The murder of a prominent Freret Street bakery owner 25 years ago is still regarded as the seminal moment in the commercial corridor’s long period of neglect. Now, even amid the street’s current renaissance, some residents still feel that they are living just on the edge of the next violent crime.
Several Freret residents and business owners have recently begun discussing the possibility of hiring private security patrols similar to those in other neighborhoods around the city, and Tuesday night, began what they see as a long conversation with their neighbors about whether to move forward.
Security districts around the city typically place a fee on the property taxes of each parcel within their boundaries, and the money collected is used to hire either private security officers or off-duty police to patrol the area, usually with a cell phone that residents can call directly for help. The districts must be authorized by a majority of all the voters that live within their proposed boundaries in an election, and they are governed by a board of appointees selected by the mayor, city council member, state representative and other officials. One such district in the Touro Bouligny area has recently received attention for its officers’ role in the events leading up to last week’s shooting of a Camp Street resident.
Crime maps suggest that the Freret area has been relatively free of life-threatening violence for the last six months (the only period for which NOPD makes its data available). During that time, no murders or armed robberies were recorded (one armed robbery report was taken at Ochsner but refers to an incident that took place in Broadmoor) between Jefferson and Napoleon avenues from Claiborne to Danneel, where the Twinbrook district starts. Only three aggravated assaults or batteries are shown in the same area — a fracas in May involving students at the now-shuttered Sojourner Truth Academy, a June dispute on Robert Street that involved gunfire and a July shooting on Valmont.
It is defusing those latter types of incidents that private patrols could be useful in helping, said Michelle Ingram, a neighborhood resident and owner of Zeus’ Place, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Neighbors United community group.
“You come home late at night, there’s a guy sitting at the abandoned house across the street, and you don’t feel quite safe getting out of your car,” Ingram said — residents may not feel comfortable calling 911 just to check something out. “It’s for when you need someone with authority to come take a situation from you.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that violent crime in Freret tends to be just beneath the surface of the relatively placid NOPD map. For example, residents around Soniat heard gunfire erupt from a neighborhood dispute on a Saturday night in late September that never showed up in the crime reports despite multiple 911 calls about it. Earlier this year, after a neighborhood activist reported to the police that dogs had killed all the chickens in coops in his yard, he felt so targeted by local teens in retaliation that he eventually moved his family to a different part of the city. A home on South Liberty was a central location in the investigation of a high-profile slaying allegedly connected to the prosecution of convicted murderer Telly Hankton. And earlier this year, assault rifles were found in two separate investigations near Freret Street in February and again in March.
Ingram said that she and Kellie Grengs, a board member of The New Freret business and property owner’s association, are still collecting information about a district, and would have more details to discuss at next month’s meeting of Neighbors United. In an interview prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Grengs estimated that there are approximately 1,000 parcels in the general area under consideration, so a $200 parcel fee could generate roughly $200,000 — enough to pay a security officer for approximately 18 to 20 hours per day.
Based on her conversations with organizers of other security districts, it will take at least a year to build support for it, Grengs said. In addition to beginning the conversation at Neighbors United, Grengs said she anticipates discussions in different corners of the large neighborhood to determine exactly what voters are interested in, and then design district boundaries and an appropriate fee to fit it.
“We’re not trying to fly under the radar,” Grengs said. “The last thing want to do is do all this work and then it fails.”
How the idea will be received by Freret’s business and residential community is difficult to gauge. Greg Ensslen, a developer on the corridor and co-organizer of the monthly Freret Market with Ingram, said the increased foot traffic on the street has been instrumental in lowering crime already. Businesses are not hearing complaints about crime from their patrons, Ensslen said.
“I haven’t been aware that shoppers don’t feel the destination is safe,” Ensslen said in a separate interview. “The level of personal crime is as low as in any other New Orleans neighborhood.”
Lauren Anderson, CEO of Neighborhood Housing Services, said she doesn’t have a strong opinion on whether security districts improve safety yet, and wants more information before making up her mind. The series of discussions led by the idea’s proponents, however, could be healthy for Freret at this point in its development, she said.
“I think the process will be very important for the neighborhood, as a way to generate dialogue about issues of safety,” Anderson said. “Whether the proposal is successful or not, I think that process will be good for the neighborhood.”
The audience of 20 or so residents Tuesday night at Neighbors United asked few questions about the idea, but association president Andrew Amacker urged residents to begin thinking about it seriously as “a step up from Neighborhood Watch.”
“Sometimes it just doesn’t feel quite right,” Amacker says. “There may be someone hanging around in the dark by the wall, and you don’t know if you should call 911. That’s what you call the private patrol for.”
To read live coverage of the Freret Neighbors United meeting, see below.