2016 is now mercifully over. Although the passage of time is normally bittersweet, this past year ranked more or less as the temporal equivalent of a swift kick to the groin. Thus, it was with some relief that New Orleans welcomed 2017 with champagne, food, revelry, and SWAT team members with M-16s placed menacingly about the French Quarter.
Now, if one of those things doesn’t seem to fit, don’t fret – it’s a perfectly normal reaction. I, too, was taken aback when I began to see photos trickling out of members of the Louisiana State Police in full SWAT gear standing guard.
The entire exercise seemed to be more about flash than substance. Rifles are generally ill-suited for use among urban crowds, but they do send a message. The intended message, of course, is that the area is secure and authorities are ready for anything. The message generally received, alas, was that the city decided to militarize the Quarter for New Year’s.
Earlier in the week, Mayor Landrieu announced his grand security plans for the weekend. Thirty to 40 staffed security towers placed throughout the Quarter, 200 NOPD officers working 12-hour shifts supplemented by 50-75 state troopers, K-9 units patrolling Bourbon Street, and so on.
“You should assume you’re on camera now,” Landrieu muttered ominously. One wonders if he genuinely believed that line would make citizens feel more secure.
According to Landrieu, the effort was in part due to fear of terrorist threats. I don’t recall New Orleans ever having been targeted by foreign terrorist groups but, I suppose it’s at least possible that somewhere an Islamist militant is scheming to attack Tropical Isle.
Landrieu also noted that a “more robust” security plan for the Quarter is in the works and will be released within 30 days. Lovely. Much of what we consider extreme now could soon be considered old hat.
It isn’t that I’m shocked. The hyper-focus the city is bringing to security in the French Quarter is understandable given the negative press that shootings on Bourbon Street have received in recent years. The local economy could also suffer if visitors believe that a trip to New Orleans could land them in the morgue. Tourists may appreciate “gritty,” but they tend to flee from “dangerous.”
Likewise, New Orleans is not alone in viewing SWAT officers with machine guns as a herald of safety. Photographs circulated in the media earlier this week featured similar security surrounding the Louvre in Paris.
However, there are opportunity costs involved whenever the city wants to send a message about public safety. If we turn the Quarter into a virtual police state, it becomes more difficult to believe that other parts of the city aren’t getting short shrift.
As we all know, “business as usual” for law enforcement in New Orleans is a species of neglect. Just this week, an acquaintance of mine complained on Facebook that he had reported seeing a wanted, violent criminal to police, but was told by the dispatcher that nobody would respond until the morning. A past client of mine who was receiving repeated voice messages with very specific death threats was told by police that they would do nothing, and that if he wanted anything done, he should get a restraining order at his own expense.
It only gets worse down the line. The NOPD seems to outright ignore hit-and-run offenses; an NOPD officer once told me point-blank that they will not investigate them unless somebody is injured. Too often, getting police to act is like pulling teeth.
True public safety, true security, does not come from dozens of security towers, cameras watching your every move, or SWAT officers bearing M-16 rifles. True security comes from the ordinary drudgery of police work, not the garish display of manpower and technology.
If we are to put a real dent in New Orleans’ crime problem, it will come from police who investigate all crimes, big and small, so victims are not unheard and criminals are not emboldened. It will come from officers who understand that leaving a wanted criminal on the streets or ignoring violent threats will only feed New Orleans’ problems with violent crime.
After all, our government needs to recognize that there is an entire city to keep safe, not just one neighborhood.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.