With New Orleans Police Department staffing well below its ideal level and fear of crime on the rise, four neighborhood groups along St. Claude Avenue are talking about creating a private security district that could stretch from Esplanade Avenue to the Industrial Canal.

The proposal is expected to be put before the voters in the Marigny, Bywater, St. Roch and St. Claude neighborhoods by the end of the year and could be followed by an attempt by French Quarter groups to establish their own security district.

Dozens of such districts already dot the New Orleans landscape, providing neighborhoods with state-created structures to levy taxes or fees to pay for and manage private patrols. If it is created, the downriver district would be among the largest of these organizations.

The proposal for the St. Claude Avenue district is being floated as concerns about security have spiked along with an increasing number of armed robberies and other violent crimes. Those concerns have been felt acutely in the downriver neighborhoods due to several random beatings and other attacks in the area.

“This will allow the neighborhoods to revive and rebuild and establish themselves without the specter of crime keeping them down,” said Jonathan Rhodes, a board member of St. Claude Main Street who has been spearheading the discussions with the neighborhood groups.

The plan calls for a single security district that would encompass all four neighborhoods, stretching from Esplanade to the Industrial Canal and from North Claiborne Avenue to the Mississippi River. Combining all the neighborhoods would ensure the groups are working together and not creating some areas with increased patrols, which could raise concerns about pushing crime into nearby areas, Rhodes said.

The patrols in the district — likely made up of NOPD officers working off-duty details — would be funded by a parcel fee that could be about $200 per property, he said. Officials are looking into ways to exempt residents who are on fixed incomes, he added.

There are now more than two dozen security districts in New Orleans. Those areas included about 55,000 residents in 2010, about 16 percent of the city’s population at the time. Exact figures on the population of the proposed new district are hard to pin down, but it likely would have at least 10,000 residents.

The creation of a security district is a two-step process.

First, state lawmakers must pass a bill that establishes its specific boundaries and responsibilities. Such measures, which typically sail through the legislative process, also lay out how the district plans to tax its residents. From there, the proposal is put before the voters for their approval.

Three-year approval

Under the proposal, the voters would have to renew the funding for the downriver district after three years — a shorter period than for most new districts. That time frame could allow the NOPD to get its staffing up to adequate levels, reducing the need for additional patrols, Rhodes said.

State Rep. Wesley Bishop, who represents the area, said he has agreed to sponsor the legislation that would create the district, though he has no position on whether it would be good for the neighborhoods.

“Until the NOPD is at a position of having a full complement of officers, you’re going to see a certain tendency for neighborhoods to look at this (option),” said Bishop, D-New Orleans.

For their part, board members of neighborhood associations in the area said they’re still trying to get information about the proposal to their members.

Kash Schriefer, vice president of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, said his group is forming a committee to study the issue and make a recommendation. The board already has been hearing from residents on both sides of the issue, he said.

“In a perfect world, you’d have the police force (manpower) where it was four or five years ago, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon,” he said.

Schriefer noted that there have been a number of crimes recently in the area in which residents were beaten severely after handing over their wallets to muggers or, in some cases, simply were attacked for no apparent reason. Those incidents could rally support for increased patrols, though he noted that any discussion of increasing taxes “brings out resistance.”

Value is questioned

The value of security districts is somewhat up for debate.

A study by the New Orleans Inspector General’s Office in 2013 found that while neighborhoods with security districts had statistically lower property crime rates, the added patrols did not appear to impact the rate of violent crimes or murders. Overall, the existence of a district meant an area would have a 23 percent lower-than-average property crime rate, the study found, though factors such as vacancy and home ownership rates appeared to have a larger effect on those statistics.

In addition, the report found that the creation of new security districts did not result in any obvious changes to crime trends in those areas. However, the study noted that the newest districts were relatively small, employed private security services rather than on-duty NOPD officers and, in some cases, had too few crimes to draw any meaningful conclusions from the analysis.

The study found that security districts do provide added peace of mind to their residents, but it also questioned the philosophy that underpins them.

“The security district model treats safety as a private good, purchased by a subset of the population for its own benefit,” the IG’s report said. “If safety is considered a public good, however, it is only successfully achieved if all parts of the city benefit. The private security district model does not achieve this goal, as only those able to pay benefit from improved safety.”

On the other hand, the report said districts can be a reasonable response to citizens’ distrust and frustration with the NOPD.

Neighborhood differences

The creation of a district spanning four different neighborhoods could present challenges. The four neighborhoods differ dramatically in their economic and racial makeup — divides that have become starker as the Marigny and Bywater areas have become more desirable and expensive, attracting an increasingly wealthy population.

Some of that gentrification has spilled over into St. Roch and St. Claude, although those neighborhoods remain generally poorer. Those factors could all play into how residents in the different areas view police priorities and other issues and thus how they would vote on paying a new fee to support added police presence.

But Bishop said safety is a common need throughout the area.

“While neighborhoods may see things differently, when it comes to crime in their own neighborhood, I think everyone likes the idea of more security,” he said.

Under the Rhodes proposal, the district would be structured so that its money could also go toward physical improvements in the four neighborhoods. In addition to allowing the district to transition to a time when the NOPD has significantly increased its staffing level, allowing a wider use of funds could provide money for upkeep of parks and other community assets, which Rhodes said would also help with the crime rate.

“We know we can’t police or arrest our way to the community we want,” he said.

French Quarter proposals

French Quarter groups also are contemplating a security district that would encompass their neighborhood, providing a permanent source of funding for increased patrols. A similar plan was proposed in 2010 but was rejected by the voters, with 65 percent voting against it — one of the few times such a proposal has been defeated in New Orleans.

Neighborhood leaders have been meeting with Mayor Mitch Landrieu since earlier this year on the crime problem, working on proposals that include extra police details on Bourbon Street that are funded by business groups as well as having additional NOPD officers assigned to the Quarter.

Bob Simms, who is in charge of the French Quarter Management District’s Security Task Force, said that group is focused on short-term solutions and finding private funding for additional details for the whole Quarter. But, he said, a formal district is one of two or three proposals on the table to provide a way to improve the police presence in the Quarter until the NOPD is better staffed.

“We all recognize that we’ve got to have a more visible police presence if we’re going to deter crime,” Simms said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.