State police to deploy 30 troopers for Essence Festival

Little more than an hour after a 21-year-old Hammond woman was pronounced dead from gunshot wounds suffered in Sunday’s early morning spray of bullets on Bourbon Street, the head of State Police on Wednesday announced an emergency deployment of 30 troopers to bolster law enforcement presence in and around the French Quarter through this weekend’s Essence Festival, a major summertime tourist draw.

Col. Mike Edmonson, the state police superintendent, called it an unusual response prompted by a request from Mayor Mitch Landrieu, although it fell well short of Landrieu’s call on Tuesday for 100 state troopers to patrol the city over the long term amid a steep manpower deficit in the NOPD.

The decision to add troopers was made on Sunday, Edmonson said, although the size of the state response was unclear then.

State troopers commonly lend an extra hand in New Orleans during major special events. But not since Hurricane Katrina has the state wheeled out a major contingent to New Orleans to help quell public safety concerns, officials said.

“What makes it different from others is the shooting on Bourbon Street,” Edmonson acknowledged inside a hotel on Bourbon Street, which he called “the most visible street on earth.”

Dozens of troopers bowed their heads in a moment of silence for Brittany Thomas, who died at 2:44 p.m., and for the other nine shooting victims.

Edmonson said state police have not customarily staffed the Essence Festival to any degree. Working 12-hour shifts, the extra troopers will be deployed on foot and in cars in the French Quarter, Bywater, Faubourg Marigny and Central Business District.

Edmonson said the 30 troopers would start working immediately. Another 25 troopers are working off-duty details for Essence and will be available in a pinch, he said. By comparison, a total of 79 troopers are assigned to Troop B, the Kenner-based unit that covers Orleans and five other parishes.

The state reinforcements will run through an overnight shift that ends Monday morning. Beyond that, Edmonson said, he’s developing plans through Labor Day, though he is still working with NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas on the specifics.

“We need to make a short-term commitment to the city, and that’s what this weekend is,” Edmonson said. “Our next commitment will be where we go from this point forward, and that’s until Labor Day.”

Sunday’s shooting injured 10 and left Landrieu scurrying to restore calm in the face of national headlines casting doubt on the city’s safety on the eve of a celebrity-studded event.

The 30-trooper contingent appears to be something of a compromise between the mayor and Gov. Bobby Jindal after Landrieu on Tuesday laid the city’s public safety woes at the governor’s feet, citing the massive tax dollars the New Orleans tourist industry produces for the state. Jindal’s response Tuesday was tepid; he made no promises above a standard July Fourth contingent.

“To sit here and say I can take 100 troopers immediately and focus on New Orleans, I’d have to take them from somewhere else,” Edmonson said. “This is what we could pull together.”

Edmonson praised the relationship between the two police agencies. “I don’t know that there’s a better partnership around the country,” he said. He added that the infusion of troopers was not just to protect tourists but also “those individuals that live here, that work here, that own businesses here, that support the city of New Orleans. Those individuals ought to feel safe too.”

While Serpas has said the French Quarter was relatively well-staffed when the shooting happened, Landrieu’s call for reinforcements came in recognition that NOPD manpower has shriveled by 25 percent in just four years, from 1,525 to fewer than 1,150 cops.

Serpas said the NOPD “has a longstanding partnership with the Louisiana State Police and (they have) provided support every time we’ve made a request. But this is a matter of state policy. New Orleans is home to state assets that need to be protected.”

State Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, called the announcement a reasonable response in the wake of the bloodshed. “I don’t have a problem with the mayor’s request” for the short term, Lopinto said. “If you’re asking us to put 100 troopers in the city of New Orleans for the next six months, it’s not realistic.”

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan freed New Orleans police to work off-duty uniformed details for Essence Festival outside of the purview of the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment until Monday.

The move essentially relieves the cops from rules put in place under a federal consent decree, allowing them to make market-rate money rather than rates set last summer. It also allows officers who coordinate details for the festival to hand-pick officers for that work.