In the early hours before a weekend parade — before the first revelers arrive to to stake out a favorite street corner — local police are starting the long, stressful but seldom unentertaining days that make America’s original Mardi Gras celebration possible.
With hundreds of thousands of people and a few dozen horses converging on downtown Mobile all at once, it takes a massive police presence not only to ensure everyone’s safety, but to make sure all the moving parts of the parading process roll right along with those “bon temps.”
“It’s truly one of the most intensive operations we’ll do all year,” Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste said. “There’s quite a bit that goes into it. We have to pull personnel from patrol, special operations, our SWAT team, the mounted unit, traffic … just the sheer amount of man hours they put in, from my perspective, is really astronomical.”
Those hours are usually overtime for Mobile Police Department officers, many of whom work weekday parades after a full shift of their regular duties and take on those schedules for weeks.
While preventing crime and ensuring public safety are always at the forefront, many of those officers are there to help visitors get where they’re going, enforce parking, set up and direct parades, and control crowds that exceeded 75,000 in the early days of the 2018 Carnival season.
According to Battiste, it takes a different approach from other police operations and can require officers to use their discretion in setting priorities. While officers are never going to overlook criminal activity, Battiste said there’s a “much softer approach” during Mardi Gras.
He said asking someone to pour out an open container of alcohol is far easier than trying to arrest them among hundreds of people. Though, for those who might think of disregarding such a request, Battiste noted MPD has the ability to “effectively arrest” in any sized crowd.
“It’s Mardi Gras — it’s a good time in our city that highlights some of the better things that happen here, and we want to make sure people that come here have a good time, but we also want them to know they are safe,” he added. “We know 90 percent of the people coming down are there to have a good time — they go to the same spot every year, they have fun and when it’s over, they go home. We want them to be able to do that.”
Lagniappe spoke with law enforcement officers from various agencies recently about their experience during Mardi Gras over the years, and there were some common themes shared by all of them. One of those was issues with parking, or as one officer said, the apparent inability of certain individuals to read very clearly marked signs.
Before his promotion, Cpl. Jonathan Mixon was with MPD’s traffic unit and spent most of his Mardi Gras telling people where parking was allowed and where it was prohibited. That can be hard enough on a normal day in Mobile, but in the height of revelry — while trying to keep Conti and Church streets clear so first responders can quickly access the parade routes — it can be an all-out undertaking.
“We always try to help people when we can, but folks end up parking wherever,” Mixon said. “People right in front of a tow-away sign will ask, ‘Can I park here?’ After a while I’ll just start saying, ‘You can, but it’s one of the $125 spots. It comes with a free mile walk to get your car,’” he said, noting the fee for towing and the distance to the nearest impound lot.
One thing Mixon said most people don’t realize is the multitude of moving parts that come together for a parade to start rolling — many of which involve the MPD.
If there’s a parade at 6:30 p.m., officers are there by 3 p.m. If it’s a morning parade, the call is at 6 a.m., though Mixon said he’s been beaten to Spanish Plaza by some of the more dedicated attendees several times. He said seeing it all line up just as a parade starts is satisfying.
“To stand right there at the Civic Center and watch all that come together is kind of amazing,” he added. “You just don’t realize standing on the other side of the barricades all the little things that have to happen to make it all work.”
Despite the grueling schedule, Mixon said Mardi Gras is usually an eventful and fun time for officers, especially those who work the same area year after year. That familiarity earns officers friends among the revelers and also gives them an idea of what to expect in certain areas.
One of most recognizable officers anywhere on the main parade routes is probably MPD Sgt. Jeremy March, who’s known on YouTube as “The Dancing Cop.” He’s been known to cross the barricades at Dauphin and Royal and join a dance line or two, and that’s earned him a bit of following.
“People know me from that corner because a lot of them come back every year. One time a gentleman was trying to cross the street while the parade was going, and obviously I couldn’t let him,” March said. “He got kind of angry at me and started saying a few choice words, but then the crowd actually kind of [verbally] turned on him. I just thought, ‘Man, if I ever have to fight a guy or something at my corner, I’ve got about 300 people backing me up.’ So, that’s good.”
Law and Order: Carnival Unit
A lifelong local, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said he can remember parades that went down cobblestone streets. Since then, and as former chief of police in Mobile, he’s seen a number of changes to Mardi Gras over the years — most of them for the better, he said.
Calling Mardi Gras in the recent past “more tame,” Cochran noted that there used to regularly be fights during the lull between parades. Today, most of the police action focuses on underage drinking, traffic enforcement and minor, ticketable offenses such as crossing a closed barricade.
When asked about a Mardi Gras memory that stuck out in his mind, Cochran didn’t reflect on a large number of arrests or a particularly unruly crowd. Instead, it was runaway mules. …
“Years ago, back when the Knights of Revelry emblem float was pulled by mules, something spooked them on Government near the Admiral Hotel, and they just took off. That guy was up in the top of this thing hanging on for dear life because they were flying, and that float was swinging back and forth and hitting barricades,” Cochran said. “There were band members jumping the barricades trying to get out of the way. Plus, it was the lead float, so it probably went three and half to four blocks before it got hung up and stopped. … Fortunately, no one was hurt.”
On a more serious note, Cochran said once when he was with the MPD, a police surgeon attached to one of the squads had to spring into action and save an officer’s life. Cochran said he’d been shot in the leg, severing an artery near his hamstring.
“The doctor was on the scene in, like, a minute, and actually stuck a finger into the severed artery and truly saved this guy’s life by having knowledge of what to do in that situation,” he added.
As for Mixon, he shared a story that, at least initially, appeared to be another tale of poor parking in Mobile. However, it ultimately led to what he described as one of the easiest justifications for an arrest he’s ever had to give in a court of law.
It was Joe Cain Day — the “People’s Parade” — and the year was 2006. Still working traffic at the time, Mixon said he and maybe three other uinformed officers were staged at the Canal Street exit off of Interstate 10, where many congregate around the Civic Center and some park illegally.
It was there Mixon said the group watched a guy stagger across Canal and start walking up the off ramp. There was a brief discussion about arresting the gentleman for public intoxication, but according to Mixon, it was Mardi Gras and he was walking under his own power. Good enough.
“I thought surely if he’s going up there to a car, he’s going to climb in it and go to sleep, but no. He took the Pepsi Challenge,” Mixon said. “He probably drove a whole 200 feet before we stopped and arrested him. There wasn’t any point in putting him through field sobriety tests, he could barely stand. We just put him in a car and took him two blocks to the Metro Jail.”
Wherever he is today, that gentleman at least had a chance to avoid becoming an easy arrest, but that was not the case for the fellow who ran into Sgt. Randall Dueitt a few years ago. That night Dueitt was one of the officers working undercover in plainclothes with MCSO’s narcotics unit.
Dueitt said he’s never smoked, but for some reason always kept a cigarette lighter on him when working undercover, and that evening, one unlucky reveler just happened to ask him for a light.
“Honestly, I just assumed he wanted to light a cigarette, but I gave it to him and he reached back behind his ear, pulls out a joint and just lights it up. You gotta remember there are no less than five narcotics officers standing around him at this point,” Dueitt said. “I asked him if could get a drag, and once I get possession of the evendeice we all pulled our badges out … you can only imagine the expression on his face.
“At first he was like, ‘this is bullsh*t’ and was pretty upset, but about halfway back to the paddywagon we keep at our command post, he just busts out laughing and says, ‘I know I’m in trouble, but I’ve got to tell you, this is one the craziest things that’s ever happened in my life.’”
However, even the cops can manage to find a little trouble during Mardi Gras.
March, the dancing cop, said the police working parade routes take their job of protecting and assisting the public seriously, but can get a little more irritable as the parades drag on toward the end of Mardi Gras week. That’s when he said some kind of stress reliever can help improve the morale of everyone involved, but it can also get you written up.
“A few years ago, on the last two days, some of the officers and I brought water guns down to Mardi Gras. When the parades aren’t going, we typically ride around and make sure everything is good and try to be seen. Well, I was riding in the paddywagon at the time and we would make periodic stops at other officers’ locations, drive up and start shooting them with these water guns. We all got written up, but I think it was worth it. It did kind of liven things up a bit for us.”