Policing Mardi Gras: TUPD prepares for the city’s biggest party of the year

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Staff Photo

Students enjoy a "darty" off Broadway Street during Mardi Gras 2019.

Josh Axelrod, Senior Staff Reporter

When Mardi Gras’ main weekend commences, Broadway Street erupts. Hoards of people gather around fraternity houses, solo cups in hand, as music roars. 

As a result, Tulane University Police position themselves along the street, monitoring students during the days-long party. 

In fact, Broadway Street and the entire Uptown neighborhood party scene has only grown in recent years.

“The whole area has become — where in years past it was a local scene — it’s becoming a local scene, plus scene,” TUPD Deputy Chief Jarrod Sullivan said. “People are starting to figure out that this is a fun place to go, and we’re seeing a lot more people coming in almost as a destination.”

However, TUPD used to station itself along the parade route instead of on Broadway. Last year, after a department “hotwash” or after-action evaluation of 2018’s Mardi Gras, that strategy changed.

“Over a period of time, that kind of got off-kilter, if you will, and our officers were going all over the place,” said TUPD Chief Kirk Bouyelas, who became the agency’s top cop in October 2018. “They were just kind of using us as manpower. Last year, when I came, we really took a deep dive into what we were doing and wanted to try to find the best way for us to deploy our resources.”

Mardi Gras presents a delicate task for the agency: keeping students and their guests safe during a citywide celebration that triples the size of New Orleans over the course of a few days, a strategic situation few other private police forces in the country have to prepare for, let alone conceptualize.

An examination of TUPD’s Mardi Gras strategy reveals some annual changes — the Broadway deployment and the use of new equipment, for example — as well as some consistency year to year, expressly, TUPD’s stated objective to keep students safe at all times.


Where are officers? 

During Mardi Gras, all hands will be on deck. TUPD officers, including Chief Bouyelas himself, will cycle through Broadway duty, maintaining a presence of 5-10 officers.

“I mean, it’s smart [where they’re stationed] because that’s where most action occurs … and where most things can go wrong,” fraternity member Ben Matteson said.

Besides Broadway, TUPD will station itself in other locations throughout the Uptown neighborhood.

Some will be positioned on the residential hall quads, communicating with Allied Security guards in the dorms. Others will handle regular calls from within the agency’s patrol perimeter of St. Charles, South Claiborne, South Carrollton and Jefferson Avenues.

Officers will be deployed on foot, bike, golf cart and car. Three agents at a time will also be patrolling using trikes, electric vehicles that reach 40 miles per hour.

The three trikes, newly purchased in 2020 and costing the same as one patrol car, allow officers to stand at an elevated plane with bright lights. Bouyelas anticipates the trikes will be especially helpful during Mardi Gras, providing officers with additional visibility and maneuverability.

In 2020, no officers will be stationed along the parade route.

Courtesy of USG

What are officers looking for?

Officers on Broadway will scan frat parties and crowds of students for a number of activities that might cause them to get involved. 

Perhaps the quickest way to guarantee police intervention is to start a fight. TUPD leadership expressed that they want students to have fun but will not tolerate people infringing on the safety of others.

“Honestly, I’d say what happens most would be disorderly people acting belligerently drunk or getting in fights and causing a scene, just like ruining the vibe with Mardi Gras,” fraternity member Ben Miner said. “[TUPD does] a pretty good job at keeping the peace with that, so as long as they keep that up, they should be doing good.”

In addition to altercations, officers will watch for threats to public safety like open-source alcohol containers or students piling into U-Hauls. The Office of Fraternity and Sorority Programs will provide TUPD with a list of registered events during Mardi Gras, so officers will also be watching for unregistered events.

With the swelling crowds that sometimes eke onto the 35 mile-per-hour street, officers will be monitoring pedestrian traffic, making sure parties don’t spill out too far.

“We understand there will be things like people moving couches out onto the lawn, kind of hanging out before they go to a parade, but things that look like they’re swelling or infringing on the sidewalk or the street, is when we’ll really step in and say, ‘Hey guys, you need to take a second look at this and move this inside,’” Sullivan said.

Contrary to the belief of some students, underage drinking is not TUPD’s top priority during Mardi Gras, especially when stationed on Broadway. 

“That’s not to say that if things come to the attention of the officers they’re not going to deal with them because they are,” Bouyelas said. “But, I say that because I don’t want to give the impression that we’re going to go out there and our mission is going to be minors in possession or our emphasis is going to be … fake IDs, or our mission is going to be public intoxication. No, our main mission is making sure people are safe.”

Officers will deal with issues as they are reported or flagged to them. Bouyelas said TUPD won’t “turn a blind eye to poor behavior” but also said he understands that alcohol will be there and is part of the celebration.

How do Tulane students behave?

Students from a perennially ranked party school participating in the Big Easy’s biggest party of the year might seem like an invitation for trouble. 

Nonetheless, law enforcement officials rate Tulane students as well-behaved Mardi Gras participants, though New Orleans residents and students themselves will probably disagree.

“Kids gonna be kids. College kids gonna be college kids as well,” Shaun Ferguson, New Orleans Police Department Superintendent, said. “I was a former college student, so I know we like to have fun at that age. But they have been very responsible, very respectable.”

Bouyelas shared a similar sentiment, highlighting personality and not age as an indicator of misconduct. 

“I was on the police department for 32 years, and I can tell you I saw grown adults acting just as foolish as anybody else. It’s not an age thing — it doesn’t matter whether you’re 18 or 38 — certain people are prone to poor behavior,” Bouyelas said with a chuckle. “You can’t point your finger at the kids and say they’re doing anything that is different than anyone else.”

Whether that impression is true requires the input of other New Orleanians. Tulane students have a poor reputation among their neighbors for tomfoolery during parades, whether that be overdrinking, public urination or just general rowdiness.

Still, TUPD leadership reports that student arrests during Mardi Gras don’t surpass average arrests by much, though calls for service do.

“Every now and then you’re going to have some kids who want to have more fun than others, but that is to be expected, we expect that during the Mardi Gras season,” Ferguson said. “And again, that presence of Tulane University Police being there with us kind of simmers some of that down.”

What happens if a student is arrested?

When students are found in violation of the law, TUPD has the authority to make arrests.

“We are police officers,” Bouyelas said. “A lot of times people don’t feel as though we’re actual police officers, that we’re some form of a security guard … Our officers have the authority to make arrests just like anybody else. If they think, ‘Oh, you can’t do nothing to me,’ and they push it too far, they’re not going to have a good day.”

Students can be arrested during Mardi Gras for a range of reasons. Oft-quoted advice for first-time Mardi Gras attendees: don’t pee on the street, and don’t touch the police horses without asking.

Additionally, public intoxication can be an arrestable offense, though NOPD and TUPD officers urge students to drink responsibly.

“Our goal is not to go out there and throw as many people in jail as possible,” Bouyelas said.

“That’s not what we’re looking to do. So if the officers have other alternatives in how to deal with whatever the situation might be, they’re given the discretion to do that.”

If TUPD does arrest a student, they are transported to Central Lockup. They might also be booked on Orlean Parish’s mobile Booking Bus in the French Quarter before being taken to jail. 

In lieu of arrest, Tulane police could opt to bring publicly intoxicated students to New Orleans’ new sobering center, though transporting them to the Treme facility to fill one of its 25 beds might prove unfeasible.

How do students feel with TUPD around?

Student attitudes towards TUPD and their Mardi Gras presence are mixed.

With TUPD close by throughout the Carnival season, some students say they feel less safe, not more. Many students of color at Tulane have historically expressed distrust of the agency.

“Whenever student safety is claimed to be at risk, Tulane’s immediate response is to throw police at the situation,” recent graduate Simran Jain said. “Assuming that increasing police presence is the way to improve the safety of our students is a lazy, ineffective, and potentially violent act from the administration. Students during Mardi Gras need access to mental health resources, affordable and reliable transportation, drug safety education and resources, and medical personnel, not the constant fear of being targeted by the police.”

Still others think their patrol provides an unnecessary nuisance.

“I’ve never seen the police actually do something valuable during Mardi Gras,” junior Hallie Voss said. “They mostly just patrol around and stop people from peeing in public.”

Some welcome TUPD’s presence during the celebration.

“While talking about Mardi Gras, it’s clear that TUPD has been very proactive with their efforts to keep us safe,” Holly Steinberg, Undergraduate Student Government director of student safety, said. Since I know Mardi Gras is going to be a crazy time for New Orleans, seeing TUPD out and about will help me feel calm about my safety, so I don’t need to worry about that stuff and instead can focus on having fun and seeing some great parades.”

New Orleans native and sophomore Jaime Flores said he’s glad that TUPD will be present and he feels more comfortable with the agency than NOPD or Louisiana State Police when it comes to protecting students. 

“I’m looking forward to Mardi Gras,” Flores said. “But during this period I know a lot of things can and will go wrong, so I just hope that most people do stay safe out there.”