It’s been a year since an early-morning shooting in the downtown entertainment district left two people wounded and started a renewed dialogue about increased police presence and enforcement of existing ordinances.
That incident, where shots were fired on Dauphin Street in the midst of a crowded, unpermitted “block party” organized and promoted on social media, led to the voluntary, permanent closure of one night club, more officers on patrol during peak hours and a more-focused enforcement of the city’s open-container ordinance.
But since then there have been other high-profile shootings downtown, including one near Bienville Square less than an hour into the New Year and another on Fat Tuesday behind Popeye’s Chicken on Government and Scott streets, which resulted in the death of 15-year-old Amir Parker.
In June, 48-year-old Lonnie Rayford was shot and killed while riding in a car in the vicinity of Broad Street and Spring Hill Avenue. In July, police arrested 24-year-old Tevin Gamble for reckless endangerment and unlawful discharge of a firearm shortly after an unrelated shooting resulting in no injuries in the 200 block of Dauphin Street.
Then, in two separate incidents within an hour of each other on Aug. 14, officers responded to shots fired with injured victims in other areas of downtown. The first was a shootout between 26-year-old Gerald Hale and an unknown male subject. Hale was briefly hospitalized before being charged with reckless endangerment and receiving stolen property. The second shooting sent an unidentified 24-year-old to the hospital in critical condition.
After the most recent incidents, the city responded by passing an “anti-cruising” ordinance to restrict drivers from circling through the entertainment district more than three times, while it also prohibited carrying open containers of alcohol outside after midnight. During the past few weekends, the number of officers on patrol downtown has been notably higher, with a density perhaps greater than during Mardi Gras.
Following the Dauphin Street Beer Festival last Saturday, one year after shots rang out at the unsanctioned block party, there was little to no congregating outside except for moderate lines to enter clubs like Xcite and Paparazzi Hookah Lounge. Police were on nearly every street corner and some places in between — on foot, on horseback, in patrol cars marked and unmarked — reminding patrons to pour out their cups and keep moving.
The tactics have had a positive impact on the downtown entertainment district, Assistant Police Chief Lawrence Battiste said. Officers have been successful in breaking up the block party atmosphere that existed before.
“From what we’ve seen and what we’ve heard … we feel the crowds have been manageable and compliant,” he said.
Downtown Mobile Alliance spokesperson Carol Hunter said she also believes the enforcement has shown results.
“From what I hear, the police presence has worked well — we have heard that from bar owners and some patrons who have been down later in the evening,” she said. “The difference is with no drinking on the street after midnight … the effect has been that people are inside patronizing the bars.”
Aliesha Francis was one of dozens of people waiting to enter Xcite just after midnight Sunday.
“I come out almost every weekend and we don’t have any problems except when people start fighting,” she said. “There are a lot of cops out here, it almost looks like too many, but it does make you feel like they are watching everything and nobody is going to try anything.”
Indeed, according to preliminary reports from the MPD, the number of arrests, citations and warnings varied from the weekend of Aug. 19 to the weekend of Aug. 26, but some of the numbers were skewed by the number of people downtown for Beer Fest.
No major incidents were reported Aug. 20 or 21, although a total of 19 people were arrested in the entertainment district. Last weekend, 12 people were arrested, one person was cut in a domestic incident and O’Daly’s Irish Pub was warned for allowing patrons to leave the business after midnight with open containers of alcohol.
Officers issued 109 verbal warnings about open containers after midnight Aug. 27, compared to just 42 the previous Saturday. Only three warnings were issued for violations of the cruising ordinance over both weekends but 18 people were warned about violating the noise ordinance.
Both the open-container restrictions and cruising ordinance are expected to sunset in November, when the City Council is expected to evaluate their effectiveness. But Mayor Sandy Stimpson suggested the increased police presence is also temporary, as the surge of officers is unsustainable due to personnel costs. He said the city would continue basing its police presence on the expected number of visitors downtown each weekend.
Battiste said the department uses a metric each week to determine how many officers are needed downtown on any given weekend. He said each week they plug crowd size, any recent violent crimes and any planned special events into a model that helps predict manpower for the following weekend.
The department accommodates a need for more officers in the entertainment district by adjusting schedules, reassigning officers and using some overtime, Battiste said.
“I’m sure they’ll have presence down here as long as they believe it’s necessary,” Hunter said. “But as school gets in, the crowd usually settles down anyway. I don’t know if it’s increased presence or the natural ebb and flow of things but hopefully it’s something the police can monitor and stay on top of as they need to.”
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.