During every parade of Carnival season, thousands throng the sidewalks and neutral grounds of St. Charles Avenue, lured by the promise of thrown beads, the blaring bands or the spectacle of the floats. Within that chaotic revelry, however, also lurks the threat of deadly violence in the form of concealed handguns.
The elite New Orleans Police Department officers specifically tasked with finding those guns do not see much of the floats. Instead, they are hyper attentive to parade-goers’ hands, looking for anxious fingers unconsciously seeking reassurance from heavy metal held in a waistband. Or, the officers evaluate gazes – looking for the one young man walking just a little faster than his friends, his eyes straight forward, more intent than the others on reaching his destination because of the dangerous cargo he has in tow.
If the person actually does have a gun, it usually takes little more than a word from the officer – perhaps even just a step or two in his direction – and the suspect will take off running, perhaps trying to throw away the gun as he flees, and usually ending up apprehended by other waiting officers quickly radioed into position.
In years past, the highly trained officers in the New Orleans Police Department employed these methods to take dozens of guns off the St. Charles Avenue portion of the parade route alone – frequently right around the often-troubled corner of Erato Street. By Bacchus Sunday in 2013, for example, police already made 11 gun cases along St. Charles Avenue, including seven near Erato and Thalia streets alone.
In 2015, however, NOPD reports show that only three guns were taken off the Uptown portion of the route for the entire parading season – not counting the one allegedly used in the double murder of 21 year-old Peter Dabney and 22 year-old Ivan Williams during this year’s Muses parade.
‘That was your muscle’
While all NOPD officers are instructed to be proactive and mindful of potential threats, the duty of arresting people illegally carrying guns before they commit a crime, whether during Mardi Gras parades or any other time of the year, falls most specifically to a group of officers known in the department as the task forces. The public is usually most familiar with two types of police officers: the platoons, who respond to calls for service, and the detectives, who investigate crimes after they’ve occurred. By contrast, the primary mission of the task forces — whose dark blue, military-style uniforms separate them from the more traditionally-attired patrol cops or plainclothes detectives — is to be proactive, to put themselves where crime is most likely to occur and, ideally, stop it before it happens.
“Those are the guys you put in the hot spots,” said one high-ranking NOPD supervisor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That was your muscle. That’s what you used to put out the fires.”
Commanders of individual police districts keep close watch on weekly maps of violent crimes and property crimes. If a certain neighborhood is suffering from a rash of specific crimes — shootings along the Louisiana Avenue corridor, perhaps, or armed robberies in the university area — the task force will be sent in to look for the perpetrators potentially causing the problems even as the detectives try to determine who committed them from the evidence collected at crime scenes.
Those groups of officers frequently work in tandem. The detectives might ask the task force officers to patrol for someone riding a particular model of bicycle, driving a certain car or wearing a certain hat, while the detectives continue to look for more evidence and witnesses. Then, if the task force stops someone in the target area who has a gun, the detectives can then show the crime victims a photo of the suspect in a lineup, possibly identifying the perpetrator. Often this work occurs in a single night; the detectives interview the victim and relay pertinent information to the task force, and the task force fans out around the area and finds a suspect for the detectives to interview and the victims to identify.
On the parade route
The task force’s proactive function also plays out during Mardi Gras parades. Most of the patrol officers on the route have set positions, tasked with general crowd control, public safety functions such as watching the floats, and maybe even a little public relations as lagniappe: just ask the Wobble cop. But the task forces, again, follow a slightly different mission: patrol the perimeter of the route, and look for guns.
In recent years, these task forces have been extremely successful. Guns would be seized off the Uptown parade route during nearly every parade, and three or four guns might be a days’ work. Former NOPD Sixth District task force officer Henry Linehan estimated that over three Mardi Gras seasons, he and his partners (including another former officer, Troy Pichon, who was shot in the leg in 2013 trying to provide cover for another officer under fire, and subsequently left to join the Louisiana State Police) took more than 20 guns off the parade routes.
In the best-case scenarios, suspects with previous felony convictions faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison for carrying the gun. But no matter how long or short the eventual jail sentence would be, the mere act of seizing the gun likely thwarts a violent crime.
“If you were getting a gun off a person carrying it concealed in New Orleans, who knows how many things you stopped, just taking a pistol away?” said Linehan, who won numerous policing awards for his work in New Orleans but left the department after five years to move to another agency in the Northwest. “That was the most satisfying thing for me, to get a gun.”
The mentality of the young men he arrested, Linehan said, offers insight into the way the mere presence of the guns at the parades heightens the potential for violence. Every suspect, he said, insisted to him that the guns they brought were only for their own protection from others more dangerous than them.
“All those guns I got on the parade route, every single one of them said somebody was trying to kill them. That’s why they were carrying the gun,” Linehan said. When deadly weapons are added to the stress of the crowds and the hair-trigger anxiety of the young men, he said, it is easy to imagine how a simple misunderstanding erupts into a spray of bullets. “It just escalates so much faster than if they weren’t carrying a gun.”
But just as the proliferation of guns can feed on itself, so can the strength of enforcement efforts. When people are being arrested for carrying guns at a trouble spot like Erato and St. Charles, word spreads, and others who might be tempted to do so stay home, Linehan said. And when one group of officers makes gun cases, it motivates others to try to do more as well.
In 2015, however, the number of guns seized from the route was dramatically lower. No gun cases were reported along the Uptown route the entire first weekend of parading. Not until Muses Thursday — the same night that two people were killed in a shooting that made national headlines — was a gun case made on St. Charles Avenue at St. Andrew Street, about 10 minutes before the double murder. On Mardi Gras day, two more gun cases were made around 1:30 p.m. on St. Charles near Thalia, bringing the total for the season on the Uptown route to three, though police officials note that more were seized in the French Quarter this year.
‘Supplementing the platoons’
While the role of the task forces may not be well known to the public, within the department there is no question that these crucial units are now at a shadow of their former strength. When Ronal Serpas became NOPD Superintendent in 2010, he designated three six-person proactive task force units in each of the department’s eight districts, a total of 144 proactive officers in the district almost unimaginable today. One team was to focus solely on narcotics, while the other two were charged with solving the district’s other crime problems, sometimes even as minor as rashes of auto burglaries if violent crime was at a lull.
In late 2012, the city announced the creation of the Major Gang Unit, which would soon be widely hailed for its arrests – and eventual prosecutions – of criminal enterprises such as the 110ers, responsible for the shooting death of 5-year-old Briana Allen during a birthday party. The Major Gang Unit was largely staffed, however, by members drawn from each district’s task force, and around the same time the remaining officers were regrouped into two six-person units – both now charged with similar duties of narcotics and crime prevention, as the district commanders saw fit.
The loss of one proactive unit per district was noted amid the general manpower shortage, but did not cause a major morale problem itself. After all, if the Major Gang Unit was going to return to the districts to root out the most violent offenders, then the result might be a wash or even a net positive.
But in 2014, the task forces were consolidated again to shore up vacancies around the department, and the proactive piece of each district was reduced to a single general-assignment unit, six or perhaps eight officers. But as the Christmas holidays approached, the city suffered a brutal spike of armed robberies particularly concentrated in the French Quarter and along the business corridors of South Claiborne and Carrollton avenues, so the NOPD leadership drew up a new plan.
Each district would send one officer from their task force each day to a new, centralized Field Operations Bureau (FOB) task force that would then be deployed to the most significant hot spots around the city. The initiative worked and the robberies receded, so the department doubled down on the effort – two officers from each district now head to the FOB task force every day. Half of those 16 are assigned to the French Quarter, where they are joined by reserve officers in an effort to suppress violent crime with highly visible “blue-light” patrols. The other half are deployed on a day-by-day basis elsewhere in the city to assist with whatever crime problem is deemed the highest priority.
This new arrangement, said Deputy Chief Robert Bardy – himself a major proponent of the task-force strategy — was in answer to the question of, “How can we give this missing piece back to the districts?”
“We just ran out of places to get people,” Bardy said.
If robberies spike in one area, the FOB task force will return there. If shootings plague another area, the FOB task force will move there the next day. The solution serves as a sort of triage – staunching the bloodshed in New Orleans wherever it flows the strongest. But it leaves the other districts – whose task forces are already a third of their former size – with even less proactive manpower to deploy. After vacation, sick time, mandatory training, days in court and the mere adminstrative task of spreading the work of four officers across seven days of shifts – it is not uncommon for an entire weekend’s “task force” patrol in the district to consist of a single, two-man car.
“What they are doing more and more of is supplementing the platoons,” another NOPD supervisor said of the task force’s role on any given day. “They’re having to supplement the platoons more than ever.”
Thus, the days when district commanders had the luxury to assign a task force to solve or suppress a rash of home burglaries is probably over for now.
“Without having a task force, I think you’re going to see a surge in burglaries and robberies,” said a another former task force officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he now works for a nearby agency that coordinates with the NOPD. “I think they’re going to have more problems than what they have now.”
The shortage within the districts may have its own ramifications. The task force’s work is largely self-motivated, and driven by the officers themselves. But giving the officers more latitude and placing them where they are more likely to directly encounter conflict, they also require more supervision – which will likewise be harder to come by as fewer supervisors are available.
‘A temporary fix’
In an interview this week, Bardy disputed that the shooting during the Muses parade could be linked to the decrease in gun arrests along the parade routes during Mardi Gras, or to any change in task-force deployment. The confrontation itself likely could not have been prevented, he said, but what the staffing strategy did accomplish was the speedy arrest of the suspect, 19-year-old John Hicks.
“When this guy did shoot, he couldn’t get out,” Bardy said.
Still, Bardy acknowledged that sharing a task force among districts is less than ideal, and insisted that it will not be permanent.
“It’s a fix,” Bardy said. “It’s a temporary fix, and it’s something that requires constant, constant, constant attention.”
The only real solution is to increase manpower, which NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said is now Chief Michael Harrison’s top priority. The task is as daunting as it is important, however. Last year, 115 officers left the department, right in line with the 110 to 120 who have left each year since 2008. But even if NOPD is successful in reaching its stated goal of hiring 150 new recruits this year — a feat it has yet to achieve — that’s only a net gain of 35 officers, making rebuilding the department from its present 1,100 officers to its oft-stated goal of 1,600 a project that could span decades.
To hasten that timeline, the NOPD is now turning to outside specialists for help, Bardy said. This past week, the department is weighing proposals submitted by six different manpower firms to help with both recruitment of new officers and retention of those already here, in hopes of slowing the exodus and increasing the influx.
The department also intends to increase the academy class size from 30 to 50, in hopes of speeding the training process. And now, officers who have left are beginning to return to the department, Bardy said.
Ultimately, Bardy said, when those officers begin replenishing the ranks of the department, the NOPD will restore two proactive task forces to full strength in each district, both throughout the year and during Mardi Gras.
“As the manpower comes,” Bardy said, “we can really be more creative.”