New Orleans’ challenge: policing 2 huge parties

A New Orleans police force famed for its crowd control prowess

is getting help from state and federal authorities as the city

hosts an estimated 150,000 Super Bowl fans while preparing for the

raucous buildup to Mardi Gras, which also draws thousands to the

historic French Quarter and its restaurants, bars and strip

clubs.

The security challenges began in earnest Friday night with the

first of the city’s major float-filled Mardi Gras season parades.

This week, the parade schedule is on hold while the Super Bowl

takes center stage. Mardi Gras preparations resume once Sunday’s

game is over, and the parades roll again starting Wednesday.

The city’s police force of 1,200 officers is bolstered this week

by more than 200 Louisiana State Police troopers and hundreds of

federal authorities from several agencies.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was in town for a

Wednesday news conference outlining security precautions, including

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement scans of cargo shipped to the

game site and Coast Guard work to assure maritime safety and

security along the Mississippi River. Game-day plans will include

flight restrictions in the airspace near the Superdome, pat-down

searches of ticket holders and the use of dogs to sniff out

contraband.

Michael Anderson, head of the FBI’s New Orleans office, said no

credible terrorism threats have arisen.

”This week, there is no safer place to be than the city of New

Orleans,” added Raymond Parmer, a special agent with ICE.

Even with all the help, the combination of Super Bowl and Mardi

Gras season means New Orleans Police Department officers are

working more than three weeks’ worth of 12-hour days, on the

lookout for everything from petty crime and public drunkenness to

random gunfire and the threat of terrorism. It will be an

exhausting stretch that city officials say will cost the city

several million dollars in police overtime.

”If we can, we’d like to give them some time down,” said

police chief Ronal Serpas. ”But if we can’t, they know it and

they’ll stand up for it.”

It’s also a unique chance for Serpas to show off one of the

strengths of a department beset by scandals involving brutality and

mismanagement. City officials have carried out numerous reforms

aimed at cleaning up the department, which has seen five officers

convicted of civil rights violations stemming from deadly shootings

of unarmed residents after Hurricane Katrina.

For years, though, crowd control has been the department’s

bright spot, especially during Mardi Gras revelry on the narrow

streets of the nearly 300-year-old French Quarter, home to fancy

restaurants and art galleries as well as sleazy bars and strip

joints.

”I think the NOPD does take a particular pride in its

long-standing history and long-standing demonstration that managing

large crowds is something we do very well,” said Serpas, who is in

his third year running the department.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, alcohol-fueled crowds often spill over

into the neighboring Faubourg Marigny, an increasingly popular area

of music clubs and restaurants. A 15-block-long stretch of Poydras

Street, linking the Superdome to the Mississippi River and the

massive Harrah’s Casino, is seeing increased foot traffic during

sports events with the opening of more bars and restaurants in

recent years. And, outside the Quarter, lavish Carnival season

parades draw tens of thousands to the miles-long routes. During the

final weekend of Mardi Gras, streets of the metro area can be

packed with more than a million people, and more than a few will be

overdoing it.

”The thing about Mardi Gras crowds is, we get this impression

that some of the people may have been drinking,” Serpas

deadpanned.

Police perched atop horses watch for problems on the horizon and

keep people moving, while uniformed officers on foot mingle and

build rapport with the partiers to keep the peace. Plainclothes

officers will be on the lookout for weapons and other less visible

problems. Arrest numbers vary from year to year, though police

commonly arrest at least several hundred people each year during

Mardi Gras-related celebrations – most for relatively minor

transgressions.

Joining the department’s officers for Super Bowl week are more

than 200 state troopers and about 100 officers from surrounding

local jurisdictions. Also, with the Super Bowl considered a

potential terrorist target, there is a beefed-up federal

contingent. That includes close to 100 extra FBI personnel

supplementing the regular New Orleans FBI staff of 200 agents and

support staff, said Anderson.

The New Orleans FBI office will be home to a joint operations

center where the goings-on will be constantly monitored by

representatives from all involved state, local and federal law

enforcement and security agencies. Such a center is standard

operating procedure for the Super Bowl each year, Anderson

said.

New Orleans police will take the lead on local crime, traffic or

public disturbances, Anderson said. ”If there’s any inkling of a

terrorist attack or threat of terrorist attack in any way,” he

said, ”then we kick in with our full apparatus.”

At Louis Armstrong International Airport, the Transportation

Safety Administration is adding personnel and equipment to handle

security checks, said TSA spokesman Jon Allen. He said there will

be 11 additional checkpoint lanes added to the 14 existing lanes

for passenger screening.

Five additional explosives-detecting machines have been added to

screen checked baggage, and more than 100 transportation security

officers will be brought in from other airports starting Sunday to

help local airport staff, Allen said. The officers will stay

through the middle of next week, he said.

Beyond the city’s police costs, exact security costs are

difficult to determine. Federal officials declined to detail

specifics, and an NFL representative would say only that the league

will spend millions.

Mardi Gras season happens every year, and the city is no

stranger to Super Bowls, having hosted nine – including the 2002

game that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Although

security planning for the Super Bowl has grown increasingly complex

since the attacks, no acts of terror or other serious problems have

been reported at Super Bowls in recent years.

Most Super Bowl problems in recent years resulted from human

gridlock. At last year’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis, 11 people

suffered minor injuries during a free outdoor concert. But

officials said otherwise there were few problems.

This year, officers will be prepared to reroute or block vehicle

traffic when streets are full of pedestrians. As for terrorism

worries, Anderson said preparations include formation of SWAT teams

and ”hazardous incident teams” – specialists in hazardous

materials or explosives assembled from the various federal local

and state agencies.

Serpas welcomes the help, but he said much of the cooperation

comes from the partiers themselves – a diverse crowd that can

consist of locals and families picnicking on parade routes and a

more adult, heavier-drinking crowd downtown and in the Quarter.

”You look at that parade route, and on any one block there

could be 10,000 people and two cops,” Serpas said. ”How do those

two cops stay safe, and how does that crowd stay safe? We’re

actually working together.”