Part I of a series examining control / space in contemporary New Orleans
On Saturday, April 9th, residents of Orleans Parish are invited to vote on a ballot measure titled PW Police and Fire Protection – 7.5 Mills – CC – 12 Yrs. This will determine whether the New Orleans Police Department, whose budget has steadily skyrocketed since Katrina, should be given even more money: an extra $17.7 million yearly for what’s already the highest-funded department in New Orleans government. As it is, NOPD gets nearly a quarter of the city’s general fund budget. Although this ballot measure is disguised as funding for firefighters (who will get their money regardless, mark my words), two thirds of the new tax proceeds the government will take from us if this millage passes will go to police. If passed, this tax increase aims to give New Orleans a rate of cops-to-civilians almost double the national average for cities its size.
I strongly urge you to go out and vote against this irresponsible money grab. Numerous quantitative and qualitative studies have shown no relation between increasing policing and increasing safety. To the contrary, higher rates of police presence often increase instability and insecurity in communities. Giving police more money is a particularly terrible idea when the force in question is the NOPD, a department beyond salvage. Other forward-thinking communities are re-examining better ways to help people feel (and be) safer; it’s past time we quit throwing our money into the flaming pit that is our city’s unreformably corrupt police and jail system.
For a case study in exactly how useless NOPD and police in general are in making us “safer,” let us examine the microcosm that is the French Quarter, the most intensely and multifariously policed neighborhood in New Orleans.
THE FRENCH QUARTER TASK FORCE
In March 2015, erstwhile trash magnate, Buffa’s persecutor, and St. Bernard society scion Sidney Torres IV decided to play Batman. Salty over someone stealing his TV set, he bought a bunch of advertising airtime to chastise the mayor, then personally hired a gaggle of NOPD as mercenaries for an expedition to sweep through and arrest the “vagrants” along lower Decatur. Of course, NOPD will arrest anyone for money.
Torres must have really gotten off on that exercise of power, because for his next trick he spent half a million bucks—pocket change to him—to create the French Quarter Task Force, a private security detail of NOPD who answer not to NOPD dispatch but instead to a special smartphone app Torres commissioned called the Big Easy Button.
Torres cares about the French Quarter. “It is the golden goose of the city,” he told the national press, who largely fawned over the troubling development of a U.S. multi-millionaire conscripting a private paramilitary to do his bidding. “It generates a lot of funding… this is something that we have to protect.” In service to Torres’ longtime fixation on wacky vehicles, he provided his goon squad kool kustom karts to roll around in.
Part of what netted the FQTF media attention was its tech aspect—Torres unselfconsciously characterized the Big Easy Button as “Uber, but for police officers.” Please take a moment, reader, to contemplate that glib tagline’s implications. Think about how Uber actually works, transactionally. You pay to hire someone with a late-model car to drive you somewhere, at a cost that increases in proportion to how many other people need the service. Meanwhile a tiny, cackling clique of tech developers somewhere remote get rich—because the whole shebang operates free of any regulatory apparatus. Now imagine that instead of an underinsured car and driver, you’re hiring an off-duty member of a legendarily murderous police force to… do something for you? I don’t know. That really doesn’t sound cool to me.
While the Big Easy Button is symbolically interesting, it’s also a dumb gimmick that after its initial hype has fallen into relative disuse. Its advocates claimed this as proof that it’s worked so well it’s no longer necessary.
For the first few months, the FQTF was under Torres’ direct control. Then French Quarter voters approved a quarter-cent neighborhood sales-tax increase that entailed funding for the Task Force. Authority and management of the FQTF shifted to NOPD; the taxpayer-funded Convention and Visitors Bureau now supplies the $75,000 monthly the FQTF costs.
There is nominal civilian oversight in the dubious person of Bob Simms. Simms is an Englishman retired from international defense contractor Lockheed Martin who, since relocating to the Quarter, has installed himself atop the French Quarter Management District, one of countless semi-governmental FQ groups. In reality, Simms is a figurehead; the FQTF is in the hands of NOPD.
In February of this year, Torres began blasting the FQTF on his Facebook page. When NOPD took over, Torres said, “[p]erformance started to slide immediately and continues to degrade.” He claimed, shockingly, that NOPD officers on the Task Force were collecting pay without doing their jobs, and had disabled the GPS on their FQTF golf carts to avoid accountability. Torres posted pictures of Task Force cops slacking off. “It was so shocking and unbelievable that I took photos,” he wrote. “I had to—no one would otherwise believe that a uniformed officer being paid $50/hour would be caught sitting on a bar stool flirting while on the clock.”
Whether or not anyone would otherwise believe that of NOPD, whose off-duty paid detail system the U.S. Justice Department called “an aorta of corruption,” this was just the beginning of Torres’ rampage. He shouted to every news outlet that would listen about catching Task Force members goldbricking on “a coffee break or a girlfriend break or a sleeping break.” He told The Advocate he was frustrated by NOPD’s “laziness and a lack of leadership,” that they were squandering the time and money he’d spent attempting “to fix a police department that’s completely messed up.”
Extremely slow response times are often used as an argument for why we need more police funding. According to Torres, this shiny new NOPD-staffed task force, ultimately bankrolled by taxpayers, now has response times as bad as those of the non-taskforce NOPD. So to recap: millions of additional dollars still can’t convince NOPD to do their jobs. Tons more money, same shitty result. Remember that on April 9.
Behind most of the hoo-ha about the French Quarter being underpoliced lurks the Police Association of New Orleans, the cop lobbyist group mostly otherwise focused on fighting to ensure the countless NOPD busted for lying, theft, rape, or murder still get pensions. PANO has organized astroturf French Quarter “anti-crime rallies” to argue NOPD deserves more money. They’ve launched petition drives and were the force behind those “WE <3 NOPD, WE JUST WANT MORE OF THEM” signs one saw around the French Quarter a while back. PANO doesn’t really think the French Quarter is underpoliced; PANO only ever wants more money for NOPD, and feels they can get it via a scare campaign about the one neighborhood that even those locals who’ve abandoned Orleans Parish entirely still feel fiercely invested in. PANO also knows what pushes the buttons of our city’s old-line hysterical racists, and strives to play them against the Mayor for political leverage. The Association’s president writes histrionic letters on Facebook accusing Landrieu of “disdain, disregard, and disrespect” towards police.
The reality PANO seeks to capitalize on is that a lot of white people in (shall we generously say) “metro” New Orleans can’t stand Mayor Mitch. Long before he justified their paranoia by positioning himself as a figure of paternal compromise in front of the growing grassroots movement to remove our city’s racist monuments, these people whose fear PANO seeks to stoke already disliked Mitch for being the son of that desegregating scalawag Moon Landrieu— Mitch’s Dad and the most recent white mayor previous to Mitch.
PANO wants more money for NOPD. Contrary to all evidence, they claim this will allow them to better enforce the laws which they so revere—which makes it at least a little humorous that back in 2011 PANO’s loudmouth crybaby president was popped for putting a license plate cover on his car to evade our city’s unstinting traffic cameras. At the time, he was the NOPD Special Operations “integrity control officer,” the policeman responsible for ensuring other police comply with laws.
THE RULE OF LAW
Our politicians love passing laws about the French Quarter—curfews, free speech restrictions, all sorts of ramped-up fines and special-condition ordinances concocted as tributes to the Vieux Carre’s tourist-magnetic magic. These laws are generally aimed at protecting the Quarter. If you live in the Quarter, you can only paint your shutters certain colors; every part of your domicile facing the street is strictly regulated by a small group of elderly white sociopaths. If you made a Venn diagram of the board members of all the bullshit organizations who claim quality-of-life jurisdiction over the Quarter, it would look like an eclipse. In any case, to disobey these creeps—to install an ahistoric safety rail, for instance—can earn you fines of hundreds of dollars a day.
And yet in October 2015, when Larry Anderson illegally and without permits demolished 728 St. Philip Street, an early-1800s building whose history included being the site where the muffaletta was invented, what sanctions did he face? A fine of $6,000. Hell, he can probably make that up in a few weeks with the income from the illegal short-term rentals he’s running nearby. In the words of WGNO’s Megan Kluth, it was “[a] small price to pay for destroying a piece of history that makes up the fabric of the neighborhood.”
I would like at this juncture to introduce to readers the underexamined mega-slumlord Kishore “Mike” Motwani, proprietor (via a maze of LLCs and family members) of all those interchangeable zydeco-blasting T-shirt shops. These shops are staffed by exploited and underpaid green-card seekers whom Motwani imports in bulk, echoing older New Orleans transatlantic trafficking traditions. He’s routinely and brazenly destroyed the Quarter’s buildings as well as many on Canal Street and elsewhere in the CBD, both in smaller ways—jackhammering (with no permit) high-fee ATMs into centuries-old facades—and through deliberately letting his properties deteriorate to the point that pieces of them fall into the street. This “demolition by neglect” is because he wants to replace them with high-end hotels. Motwani does all of this with impunity. When he throws a party in his mansion (in Kenner, lol), local politicos come to kiss his ring. He has made himself integral to the tourist economy.
Contrast the treatment afforded Motwani, who destroys entire historic blocks, with the December 2011 felony charges levied against Anthony Chapman, a street musician whom NOPD spotted writing “Natural Hair 4 the Brown Skin” in felt-tip pen beneath a windowsill on lower Decatur. Chapman was arrested and charged under a 2010 statute that makes graffiti in the French Quarter a felony punishable with up to two years’ imprisonment. For his crime against the Quarter, Chapman rotted in jail for months. The motor home he’d been living in was towed away and destroyed; he lost his home and belongings. He finally accepted a deal in March 2012, pleading guilty to the felony in exchange for the maximum fine and two years’ probation.
This is the rule of law. This is what the fetish for protecting the Quarter is in practice.
The question of who’s allowed to exist in the French Quarter is closely tied to who’s allowed to make money in the French Quarter. Mwende Katwiwa’s September 2015 ANTIGRAVITY article, “Navigating Space and Race in the French Quarter,” describes the travails of Tracy Riley, a Black woman who’s been campaigning to get a liquor license for her French Quarter business, only to be denied by the French Quarter Business Association pulling strings with the state. “There are only four Black-owned businesses in the French Quarter out of over 3,000,” Riley told Katwiwa, “less than one percent.” Denying Black-owned businesses liquor licenses is a longstanding expression of racist paternalism by white-controlled “neighborhood” groups. In 2012, bounce artist 10th Ward Buck centered his run for a City Council seat on the subject.
The French Quarter has an 8 p.m. curfew for those younger than 16; the curfew zone extends to Elysian Fields. In a November 2015 Facebook post that was shared more than 2,200 times, a delivery worker on Frenchmen Street documented NOPD arresting two young street musicians, a pair of brothers ages 9 and 14, for trying to make money in the tourist zone past curfew. Despite the curfew ordinance having built-in exceptions for “going to or from work” and “exercising First Amendment rights… such as the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and the right of assembly,” and despite the kids’ mom arriving ten minutes after the police, NOPD would not relinquish the children to their parent’s care, instead hauling them off to our city’s nightmarish youth detention center. Need I mention the kids were Black? 93% of the youth NOPD choose to arrest for curfew violation are Black. This is a prime example of the laws we’re told we need more police to enforce.
ONE NIGHT IN NOVEMBER
There are many layers of law enforcement present in the Quarter. NOPD, State Troopers, the Harbor Police, the French Quarter Task Force, various federal agencies, the French Market security forces, private guards like those of Pinnacle Security, and oddities like The NOLA Patrol.
The NOLA Patrol is a pseudo-police force funded by the French Quarter’s big hotels. Described sneeringly by a certain NOPD captain as an “unarmed, unequipped civilian ‘force’ comprised of predominately high school graduates,” this handful of undertrained yahoos were the Mayor’s brainchild, deputized to crack down on quality-of-life violations in the French Quarter.
Given the well-established lack of training among actual New Orleans police, I leave to the reader’s imagination the skillset of these yellow-shirted sad sacks who long for authority and power but were unable to hurdle even the low bar of NOPD, an agency desperate to hire anyone with a pulse. Still, the Patrol can roust a poor person from a doorway well enough, and as with the Downtown Development District’s pissant paramilitary “Rangers,” that’s all the yellowshirts are meant to do anyway: kick around the categories of people who have least recourse.
While the initial plan for the NOLA Patrol was to hire 50 people, only 20 ever graduated the pre-patrol class, and by Fall 2015 at least six of those had dropped out or been fired. According to an article in The Advocate, “Traffic control—even erecting metal barriers—is beyond their scope.”
“It’s a complete waste of money,” Earl Bernhardt, owner of the Tropical Isle bars, told The Advocate. “Well, they don’t do anything.” Bernhardt is a member of a group called the French Quarter Business League, which last fall contributed $42,000 towards the eventual funding of the Bourbon Patrol, an initiative paying off-duty NOPD to patrol Bourbon Street on foot between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The Bourbon Patrol, like the French Quarter Task Force, supplements the on-duty 8th District NOPD in hopes that incentivizing NOPD with enough extra money might induce them to do their jobs.
Traditionally, NOPD act only at the behest of the powerful. When (admittedly aggravating) acrobats seizing space in the pedestrian mall in front of Brennan’s bothered that restaurant’s management, a Brennan’s manager took it upon himself to remove the barricades from that block—literally confiscating them in the restaurant’s back lot—and the NOPD, unable to easily justify discontinuing just a single block of the pedestrian mall, obligingly opened all of Royal Street to automotive traffic, claiming it was an anti-terrorism initiative.
But the NOPD are slowly shifting. The big, slow, teardrop-shaped head-bashers who can’t get out of their SUVs without injuring themselves are slowly dying off, replaced by a new breed of out-of-town thicknecks who view our population as “hostiles.” This is a facet of police militarization: cramming our dysfunctional force with actual military vets. Some of these Monster Energy boyz can write a halfway-coherent police report, a game-changer for the DA’s office. Also unlike old-guard NOPD, many can sustain foot pursuit. The new cops still have no training and no people skills, but their steady diet of steroids makes them dangerous in a different way.
It would be a bad scene for us criminals if these tribal-tatted muscleheads had anything resembling leadership, but NOPD is wholly broken as an institution. The far wilier old guard cling bitterly to power and understand how to work the system at a level unattainable without generational inhabitation. The remaining old-school NOPD have no interest in sharing power or providing mentorship to their mesomorphic usurpers. These recent Blackwater rejects are also, mercifully, bereft of critical thinking ability—they’re violent automatons, who live only to reinforce authority by doing whatever a bossman commands them to. They’re fanatically obedient order-takers, not individuals with initiative or imagination, and any of them worth a shit defect immediately to the State Police.
Louisiana State Troopers have been patrolling Bourbon Street and the French Quarter on and off since the flood. Lately they’ve become a longer-term presence downtown. They are prickish sticklers, racking up hundreds of minor arrests for crimes like marijuana possession and bragging about it. They’re openly contemptuous not only of NOPD, whom they rightly view as corrupt, lazy buffoons, but of what their Duck Dynasty mindset perceives to be New Orleans’ permissiveness and vice. If they must engage our cesspool of a city, they will do so strictly on their terms.
This culture clash was clear when the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control, working in concert with State Troopers, shut down five French Quarter strip clubs in October 2015 for various minor violations nobody in New Orleans would bat an eyelash at, e.g. naked dancers and “inappropriate touching.” A local judge intervened immediately to restore four of the clubs’ liquor licenses. Thundering like a revival preacher, ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert said the judge’s action “sends a terrible message out there, that we went in there and closed some of the worst of the worst places, and in less than 24 hours, they allowed them to open again.”
“New Orleans is going to have to make a decision,” Hebert warned. “Does it want law and order, or does it want to be like the wild, wild West?”
Really, Louisiana State Police are proof that it needn’t be either/or: they are fascists with a cowboy streak. When they came down to help for Carnival 2013, a pedicabber friend witnessed (all-white) squads of them in plainclothes unprovokedly running up on, grabbing, and shaking down Black teenagers on Bourbon Street without bothering to identify themselves as law enforcement. But let us be fair: for the average Louisiana State Trooper, joining a posse of other big white dudes to go violently lay hands on a scared Black kid is probably learned behavior— learned watching their Dads and Grandpappies deal with “troublemakers” back in the good ol’ days.
One of these incidents got some press. Among the Black teenagers tackled and roughed up by plainclothes State Troopers around Mardi Gras 2013 was the son of an NOPD officer, waiting for his mom outside the restaurant where they’d just eaten. Despite damning video and condemnation from the NAACP et al., the Louisiana State Police’s internal investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by the nine white troopers who attacked this kid and his friend. The troopers claimed they’d suspected the kids (who turned out to be of age) of curfew violation. That again!
Now the State Troopers are here indefinitely. A dozen of them were on hand the night of November 28, 2015, as were 50 on-duty NOPD officers, some on horseback, also mostly around Bourbon Street. The NOLA Patrol were on the prowl. Four members of the Bourbon Patrol were working, as well as three Polaris’ worth of the French Quarter Task Force. All or nearly all of these were within a quick dash of the 300 block of Bourbon when, tragically, a man was shot and killed. The killer escaped.
All those police, all those layers of repression, and this was the outcome.
In February of this year, State Police accused a man arrested on an unrelated charge in Baton Rouge of being the shooter. He has yet to be tried; the evidence is DNA on a hat. Whether or not this guy who unluckily fell into State Police hands months later is convicted, the point holds that in November 2015, dozens upon dozens of representatives of multiple law-enforcement agencies all trying to accomplish the same goal—prevent crime in the Quarter by patrolling proactively and responding rapidly—couldn’t do it. In this hyperscrutinized, hypercontrolled space, beneath the eyes of all these different flavors of pig, the exact kind of crime everyone’s most afraid of still happened.
Please, go vote against the millage on Saturday, April 9. Our current approach to crime clearly does not work, no matter how much of our money and power we cede to it. Stop the fucking madness. Policing does not keep us safe, least of all the NOPD. We must find better ways.
This article relies in part on research conducted by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs