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

overdoing it.

”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,

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.”