians blocking doorways and sidewalks and a plethora of food vendors without permits, Caron said.
“We’ve probably got more (panhandlers) than we had in the past, but when they do these sweeps, the Marigny is included,” Caron said.
Frenchmen Street businesses also are considering their own taxing district to pay for more patrols, particularly given the area’s “Bourbonization” in recent years.
“They’ve really set the foundation that I think the Marigny can follow,” Caron said.