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Temporary Insanity

The Big Easy can be a difficult place to police, especially when the whole city surrenders its sobriety to Carnival.

June 01, 2002  |  by James B. Arey, Sidney Bournes, and Ann H. Wilder

Routine Response

In addition to keeping an eye on the chaos of Carnival, NOPD officers maintain regular patrols and respond to routine disturbances and violent crimes, including carjackings and murders.

They also have one very special concern during Carnival season: serious crimes against tourists.

And of course, drunken tourists caught up in the naughtiness of the Mardi Gras atmosphere make easy marks. Prostitutes, hustlers, and thieves linger in the shadows waiting for drunks who have been at strip clubs all night. Under the guise of offering sexual favors, these hustlers separate the unsuspecting johns from their money, their jewelry, and their dignity. One officer describes these hustlers as "scam prostitutes." No sex ever occurs. The victim doesn't even get "to participate in the process. They get nothing out of it," he says.

Fortunately, undercover officers are very effective in catching these perpetrators. Dressing up like someone who has a lot of cash and is willing to part with it, they place themselves on the darkened corners around Bourbon Street and wait.

The saddest and most difficult moments of Carnival season come with random violence. At this year's Carnival a man, trying to avoid the crush of the traffic and crowds, drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood and was carjacked and shot. The perpetrator was quickly caught and arrested, but the senseless crime had already been committed.

Despite such sadness, the fun, fantasy, and fascination of the Mardi Gras festivities go on. Carnival has something for everyone--from the wild costumes of the French Quarter to the family barbecues of St. Charles Avenue.

This year's Mardi Gras was the greatest Carnival experiment New Orleans has ever tried. The country was at war, the economy had slumped, people were afraid to fly, terrorists were trying to destroy the American way of life, and the Super Bowl was in town. Forty-eight local, state, and federal agencies were involved in the planning and execution of the event security.

In the end, the attention to detail and long hours of preparation paid off handsomely. There were no major incidents, and it was one of the most well-behaved Carnivals in the history of the city. The show did go on--as it will and as it has--for two centuries.

Closing Time

Each year the New Orleans Police Department participates in a ritual that brings down the curtain on the Carnival season.

The locals know the time grows near when a mass of uniforms gather at Iberville and Bourbon. But revelers from out of town look on with curious stares as members of the police command staff gather with street officers who have endured this three-week, nonstop party. As police on foot, in cars, and on horses take over the 100 block of Bourbon Street, some in the crowd begin to look concerned.

Then a hum of reassurance soon wafts over the revelers as they begin to realize that the gathering of men and women in blue is not to quiet a riot or quell an uprising (depending, of course, on one's perspective) but to bring the party on Bourbon Street to an end.

For the revelers, this time is always dreaded. But for the hundreds of men and women from the NOPD, Louisiana State Police, and National Guard who have been keeping the peace, it is a time for rejoicing. Finally they have a chance to sleep late, a chance to spend more than a waking moment with the family, a chance to give thanks for surviving it all.

But come on! This is Nouvelle Orleans; N'Awlins', The Big Easy! New Orleanians don't really believe in that "all good things must end" jazz, which is precisely why the shutting of Bourbon Street is more symbolic than law.

Only officers assigned to Bourbon Street and command staff participate. In fact, many officers assigned to the French Quarter district (where Bourbon Street is located) have never seen it. Many are still engaged in their routine patrols, as if anything is routine during Carnival.

The police chief gives the order, the army of cops and media move forward, and the cheering crowd goes nuts. Like a general leading a liberation army, the chief moves forward on foot behind a small band of point officers to cut a path through a sea of human flesh.

Unlike in some past years, at Mardi Gras 2002 not one person jeered the police. The men and women in blue were met with praise and salutes from the crowd in a show of respect. As officers on loud speakers announced to the crowd, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mardi Gras 2002 is now over. Thank you for coming to New Orleans, goodnight," many revelers yelled their appreciation for the police at the top of their lungs.

It was a scene like the liberation of Paris in World War II. The officers were offered beads, kisses, drinks, handshakes, and an occasional last minute flesh flash. One gentleman even waved an American flag to the police and soldiers and simply said "thank you" as the contingent marched by. A young lady sobbed "thank you" as a tear rolled down her face.

The band of blue marched on, past St. Louis, Toulouse, St. Peter, and on to St. Ann, where it turned from Bourbon like a hero riding into the sunset. In 30 minutes, it was done. The officers said goodbye to each other without fanfare. It was finally time to go home.

Super Bowl XXXVI

Every Carnival season is an endurance exercise for the men and women of the New Orleans Police Department. But this year brought additional challenges, as the Crescent City played host to the Super Bowl on what is usually one of the busiest parade weekends.

Protection of 82,000 football fans and former President George  Bush required intense coordination between the NOPD, the Secret Service, and other federal, state, and local agencies. City cops quickly switched gears from parades to football and back to parades during one of the busiest Carnival seasons in recent history.

Also, because of the additional security concerns for both the Super Bowl and Carnival, reporters from all over the world came to report on the festivities. "COPS" filmed the NOPD for the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and crews from "Inside Edition," MTV, and "America's Most Wanted" also reported from the Crescent City.

James B. Arey, Ph.D., is a supervisor with the New Orleans Police Department Crisis Team, Lt. Sidney Bournes is commander of the NOPD Public Affairs Division, and Ann H. Wilder, M.S., is program director at the Depaul Tulane Behavioral Health Center.

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