The near total destruction 10 years ago of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina meant the Crescent City had to start over from scratch in all sorts of ways. Many historic landmarks were destroyed, but so were many of the city’s big, blighted housing projects, which have since been replaced by mixed-income housing developments. The city’s population is smaller, but it’s wealthier overall. And the city’s old, corrupt and thoroughly dysfunctional public school system has been replaced with a mix of public charters and vouchers for private schools. As Opportunity Lives’ John Hart points out, the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
And so post-Katrina New Orleans has been a success story in more ways than one.
But one problem remains constant: crime. New Orleans has consistently been one of the most violent cities in the United States and the world. A recent survey placed New Orleans’s murder rate as the second highest in America, and 26th in the world, ahead of such notorious crime-ridden cities as Tijuana and Juarez, Mexico.
Last year, a crime wave hit the French Quarter, which is one of the city’s main tourist draws. A wave of robberies and shootings rattled businessmen and citizens alike in the tourism-dependent city.
With the Mayor’s blessing, Torres has hired off-duty New Orleans officers to patrol the crime-ridden French Quarter
Businessman Sidney Torres was one of those robbery victims in December 2014, when a man pilfered his home as his fiancé slept. Torres, who is known in the Crescent City for his flamboyance and good looks, struck it rich when he founded a garbage collection company after Katrina called SDT Waste and Debris. He eventually won the contract to clean the French Quarter. “Superfresh,” the lemony scent that his trucks sprayed when they swept the streets, had the Quarter smelling the best it ever has. In 2011, Torres sold the company and entered the hotel business.
Instead of being a victim after he was robbed, Torres took action. He released security video showing the suspect entering his home and offered $8,000 for any information leading to the man’s capture. He also ran a series of TV ads attacking New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu for understaffing the New Orleans Police Department, among other things. But he pulled the ads after meeting with Mayor Landrieu, and began focusing on solutions to the crime epidemic.
Landrieu and Torres reached a deal where Torres would be allowed to hire off duty NOPD officers to patrol the French Quarter. Not only did Torres hire off duty cops to patrol in Polaris all-terrain vehicles around the clock, he also developed a smartphone app so residents could report crimes.
The app lists the streets in the French Quarter, along with the cross streets. It gives a list of crimes, mostly for more minor offenses such as theft, prostitution and aggressive solicitation, and allows users to upload a photo of a crime in progress. The information is then passed along to Torres’s patrol, which responds and detains the alleged lawbreakers until the authorities arrive. The average response time for the patrol is usually less than five minutes, compared with nearly 30 minutes for the New Orleans Police Department.
“Basically, I’m handling crime the same way I did trash”
Torres, who didn’t respond to an interview request by Opportunity Lives, told the New York Times Magazine about his particular approach to crime-fighting. “Basically, I’m handling crime the same way I did trash” he said.
Torres’s strategy is not without its critics, however. The New Orleans Times-Picayune in March published a story alleging the patrol’s crackdown on transients and “gutter punks” suspected of loitering and aggressive panhandling has been too aggressive.
Despite the criticisms, Torres’s approach seems to be working. The NOPD and the Louisiana State Police, which were also deployed to the area by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, report that crime is down 40 percent in the French Quarter since the patrols began. It has inspired a separate effort by businesses on Bourbon Street to set up their own private patrols.
In June, Torres handed over his patrol to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, though he continues to pay for its operations through the end of the year. City residents in October will vote on a ballot measure to raise sales taxes in the French Quarter by one-quarter percent to fund the patrols permanently.
Kevin Boyd is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kevinboyd1984.