Editor's note: The video above is footage of New Orleans police Supt. Michael Harrison's comments. The video below is of the fight; it includes offensive language.
On the same day that tourism officials said they had agreed to shell out money and hotel beds to keep state troopers in the city for the next few months, New Orleans got another glaring demonstration Tuesday of how short-staffed the city’s police force remains.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison acknowledged that officers were slow to respond to a brawl early Sunday morning on Bourbon Street that has gone viral in an online video, drawing tens of thousands of viewers.
The violent standoff between a group of men and bouncers for Bourbon Heat, a club in the 700 block of the city’s signature party strip, runs four minutes without any sign of law enforcement.
Harrison said it took officers 10 minutes to respond to the scene, where more than a dozen men blustered at one another between salvos. Video of the fight is posted on Facebook and had been viewed more than 50,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon.
“These things happen,” Harrison told reporters. “We try to get there as fast as we can. Our officers are working on Bourbon Street, but they have all kinds of other duties also, and sometimes citizens call us.”
The video made the rounds on Tuesday just as New Orleans tourism officials announced they would help fund a renewed presence for a contingent of State Police troopers at least through mid-May.
An earlier deployment of troopers from around the state left after New Year’s celebrations. They had maintained a heavy presence on Bourbon Street and surrounding areas on and off since the summer. The beefed-up deployment followed a far bloodier incident on the same block of Bourbon Street in June, when two men sprayed bullets toward each other, killing a young Hammond nursing student and injuring nine others.
The gunfire erupted amid a steep manpower deficit on the NOPD, prompting a plea by Mayor Mitch Landrieu for an influx of troopers to supplement a shriveled patrol presence in the French Quarter and around the city.
The NOPD’s staffing remains at its lowest point in years, with about 1,100 sworn officers in all, and barely 300 of them generally available to respond to calls for service.
Total NOPD manpower is down about 30 percent from five years ago, when Landrieu implemented a hiring freeze to help close a yawning city budget deficit.
Once 150 officers strong, the roster for the 8th District — encompassing the French Quarter, the Central Business District and the Marigny Triangle — has slipped below 100.
“We don’t deny we have staffing challenges,” Harrison said Tuesday, adding that he and Landrieu have a “comprehensive plan to grow the department.”
The incident happened just as the city prepares to welcome hundreds of thousands of Carnival revelers. In fact, Harrison’s comments on the video came at a news conference called to announce law enforcement preparations for the city’s biggest annual showcase.
He said the slow response to Sunday morning’s brawl was “part of our staffing issue” and promised that “this weekend, you’re going to see incredible staffing on Bourbon Street, around the French Quarter, on Canal Street like never before.”
He said an investigation was ongoing into the brawl depicted on the online video, which shows several men hurling insults and punches, but no bloodshed. “We’re working through watching the video, trying to identify other persons, maybe who were the aggressors,” he said.
Harrison said officers initially issued a few summonses to suspected instigators.
An NOPD spokesman did not respond to questions about any reported injuries or the number of summonses issued. Spokesman Tyler Gamble said only that a call about the fight came in about 2:30 a.m.
The incident underscored a manpower dilemma the local tourism industry is seeking to help solve by footing the bill for a contingent of state troopers to remain in New Orleans well beyond Mardi Gras.
Under the deal announced Tuesday, which law enforcement and tourism officials described as unprecedented, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau pledged $2.5 million to the State Police to cover overtime costs.
The arrangement, which will keep troopers in the city through a busy season of conventions and special events, reflects a growing concern not only about manpower but more broadly about public safety in the wake of a string of recent high-profile crimes in the city’s main tourist areas.
Stephen Perry, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, credited the financial commitment for the troopers largely to a new 1.75 percent tax on rooms that downtown hotels levied on themselves last year for marketing and infrastructure improvements in the Quarter.
“Right now is a time of need, but it’s also a time where both the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans have real budget restrictions and real problems,” Perry said. “We had issues that went beyond Mardi Gras, and we needed to make a statement.”
Perry stressed that tourism officials support Harrison “unreservedly,” calling him a great partner.
“What we have here is a solution that provides another element and has immediate impact that couldn’t happen without our funding,” Perry said.
Landrieu has repeatedly called on Gov. Bobby Jindal to approve a more permanent State Police presence in New Orleans, pointing to the economic value to the state of the city’s tourism industry. Last summer, after the Bourbon Street shooting, as many as 100 troopers patrolled for four months. Some troopers returned to the city in late November to help police the Bayou Classic crowds and in late December for Sugar Bowl and New Year’s celebrations.
About 150 troopers are expected to deploy to the city for Mardi Gras, beginning the weekend before the Feb. 17 holiday, said Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent.
The deployment will include a plainclothes team focused on weapons crimes and narcotics.
Between two dozen and 50 or so troopers will remain in the city even after the Carnival crowds leave, until at least mid-May, Edmonson said.
The troopers will stay in hotel rooms donated to the State Police by local hoteliers. They intend to focus heavily on the French Quarter. “That’s our golden jewel,” Edmonson said.
The troopers also will assist New Orleans police in other neighborhoods and capacities, including serving felony arrest warrants.
“I think you’re going to see a continued presence in the city of some size for the better part of this year,” Edmonson said. “I’m going to have to manage a budget, but this gives me some additional dollars.”
State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, called the funding commitment from the Convention and Visitors Bureau a “transformative” model for partnerships to come.
“It sets the table for a more long-term conversation that can be had with the business industry and our hospitality leadership, as well as with the mayor, our governor, Col. Edmonson and the New Orleans Police Department,” Leger said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit watchdog agency, said the tourism industry’s willingness to pay for added law enforcement highlights the grim reality of a police shortage that endures in spite of a recruiting campaign that is gaining momentum.
“You have hotels that have hired officers to work details on their premises, but I don’t think you’ve seen anything of this magnitude before,” Goyeneche said. “This is the first time that New Orleans has been in this predicament to this extent, with the Police Department being at a 37-year staffing low.”
In the meantime, some French Quarter bars and other businesses continue to push a slow-starting plan to pay off-duty New Orleans police officers to work on Bourbon Street and elsewhere in the Quarter.
Bob Simms, chairman of the security task force of the French Quarter Management District, said Landrieu signed off on the plan a few weeks ago in a cooperative endeavor agreement.
He said the next step is passing the collection plate for a plan that would “at least double” the police presence on Bourbon Street.
“We all know that NOPD is severely understaffed,” Simms said. “Everybody knows that, including the bad guys. So, yes, response times are going to be longer than you would like.”
But Simms, who watched the latest video Tuesday afternoon, cautioned against an overblown reaction to a brawl that seemed to be confined to the group of men and bouncers.
“Put it into perspective a little bit. Those sorts of things happen and get out of hand fairly quickly,” he said. “To me, it’s a little overplayed. I personally worry more about armed robberies and stabbings and rapes and things like that. Let’s put it into context.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.