Shooting response shines national spotlight on New Orleans public safety

Manpower issues questioned after Bourbon shooting

Gunfire had just erupted on Bourbon Street early Sunday morning, two men were on the run, and New Orleans police Officer Larry Adams had a lead on them.

“One white male in a red shirt, one white male in a black shirt. They’re going to be going toward Royal off of Bourbon,” Adams cried into his police radio.

Then, soon afterward: “I got witnesses saying they went in front of the cathedral. Toward Jackson Square. One subject has on a black shirt, black backpack, white male. There’s gonna be another man with him: black cap, red shirt. Both possibly (armed).”

Other NOPD officers were arriving to a bloody scene on one of America’s most storied strips of asphalt. Much of the blood was between Orleans Avenue and St. Ann Street.

“I need EMS. Bourbon and Orleans. Got a female shot in the side,” Detective Thomas Perez shouted.

“I got another one at Bourbon and St. Ann,” Detective Michael Florez reported. “Shot in the face. Female to the face.”

“I got one shot in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, shot in the ankle,” added Detective Darius McFarland, the first officer dispatched to the scene, according to an initial police report.

“We’re going to need more than one EMS,” someone else said.

Those were the opening minutes of police-radio chatter that followed Sunday morning’s chaos, the soundtrack to an episode that has crystallized an already pitched debate over the city’s response to violent crime.

Sunday’s bloodshed, as a thinning early morning crowd meandered down Bourbon Street, thrust the question of how to keep residents and visitors safe into the grim forefront, just as tens of thousands of visitors began to arrive for this year’s Essence Festival.

The incident has brought recriminations from police officer groups against Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and the federal consent decree the mayor endorsed in 2012 to reform the Police Department. And it led the mayor to call loudly and publicly for help from the state, while bemoaning a retreat of federal help to police city streets — criticism that drew a stinging rebuke from the FBI’s top man in New Orleans.

The 2:45 a.m. gunfire launched a dual response among the 8th District officers working that night: tending to the 10 shooting victims — including a 21-year-old Hammond woman who was pronounced dead Wednesday — while trying to secure a sprawling crime scene and track down a pair of suspects before they could flee the French Quarter.

Handful of hunters

The police chatter along with manpower reports provided by the NOPD suggest that, at least in the early minutes following the shooting, a bare handful of officers were on the hunt for the suspects.

Freelance journalist and local bartender David Minsky heard the loud boom of gunfire and stepped off a barstool at Boondock Saint on St. Peter Street. He said he walked toward the corner of Bourbon. People ran by, down St. Peter.

“He had the backpack slung over his shoulder. Right behind him was an NOPD cop,” Minsky said of the possible suspect. “The cop was, like 10, to 15 feet behind him. He was on his tail, man. They were booking it fast.”

Adams tried to track the fleeing men, at one point calling for a canine unit to sniff out an area where he suspected they might be hiding. It’s unclear whether the dogs ever arrived. A brief initial police report, released in response to a public-records request, doesn’t mention any search dogs.

Officers Robert Fuller and Jason Collins were working assigned overtime shifts near the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, records show. They called on parking lot attendants to shut their gates, and, at some point, they saw a pair of men running near the Mississippi River. Another officer, thinking he’d spotted the suspects on Iberville Street, detained two black men at the Westin Hotel. One wore a white shirt, another a black one, he said over the police radio.

That description seemed to add to confusion over whom the officers were looking for.

In the meantime, back at the shooting scene, Officer Roy Guggenheim kept trying to get someone’s attention on the radio.

“Can you get me some crime scene tape to Bourbon and Orleans, please?” he repeated.

How many on the street?

According to NOPD figures, the police presence was relatively strong in the French Quarter at that hour, with 27 officers assigned to the 8th District, including nine assigned specifically to Bourbon Street. Just how many were on the street when the shots rang out remains uncertain.

A request for an explanation from the NOPD on questions about manpower that night, and how it compares with 8th District staffing on other nights, went unanswered.

Among those working Sunday morning, according to Serpas, were two officers on the “Bourbon promenade,” a walking beat. That figure appears to be low, historically.

NOPD manpower records for time periods in 2013 and early 2014 show that normally about six officers work the Bourbon promenade on the overnight shift on Friday and Saturday nights.

Otherwise, the overall numbers offered up by the NOPD appear to measure up to past weekends, although the data were incomplete.

Of the nine officers on Bourbon when the shooting happened, five were on horseback, according to NOPD figures. Another 10 officers were assigned to patrol cars throughout the rest of the 8th District, which encompasses all of the French Quarter, the Central Business District and the Marigny Triangle.

Also on the job were two narcotics detectives, four plainclothes officers and two other detectives, Serpas said.

“Of course, we’d all like more. That’s not the issue here,” Serpas said at a news conference. “The issue is, that’s a lot of people, given the way we’re able to deploy today.”

That dose of diminished reality only fed frustration from officer groups over what they call the city’s neglect of a police force that has dwindled by 25 percent in four years, to a 36-year low. The NOPD now numbers fewer than 1,150 officers, down from 1,525 four years ago.

Amid a din of criticism, Landrieu directed his attention elsewhere, demanding a massive State Police contingent and a return of federal help to bolster public safety in the city.

‘Completely inaccurate’

His cries initially drew a measured response from Gov. Bobby Jindal and some catcalls from the normally reserved feds.

In a letter sent to The New Orleans Advocate on Thursday, FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Anderson rejected the mayor’s argument that the federal government needs to “get back in the business of fighting crime on the streets of America.” Anderson called the assertion that the feds have been missing in action on violent crime in the city “completely inaccurate.”

In a three-page letter detailing federal efforts against gangs and murderers in the city, Anderson said the mayor’s suggestion “that the FBI is not currently waging a battle against violent crime in New Orleans is baseless and counterproductive.”

Barely 10 hours after the shooting spree, meanwhile, a spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police argued that city policies have themselves reduced regular police presence on the streets, by limiting the number of overtime hours officers can work and crashing the off-duty paid detail system by agreeing to a federal consent decree in 2012 that required placing details under city management.

On Wednesday, the head of the Police Association of New Orleans, another officer group, unloaded.

NOPD Capt. Michael Glasser acknowledged that “even if officers were standing several feet away, there are no guarantees that such an incident couldn’t or wouldn’t happen anyway.” But he said it was “highly unlikely,” suggesting that the city helped spur a “mass casualty” by failing to adequately patrol Bourbon Street, where he said the police presence pales in comparison to that found at Times Square in New York City or Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee.

“And from whom does the mayor beg for help? From anyone,” Glasser wrote. “From ... the same federal government that has handcuffed, blindfolded and shackled our officers by way of an unmanageable consent decree.

“And then there’s the begging to the Louisiana State Police. A hundred state troopers permanently assigned to New Orleans? That request alone is tacit admission of utter failure.”

On Wednesday, Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent, pledged an influx of 30 state troopers through the weekend, the first State Police contingent to respond to a general public safety concern in New Orleans since after Hurricane Katrina. Beyond that, Jindal on Thursday pledged to redeploy 50 local troopers to patrol New Orleans streets through Labor Day.

Police presence ignored

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he doubts that having more visible, uniformed cops on the street would have prevented the gunfire early Sunday. He cited numerous mass shootings across the country and in New Orleans — including shootings near Mardi Gras parade routes — where those pulling the trigger seemed to ignore the presence of nearby officers, sometimes just feet away.

“I don’t believe what happened over the weekend is a manpower issue. It wouldn’t have prevented a mindless act,” Goyeneche said. “But maybe it could have (resulted in) an apprehension shortly after the event.”

He added, “I think the mayor realizes what the decision he made five years ago, not to hire police in the name of fiscal responsibility, is meaning to public safety,” Goyeneche said. “Having those police don’t necessarily prevent events like last weekend from occurring, but having more police in this community means when a citizen does dial 911 when there is an incident like this, you can deploy more police officers to a crime scene in a more timely manner.”

NOPD manpower reports show 104 officers were assigned in May to the 8th District — the best-staffed of the city’s eight police districts. That was down slightly from the 108 officers assigned there in January.

Of those, 13 officers in May were assigned to the C platoon — the overnight shift of regular patrol officers who respond to calls for service. A payroll roster provided by the NOPD shows a dozen platoon officers clocking in Saturday night.

Adams, the first officer to spot the suspects, is listed as one of the two narcotics officers working that night. He apparently was assigned to more generalized police work under a change reportedly made this spring as a result of the manpower deficit.

Taking back the street

Earl Bernhardt, owner of several French Quarter businesses, including Tropical Isle — where at least one shooting victim scrambled from the gunfire — said the French Quarter Business League plans to meet Tuesday to discuss paying for extra security, possibly by hiring retired cops.

“We’re going to take Bourbon Street back from the thugs,” he said.

Bernhardt noted that, starting nearly two decades ago, police officers have been barred from working off-duty details for bars. That move, aimed at ending a source of corruption, reduced the police presence on Bourbon, he said.

“If somebody looked suspicious, they’d run him out of the Quarter. We had all kind of presence,” Bernhardt said. “Now, you never see police officers on Bourbon Street. Once in a while, you see two mounted officers stroll down the street. What we need is a cop on every corner.”

That isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. A recruiting campaign aimed at hiring 150 new officers in five recruiting classes this year is going slowly.

Whether more cops would stem the tide of violence is an open question.

“These types of events, they happen all over the country. It’s more of a cultural, social issue. I’m not talking about racial. It’s the mindset of some people that they will settle a dispute by firing into a crowd,” Goyeneche said.

“The thing that is so telling is that here are two people that wanted to kill or injure each other, but they didn’t hit each other. They hit 10 targets, but none of them were intended targets. That was all collateral damage.”