No matter the vote's outcome, state police details in the French Quarter will eventually be replaced. With what? No one's quite sure yet.
- by Frank Perez
Residents in the French Quarter will vote on Saturday (December 5) on whether to renew a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2015. This tax funded the state police patrols in the French Quarter.
Renewing the tax has been the subject of fierce controversy and is currently in doubt because of disagreements over how the revenue should be spent. Several French Quarter groups want to use the money to expand the French Quarter Task Force.
Mayor Cantrell, however, has a different idea: the creation of the Unified French Quarter Patrol Structure, which would include off-duty NOPD officers as well as civilians. Some neighborhood residents are leery; former mayor Mitch Landrieu enacted a similar plan during his administration to mixed reviews at best.
Either way, the Louisiana State Police will no longer be patrolling the French Quarter.
Groups such as Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association (VCPORA), French Quarter Management District (FQMD), French Quarter Business Association (FQBA), and the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) have all come out against renewing the tax.
VCPORA has stated:
“To review, this .2495% sales tax in the French Quarter is meant to fund security within the neighborhood. Since 2016, it has funded the Louisiana State Police Troop N, which cannot be afforded past the end of the year. A new option was put forward to help fund FQMD's Supplemental Police Patrol Program, also known as the French Quarter Task Force.
But as usual – especially in the French Quarter – not everyone agrees. Bob Simms, who currently runs the French Quarter Task Force, is in favor of renewing the tax. Simms argues the money cannot be spent until the details are figured out and, he says, there is time to do that later. He also suggests the Task Force would be dormant until a new tax renewal can be passed later in 2021. Simms also says French Quarter Citizens has endorsed renewal of the tax.
Background of the State Police Patrols in the French Quarter
Security in the French Quarter has always been a contentious issue. The French Quarter Management District (FQMD) recently released the summary of a study commissioned in 2018 on safety and security in the neighborhood. The study endeavored to review the current security and safety infrastructure in the French Quarter, as well as the need, cost, and effectiveness of the French Quarter’s multiple security efforts and resources. Over a period of nine months, more than six dozen French Quarter stakeholders and law enforcement officials were interviewed by Interfor International, a global investigation and security consulting firm.
The $25,000 study resulted in a 50-page report, the bulk of which remains classified due to the neighborhood’s vulnerabilities regarding public safety and terrorist threats. An Executive Summary of the report was released on August 27, 2020.
The 15-page Executive Summary contains nothing earth-shattering. Among its recommendations are consolidating the nine different law enforcement agencies that currently patrol the Quarter into a unified command — something easier said than done — with NOPD at its center. The report also suggests that enforcement of existing laws needs to be more consistent.
Other key recommendations include:
FQMD Executive Director Karley D. Frankic is quoted in a statement on FQMD's website following the release of the Security Assessment as saying:
"A key recommendation by Interfor is that ‘the FQMD’s Supplemental Police Patrol Program is a critical program, already well received by stakeholders, which should be expanded and reinforced to the extent financially feasible.’ ”
Also in the statement, the FQMD cited statistics for its Supplemental Police Patrol Program’s (SPPP) 24/7 “blue light” crime deterrent patrols, saying that in 2019, SPPP officers:
Some critics, including Bob Simms, the coordinator of the French Quarter Task Force, have pointed to the report's failure to acknowledge that NOPD is understaffed. Simms was skeptical of the security study when it was first proposed.
“Many people, myself included, thought it was a waste of money,” Simms said. Simms also questioned Interfor’s credentials and suggested to the FQMD’s Security and Enforcement Committee that other companies be considered.
Committee member Mike Tilbury, who initially agreed a security assessment was a good idea, also had concerns about the selection process. “They were skirting the guidelines to get this study done,” Tilbury said.
Some on the committee felt that Chair Matthew Emory, who was appointed by Mayor Cantrell, was rushing the process.
Emory responded in a January 2020 committee meeting by stating, “I understand there remains a certain minority of this committee that chooses not to see this strategy pursued. I can only say to this segment of our community, we must diligently seek a macro approach to improve the current security strategy, gain efficiencies and develop an informed, evidence-based planning platform in efforts to advise the Board of Commissioners, NOPD and the City of New Orleans regarding security strategies that improve public safety in the French Quarter.”
When committee members Albin Guillot and Simms asked about the rush, Emory requested “that Fulk read aloud the January 7, 2019 Special Meeting Notes section in which Committee member Steve Caputo declared a decision needed to be made NOW with no more time wasted, before the year had passed with nothing done and Councilmember Palmer questioning FQMD’s effectiveness.” (Minutes, SEC, January 28, 2019).
Simms and his allies on the committee succeeded in persuading Emory to send out a call for different proposals to five different companies, only one of which responded (with a higher bid than Interfor).
By spring of 2019, as Interfor was conducting its survey, the validity of the firm’s methodology was called into question. At the May 20 committee meeting, several members wanted to know why focus groups were attended by invitation only, leading them to believe all stakeholders weren’t being represented evenly. Security concerns were put forth as a reason, but according to the minutes of the meeting, “the discussion escalated to angry confrontational levels.”
Subsequent meetings were just as contentious. Committee member Mike Tilbury was ultimately so turned off by the whole affair that he resigned.
A key aspect in implementing the recommendations of the study is funding, which brings us back to Saturday’s vote on whether or not to renew a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2015.
While the tax funded the state police patrols, their presence in the French Quarter has been controversial for a number of reasons, including but not limited to financial accountability.
In an interview with The Lens, Frankic said, “We have to maximize the dollars that are here, and the state police were expensive, and they were as transparent as mud. There are some people who really think they’re great, but they’re the minority. … Otherwise they’re seen as expensive and not trained in urban policing.”
Over the last five years, the tax generated roughly $3 million annually. Given the economic devastation caused by the pandemic and its uncertain lingering effects on tourism, the tax, if renewed, is estimated to generate $1.6 million annually.
Find more stories on French Quarter Journal's home page, or check out our Hunkering Down blog.
Frank Perez serves as President of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and has authored four books on New Orleans history and teaches part-time at Loyola University. He is also a licensed tour-guide. He and his partner live in the French Quarter. You may contact him through his website, www.FrenchQuarterFrank.com.
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