Bourbon St. bars, shops plan to tighten police security

Advocate staff file photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants an unarmed civilian force to help patrol the French Quarter.  Nine people were injured in an early morning shooting incident at Bourbon Street and Orleans Avenue Sunday, June 29, 2014.
Advocate staff file photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants an unarmed civilian force to help patrol the French Quarter. Nine people were injured in an early morning shooting incident at Bourbon Street and Orleans Avenue Sunday, June 29, 2014.

Business owners want to fund added police presence

Rattled by the June 29 shooting spree that left one dead and nine others wounded, Bourbon Street bar and shop owners are preparing to hire current or former New Orleans police officers to bolster security along the city’s most famous strip.

At the same time, the French Quarter Management District is drawing up a similar plan that would call for residents and business owners to voluntarily contribute money for hiring off-duty New Orleans officers to patrol three different areas of the neighborhood.

Earl Bernhardt, owner of Tropical Isle and several other bars, said the French Quarter Business League met Tuesday to discuss a plan to heighten law-enforcement presence on Bourbon Street.

The group, which represents most of the 40 bars and clubs on the entertainment strip, plans to combine efforts with the FQMD, a state-chartered agency, as early as next week, with hopes for stanching what Bernhardt described as a tide of bad behavior along the strip.

“We’re going to have a contingent of enough off-duty officers to make the streets safe,” Bernhardt said. “There’s a whole bunch of retired police officers commissioned with arrest powers who are willing to work.”

He said bar and club owners would pay from $200 to $500 each per week to fund the added police presence.

The details haven’t been sorted out, but he said the group expects to launch something by Labor Day, when Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent commitment of 50 state troopers to patrol the French Quarter lapses.

“Before Labor Day we’ll come up with a plan to get police officers on every block of the street,” Bernhardt said. “We’ve got to do it for our own survival and to keep the tourists safe.”

He said police presence on Bourbon Street hasn’t been the same since the mid-1990s, when then-Police Superintendent Richard Pennington banned off-duty officers from working details for bars, part of an effort to clean up a freewheeling culture of cops working private jobs in uniform.

A manpower deficit on the current police force has only made matters worse, Bernhardt said. The force has dwindled in four years from 1,525 sworn officers to fewer than 1,150, according to figures from the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

As of May, the Eighth District was assigned 104 officers, the largest roster among the city’s eight police districts. Four years ago, it had 150, said Bob Simms, chairman of the FQMD’s security task force.

“It’s taken awhile for people to realize how critically short we are,” Simms said.

He said he has been working for months with John Salomone, the head of the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment, on a plan for off-duty cops to patrol the area.

“This is not something that started after the Bourbon incident. It just heightens the need,” Simms said.

He said the plan envisions off-duty patrols on Bourbon Street, in the business section of Royal Street and in the residential area of the French Quarter between Dumaine Street and Esplanade Avenue. But much depends on how businesses and residents respond to the call for cash, he said.

“I’d like to put three (officers) on Bourbon Street, three on Royal and two in the residential areas” in the peak hours of 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., Simms said. “We’ll do whatever I’ve got money for.”

NOPD figures showed 27 officers were working in the Eighth District — encompassing the French Quarter, Central Business District and Marigny Triangle — when two shooters started firing in the 700 block of Bourbon around 2:45 a.m. June 29.

NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas called that a good number for a depleted police force. He said nine officers, including five on horseback, were assigned to Bourbon Street itself, although it’s unclear how many were on the street, or where they were when the gunfire started.

Records provided by the city in response to a public-records request show that a single off-duty NOPD officer was working a detail in the Eighth District at the time of the shooting, at Gene’s Po-Boys in the 1000 block of Elysian Fields Avenue, more than a mile away.

The officer “was not involved with the Bourbon Street response,” according to the city records. No off-duty cops were working details in the adjacent First District, across Rampart Street, according to the city’s response.

Bernhardt said bar and shop owners are fed up with the proliferation of shady characters on Bourbon Street. He said the street also needs more police presence during the day.

“It’s built up: The thugs and shoeshine scammers and all of these people that prey on the tourists. They’ve just steadily increased because of a lack of police presence,” he said. “They know they can do whatever they want to do and get away with it. We’ve got to let the bad guys know they don’t have free run of Bourbon Street anymore.”

Police on Friday arrested 20-year-old Trung Le, of Belle Chasse, the alleged first gunman to fire his weapon that morning. Police have given no indication that they are close to an arrest of the other suspected gunman, nor have they identified him.

Le was booked on one count of first-degree murder and nine counts of attempted first-degree murder. He was arrested in Mississippi, where he remained Tuesday pending extradition proceedings.

Bernhardt said Mayor Mitch Landrieu met with the group on Monday and that City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey attended the meeting Tuesday.

A spokesman for Landrieu said the two sides “had a productive discussion about how to collectively get additional resources for public safety for the area, without taking away from neighborhoods across the city. It’s something we will continue to work on in partnership with the business owners, and we look forward to continuing those discussions.”

Ramsey, whose district includes the French Quarter, could not be reached Tuesday.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.