Every officer on the New Orleans Police Department knows instinctively when Carnival season begins. No one needs to check the calendar. It's in the air like the smell of alcohol and the laughter of excited crowds gathering on the streets of the Vieux Carre (the French Quarter).
Carnival in New Orleans begins so abruptly that it's as if someone gives a silent signal to unleash hell. The crowds swell in size to over a million people, normal city business is disrupted, and police are assigned 12-hour shifts for 21 days straight.
But managing the chaos of Carnival is not so spontaneous. Planning to protect more than a million Mardi Gras revelers requires tremendous coordination by the New Orleans PD. The city's officers are accustomed to the freedom of the French Quarter and the laissez-faire attitude of the Big Easy, but Mardi Gras compounds the craziness by adding more than a million tourists to the mix. To supplement the already stretched department, NOPD coordinates its efforts with the Louisiana State Police and the National Guard, as well as departments from surrounding parishes and cities.
The Madding Crowd
During Carnival, the sounds of the mules pulling carriages through the French Quarter give way to peals of drunken laughter and pleads for beads and doubloons thrown into the crowd by members of the various parade "krewes." Officers knowingly watch the crowd, calm in their vigilance. They find humor in watching the tourists react to the booze, beads, and bare breasts, but they know that in the middle of the party there can be trouble.
Case in point, this year a member of one of the more established krewes (parade organizations) stood drunkenly on the balcony of a posh restaurant, enticing young girls to lift their shirts for beads. Finding no takers, he began to unleash the Carnival trinkets with stinging force on an unsuspecting mime. When the street performing mime broke her silence to protest, the intoxicated man began to scream profanities. As a crowd began to gather and take the side of the beleaguered mime, the police had to step in.
The first officer on the scene explained the need for the man to step inside and get control of himself. At this point, the subject grabbed his crotch, continued to scream profanities, and challenged the officer to "come up here and make me." The officer looked at his partner and said, "We can accommodate that." A call for backup went out over the radio, and the two officers ascended the stairs to the dining room.
They weren't alone; backup arrived four minutes later in the form of 20 additional officers (a combination of NOPD, National Guard, and Louisiana State Troopers). Their footsteps could be heard upstairs as the 150-year-old stairway of the restaurant creaked under their boots. The once belligerent drunk was now sheepishly looking at officers who were ready to stop any trouble. The man was again given the opportunity to apologize and change his behavior or be arrested.
The inebriated bead hurler made the right choice. "He went from a 200-pound arrogant S.O.B. to a meek little boy who had been caught with his hand up the nanny's skirt," says one officer involved in the action.
During Carnival season, officers browse the streets looking over the insanities of Mardi Gras and watching for danger. Whether they are standing in front of stately mansions on St. Charles Avenue where locals hold family-oriented picnics and barbecues to celebrate Carnival or in the middle of a full range of human anatomy in the French Quarter, police presence is always visible.
The uniformed officers focus more on not losing control of the crowd, rather than keeping the crowd controlled. Undercover officers mingle in the masses that have become a testament to testing the limits of human excess, providing opportunity to the pickpockets, street thugs, and fools who are planning to prey on unsuspecting tourists.
Would You Do That at Home?
One of the major concerns of the New Orleans PD during Carnival season is public urination. Tourists tank up on beer without giving any thought to where and how they will relieve themselves and then they use the walls of restaurants, bars, and homes as public toilets. This is something that the property owners and the NOPD heartily discourage.
At this year"s Mardi Gras, an NOPD officer was dispatched to an indecent exposure call. Upon arrival, he was greeted by a 20-something man who was urinating in the street while outfitted only in a cowboy hat, vest, and boots.
"I asked him where he was from," the officer explains. "And he tells me, "Durham, North Carolina. The greatest state in the union, sir."
"I looked at him and asked, "Well what would happen to you in Durham if you behaved this way?" He answered, "I'd go to jail. "I told him, "Well, guess what, you'll go to jail in New Orleans, too."
More Than a Warning
Acts of drunken misbehavior are common in the madness of Mardi Gras, and they try the patience and test the conflict-resolution skills of the men and women who police the party. They also lead to crowded jails when people can't recognize that they've crossed over the line.
This year, one drunken man decided he wanted ice cream and then refused to pay for it. He was verbally abusive to the staff and the other customers of the ice cream shop, so the district officer handcuffed the man and explained he would have one more chance to apologize and pay his bill.
By this time, the rank arrived and agreed with the decision. Clearly explaining the situation to the subject, the rank politely asked the subject where he was from. At this point, the subject started to abuse the rank with obscenities. In a flash, the subject was in a unit and on his way to central lockup. He pressed his face against the back window of the unit and began screaming, "I'm from Pittsburgh. I'm from Pittsburgh. Please give me another chance." The officers smiled and drove on.
The magic of Mardi Gras includes night parades where streets are clogged with massive crowds hoping for beads, a wave from a celebrity, and a great time. But nightfall can also bring out the weirdness on the fringes of Carnival.
On the last Sunday night of this year's Carnival season, NOPD SWAT was called out to respond to a man in a convenience store who had pinned officers down on Magazine Street--only blocks away from one of the biggest parades of the season. District officers worked to maintain order while SWAT officers had to quickly leave the parade route, change into SWAT gear, and maneuver through marching bands and floats to get to the scene.
The subject, who had no psychiatric or legal history, got caught up in the mania of the Mardi Gras and announced to the District Officers and the Crisis Team that he was in "a coma." While parades continued only a few blocks away, "Coma Man" stripped naked and began destroying the contents of the convenience store and dancing on the broken glass. Customers scattered when the dancing man produced a shotgun. While the subject ran in and out of the store, brandishing the firearm and stopping only long enough to urinate into a cup and drink it, a technician with the NOPD Crisis Team was called to the scene. She was able to convince the man to place the gun outside the door of the convenience store. The SWAT officers then subdued the subject. His only injuries were self-imposed from dancing on broken glass, and he was transported by ambulance for treatment.[PAGEBREAK]
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.
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.