NEW ORLEANS — Throughout the quieter parts of the French Quarter, residents and businesses have posted signs that read "Caution: Walk in Large Groups. We (heart) N.O.P.D. We Just Need More."
It's an unsettling message about violent crime in the Big Easy for the 1 million revelers about to descend for Carnival season, which this year ends on Feb. 17, Fat Tuesday.
The signs are an embarrassment for a city that likes to say how safe it makes Mardi Gras year in and year out, despite the debauchery. During Carnival, the streets crawl not only with partiers but with cops, state troopers, federal agents and private security officers.
Despite their presence, shootings have occurred in nightclubs, on Bourbon Street, or along Carnival parade routes — many of which end at or near the Quarter — in at least eight of the past 11 years. At least 27 people were injured and one killed in those attacks.
Since November, a series of more than 60 robberies in and around the Quarter has shocked residents and sparked outrage directed not so much at the New Orleans Police Department but at Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is pushing back against complaints that he paints a too-flattering picture of his crime-fighting efforts.
Fears have been stoked by images of the attacks caught by a growing network of private surveillance cameras. The attackers have used knives, guns, fists, sharp objects, pepper spray and even purses on pedestrians.
"These are crimes of opportunity, these people are lying in wait," said Harry Widmann, a lawyer whose California colleague was beaten unconscious in December after he was attacked on his way back to his hotel. "You need to have a police presence."
NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said the number of robberies is up somewhat from last year and that the attacks "are becoming more brazen."
Applying pressure on Landrieu has been Sidney Torres IV, a wealthy 39-year-old French Quarter entrepreneur, who paid for a series of TV ads blaming the mayor. He said he couldn't sit idle after his mansion on an oak-lined avenue along one edge of the Quarter was burglarized in December, and then Buffa's Bar & Restaurant next door to his home was robbed by two armed men.
"Enough is enough," Torres said.
Landrieu has sent more officers into the Quarter, and police say they're cracking down.
Harrison said he welcomed the new signs advising visitors to walk in large groups. "That's good advice wherever you go in the world, and so, we're not offended by that," the superintendent said.
The French Quarter's narrow, 300-year-old streets contribute to its charm, but also make it a haven for muggings, especially between October and March, the height of the tourism and convention season. A Loyola University study of robberies in tourist areas during those months in 2007 and 2008 found visitors were the targets in 34 out of 155 robberies. The study put some of the blame on outsiders themselves, many of whom apparently were inebriated and lured to unsafe places in search of drugs and sex.
"As we move into the Carnival season, you are going to see a robust force on the streets," Landrieu said. "I've authorized as much overtime as is necessary."
The trouble with this pledge is that the NOPD is understaffed.
The force has lost about 500 officers since Katrina struck in 2005 and it is now down to about 1,150 — far fewer than the 1,600 that Landrieu would like. As few as 250 officers were found to be on patrol duty and responding to calls for help in May 2013, a city inspector general report found last May.
"I have been to some roll calls where there is one cop, two cops," said Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, a police union.
Some officers have been forced to leave, many have simply retired and others are seeking better paying jobs. Low morale, hiring freezes and a lack of large pay increases, plus higher standards required as part of a deal to resolve a U.S. Justice Department probe, are contributing to the depleted force.1 comment on this story
Department leaders say they are recruiting more aggressively and broadening their candidate pool to bolster the ranks.
For now, though, residents will keep posting the signs warning visitors to walk in large groups.
"We want them to know that, especially at night, it's not safe to walk by yourself because you are a target," French Quarter resident Crystal Hinds said as she put up signs recently. "It's such a historic area, and it's priceless. So, we definitely hope that something will be done about it."
Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report.