New Orleans’ challenge: policing 2 huge parties
New Orleans police are in the middle of an unprecedented
security challenge with an estimated 150,000 Super Bowl fans
packing the city during the raucous annual buildup to Mardi Gras,
when thousands of revelers flock to the historic French Quarter and
its restaurants, bars and strip clubs.
It all 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 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
”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
”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
”The thing about Mardi Gras crowds is, we get this impression
that some of the people may have been drinking,” Serpas
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
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 Michael Anderson, the agent in charge of the
New Orleans office.
That 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, including the Department of Homeland Security and the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Such a center
is standard operating procedure for the Super Bowl each year,
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.”