The Cops

Let’s talk about cops. Or “security.” And is there a meaningful connection between the two?

I have a question about NOPD. Let’s see if I can get a good answer to it from readers who know.

Everybody in New Orleans likes to talk about police. Either there are not enough of them, one of our local beliefs; or they are shooting unarmed Black people around the country for petty infractions; or they are inventing laws, like telling people they don’t have the right to video them. Or some say that every city and state cop is a hero, our only bulwark against Hobbesian savagery.

But we don’t have to rush. We can look at some other stuff on the way.

Every once in a while, something goes right. A couple of weeks ago, a young man got “case dismissed” for a crime he did not commit. In fact, for a crime nobody committed.

Bill Smith was working security for Café Istanbul for an event at one of the reportedly frequent times when Matt Del Vecchio, an FMIA director, was stalking around the venue, looking for incidents to video or photos to take to justify weaponizing the ABO Commission against the venue while bypassing the procedures of the Neighborhood Benefit Agreement his organization was supposed to be on the policing side of. If you missed this bit of downriver theater, a little clutch of neighbors had been complaining about people talking or laughing when they left Istanbul after events. In a truly amazing coincidence, all the complainers were White and and all the complainees were Black. But, friends and Romans, the homeowners’ champion says it is an honorable man. So of course, the reasons for not following the agreed procedures had absolutely nothing to do with subterranean racism or xenophobic anxiety at the Faubourg Marigny Gentrification Support Society. Perish that ignoble thought! Maybe they had just not read to that page of their contract yet.

Smith was doing his job, trying to keep a crowd in some sort of order and calm until the doors opened, when somehow the intrepid iPhone videographer provoked him into a response. We don’t know what the provocation was, because it was edited out of the video posted on the Internet.

Eventually, exasperated at the verbal harassment accompanying the video tracking, Smith tells the NA sleuth to ‘stick it up his ass’ or words to that effect. The Tribune of Residents claimed, on the video and later, that this was a homophobic remark, just short of a hate crime. To the normal person, it is a schoolyard insult that avoids using the F-word, but in the skewed world of neighborhood association self-righteousness, things take on arcane meanings.

Accusations of homophobia were eventually not enough for the inflamed video vigilante, and a charge of actual assault was brought. Fortunately, Bill Smith’s manager that night was Nadra Enzi, aka Captain Black, who was present the whole time, knew that no assault had occurred, hooked Mr Smith up with a useful lawyer, so the charge was kicked. One for the good guys.

I wonder if translating a bit of street and schoolyard putdown into literal sexual innuendo isn’t a new variation on the ancient Southern casting of Black men as a sexual threat.

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NOLA Patrol also expired, with a wheezy whimper and some relief. In case you had forgotten what it was, NOLA Patrol was born in the time of a lot of police politics in New Orleans. Ten people had been shot in one incident on June 29th 2014, driving the Times-Pic to headline in alarm, “ . . . tourism image scarred.” Bourbon Street was turning into Dodge City, and not enough cops to protect us. The idea cauldron was bubbling: recruit more police; get concessions on the consent decree; more community policing, and officers on the street; buy more cars; get more help from the State Troopers; get a Bourbon Patrol of NOPD on detail up and running.

NOLA Patrol was supposed to be a troop of about fifty young police auxiliaries who would roam the French Quarter in yellow shirts, directing traffic, citing and warning about “Quality of Life” infractions, taking notes and demonstrating by their high visibility to potential malefactors that the multifaceted fly’s eye of New Orleans law sees all. Except most people never managed to spot one of these high-visibility QoL enforcers in the flesh.

NOLA.com’s article on its demise said that the Patrol was born “amid high hopes.”

No, it wasn’t, unless you mean Mayor Mitch’s hopes, which sometimes seem more optical than substantial. Chief Michael Harrison and one or two of Landrieu’s surrogates came to Council to help get an enabling ordinance passed, and with forced smiles expressed optimism for the grand future of this idea that addressed no pressing problem. Did anybody believe them? Council voted to enable it, but I suspect that most of our Council Members saw it as a scene in Mayor Mitch’s Municipal Minuet of Illusion.

Backstage whispers say NOLA Patrol’s Eureka! moment was when Landrieu saw New York’s version in bright yellow shirts, blowing whistles, giving directions, trying to help traffic move in Times Square – all sorts of heart-warming Officer Krupke functions. People that know something about policing and management are whispered to have said: Mitch, that’s Times Square. Look around: there are officers, patrolmen, sergeants, undercover detectives all around. An organization. A management structure. We don’t have that. If you start a bunch of under-managed patrollers wandering about, what you are going to get is some people wandering about.

We hoi polloi just rolled our eyes and watched the show.

Except of course, for the French Quarter residentialist delusion, which was quite excitable at the time. Whether because the proposers threw the dog-whistle “Quality of Life” into the propaganda, or for political points – couldn’t say. But they Said they liked it.

Well, it was a chance to nick about $800k from some city accounts for a French Quarter thing, and maybe some bright shirted Patrollers would keep the FQ people off his case for a bit. High hopes.

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Let’s start slithering closer to my big question.

The Bourbon Street shoot-up in June 2014 brought some French Quarter security anxiety to a head. NOPD 8th District didn’t have enough officers for the complement they used to have in the commercial area, and the crowds were getting bigger. The residential FQ had a discouraging crime rate, from panhandling and “gutter punks” that the residents felt were too aggressive – unsavory, in the neighbors’ eyes as well – to armed robbery and assault. Residents and business managers became convinced that more police would be an answer. Bob Simms, security committee chair for French Quarter Management district, assiduously looked for ways to provide better security. Simms had worked out the CCTV cooperative that evolved into SafeCam Nola. He campaigned for better street lighting, both from better maintenance of municipal streetlights and by private property owners. He lobbied the bar and restaurant owners of Bourbon Street to fund a detail patrol that he planned out, in connection with French Quarter Management District, whose Security Task Force he chaired. It was a Sisyphean task. Everybody was convinced more patrol officers would reduce crime and increase security, but getting people to put their money up was hard going.

I get that. Bars and residents already paid their sales taxes, fees and property taxes, which used to support a police force of 1600, then down to 1100 or less, so why should they have to pay more? Police cost estimates at the time were about $90,000 per officer, though I don’t know if these were average or marginal. Let’s say $80,000, for benefit of doubt. So wouldn’t a 500 man shortfall imply there was $40 million going begging somewhere? Isn’t maintaining a proper, well-managed, fair community police service a basic municipal responsibility – especially in a city like this, with pockets of mutually unsympathetic people, a very high rate of violent crime, and going on 10 million visitors a year?

Enter Sidney Torres. A highly energetic, creative entrepreneur with loads of dosh from successful ventures, Torres got interested in French Quarter policing and jumped in with both feet, reviewed all the plans, came up with practical, effective solutions, and primed the funding with his own money. Bob Simms had had to go around hustling and begging for underwriting from reluctant residents and business owners. Sidney Torres just pulled out his check book and swept the obstacles away.

He planned a system with small, nimble vehicles called Polaris that looked like street-ready golf carts, NOPD officers on detail, GPS in every car, and a phone app available free to anyone who wanted it from the App Store or Play Store. With the app, anybody could quickly report a suspected incident, which would relay to the dispatcher for the patrol and to the cars in seconds. The little patrol vehicles could be at the site in minutes, to stop a crime in progress or deal with the report. Mr Torres paid the detail guys on French Quarter Task Force above the usual rate, $50 an hour, but he expected performance. Torres’s force was to be a donut-free zone.

It worked. Then, after three months and hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal expenditure, Torres wanted to hand the working system over to the city and to NOPD to keep going. He had been incredibly generous, but it was not reasonable to expect him to keep shelling out over $30k a month to subsidize everybody else’s protection forever. So the City took it on. They got the money out of the Convention and Business Bureau, stuck FQMD with administrative responsibility, which meant Bob Simms doing about 60 volunteer hours a week trying to run it as the little cracks started to show (car maintenance problems, staff discipline, performance standards within the government environment – the usual plate-spinning stuff). Simms and Torres fell out about something. I forget why. Maybe Simms’s management style likes a steady, sustainable trajectory, while Torres is a demanding firecracker. They both gave great service to the city.

Carriage return.

The most common police complaint in New Orleans is late attendance to calls. That was one of the loudest problems in the French Quarter, which it was commonly believed would be resolved by more police.

The same complaint is now high profile again in Marigny and Bywater. Nextdoor is lit up with reports of marauding gangs of kids “pillaging” like swarms of locusts – a bicycle seat, motor scooters, cars, wallets and handbags – and tales of calling 911 and nothing happens. In some reports, no police show up to respond to the 911 call at all. Not late: never. One caller reported that he or she got a call back from the police about four hours later. Hard to see what that has to with the report of a crime in commission.

I’m going to lob a hypothesis over the net before I dig into the question: NOPD sees its role as catching and processing perpetrators before protecting victims. And a glance at the Monday headlines tells us what kind of lethal villains are at the top of the street crime food chain.

It could be that the young kid perps of the current Marigny crime wave are difficult to catch, difficult to process, difficult to punish or correct – and their crimes seem low-voltage compared to some of the mayhem that dominates the news. With our criminal “justice” system driven mad by the War on Drugs and the various crime bills with culturally and racially skewed mandatory sentences, with the Public Defender system gutted and plea bargain the normal route to jail, with privatized prisons turned into crypto slave camps – incarceration must seem more inevitable than morally centred punishment to a chunk of our population.

If police are operating within a crime-and-punishment paradigm ahead of speedy victim protection, maybe they finish their coffee first.

If that is the issue. Whatever the cause, Torres’s system did cure lethargic response times in his area. FQTF response times were getting down to about three minutes. His system is said to have slowed down a bit now, as more bureaucratic administration took over, some challenges about the original GPS system surfaced, and maintenance problems emerged as the Polaris cars racked up the miles. Fixable problems, but when decision changes from one executive to layers of committees and every dollar of funding has lots of hands reaching for it, the pace changes to the municipal grind.

But one thing was certain: the overriding imperative of Sidney Torres’s system was: get there fast. Interrupt the crime if you can. Get the victim free of it. The technical mechanisms and management system worked. Torres proved that the key is not just more boots on the ground but better technological and management systems.

So here is my question, at last: Why isn’t NOPD falling over itself to install a GPS system in every car, mounted and foot patrol unit in the city, with a central despatch office with screens showing where every police unit is at all times? Software would enable 911 to show where an incident was in progress, where the nearest police unit was, and a calculated ETA.

It shouldn’t be that hard. Google Maps and Waze do something like it on your phone. If the unit in the best position said, I’m in a hostage situation, can’t go, dispatcher could try the next one. The dispatcher could then report to the person who reported the crime, “An officer will be with you in four minutes,” or whatever the system reported. The software would not have a subroutine for donuts. If the officer missed the four minute ETA, the management system could require a serious explanation. Reports should be available to the review boards and the public.

Maybe implementation of a system like this flummoxes the police and maybe even triggers the New Orleans administrative obstruction mechanism, that kicks in whenever anybody wants to do anything by showing 101 reasons why it can’t be done. Security issues, who is authorized, what if, the state constitution and yada yada.

They could try to hire Sidney Torres. He seems to have the ability to cut through fog. They can’t afford him, of course, but maybe there is something he wants – fame, glory, dictatorial powers.

How much would it cost? Probably nothing. If the police could achieve superior service in just this part of policing with 100 fewer officers, that would make $8,000,000 a year available for the infrastructure and systems management.

This subject is of course not new. There are companies who provide police GPS systems on a turnkey basis. Most people are at least a bit familiar with them from police procedural shows and movies. We know the NSA knows where we had lunch last Thursday. But we don’t really know much about NOPD’s operational management methods. Could it be that we are not asking the right questions?

Sidney Torres’s French Quarter Task Force proved that a fast-response, victim-prioritizing policing system can work in one of the densest, most difficult areas of the city. Why not in the whole city?

Combine that with blowing off the lunatic War on Drugs, the marijuana foolishness created by disgruntled Prohibition cops when their jobs were repealed, and the distilled madness of the New Jim Crow incarceration mill, and we might be coming closer to what Gandhi is said to have said of Western Civilization: “It would be a good idea.”

Sidney Torres is getting back into the French Quarter police game with some new revisions. If he holds true to form, some sparks are gonna fly.

And we are likely to keep asking: if his methods are good, why isn’t the city adopting them to their full potential? And if they are not good, why are they okay in one neighborhood? And more than that: is the apparently ongoing process of municipal Balkanization really the way to go?

Okay: there is a lot of speculation in this piece. Can we get to hear what’s wrong and what might be right from people who know NOPD? The Comments box works, or email bobf@nolascape.org.

(c) NOLAscape June 2016

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