As a police officer in New Orleans, you get excited as Mardi Gras creeps back around each year. Whether you love the parades and festivities or getting out of the ordinary district capacity or simply need the overtime, you start to get excited.
Mardi Gras is a lot of fun, even as a police officer. You get to interact with the community in a positive way, take pictures, play catch with kids, eat delicious food and king cake, smoke cigars with your brothers and watch as floats pass with thousands of people reaching up yelling “Throw me something, mister!” or just simply screaming “Hey!” over and over again. It’s entertaining, to say the least. Once in a while, you even get to watch one of those “Oh sh*t!” moments, when a float participant launches an entire bag of beads into the crowd. When it leaves their hand, the “Oh sh*t” moment has begun. A clear plastic bag full of purple, green and gold beads soaring through the air for what will be an epic catch… by someone’s hand or someone’s face. Depending on the receiver, both can be fun to watch. It can be like watching a skateboarder fall on a railing and split himself in half– “Oooooooo…. that had to hurt” or like watching a rookie wide receiver catch a pass one-handed that looked nearly impossible.
The deeper you get into Mardi Gras, the longer the work days are and the shorter the turnover is. You work from roughly 6 AM until 12-2 AM. Once you are done with your shift, you do one of three things: You drive home, decompress and get 1-5 hours of sleep to then are up by 4 or 5 AM; You sleep in your vehicle for a few hours, or if you’re lucky there may be an unoccupied couch in the station somewhere. Either way, it’s exhausting.
Let’s dive into the daily schedule of a New Orleans Police Officer during Mardi Gras.
Depending on the parade schedule, you have to be up anywhere from 3-6 AM, do the three S’s, put on your vest (if you’re not selfish or complacent) then your Class A uniform, duty belt, shoulder mic, awkward Garrison hat, obnoxiously-yellow traffic vest, shiny black boots, and drive to your assigned district station 1-8 (10 minutes-1 Hour depending on where you live)
This is where they do a head count to make sure everyone is accounted for, make important announcements, and give parade route assignments.
Depending on the day and district, you may get a buffet style breakfast at the station during roll call or at some private hotel conference room along the route. This buffet is usually one of two things; McDonald’s flapjacks, sausage, and orange juice boxes or a home cooked meal from one of your incredible fellow officers.
En Route to The Route
I can only honestly speak for the 7th District (New Orleans East) since that is where I served the majority of my time, but the bus to and from the parade route was some of the best Mardi Gras times I had. Anywhere from 30-40 officers pile onto a bus with their go-bags full of snacks, energy drinks, spare clothes, hats, gloves, feet warmers, and rain gear. If you’re really fortunate, you have a hustler on the bus that buys hats and gloves in bulk and sells them on the bus. Yes, New Orleans gets cold, a humid cold that is bone-chilling. You spend the next 20-30 minutes ribbing each other, laughing and joking or sleeping (depending on how far into Mardi Gras you are).
If you are on the district task force, you don’t ride on the bus, you escort the bus. This is a different kind of fun. As soon as the bus is ready to roll, it’s lights and sirens the whole way, weaving in and out of traffic, blocking each street, then moving to the next, playing leapfrog as fast as the bus will move. It’s a good feeling when you look in the rearview mirror and see 20+ police cars with their lights and sirens, escorting a bus of your comrades to Mardi Gras. Police don’t usually associate a motorcade with positive feelings. It usually means one of us has fallen. Not during Mardi Gras.
You get there hours before the parades start. It feels unnecessarily early no matter how many Mardi Gras you have worked, but you get some coffee or a Red Bull, some food, and then set up your barricades to start closing off traffic.
After closing off traffic, you need to be on assignment at least an hour before the first parade starts. Depending on where you are it could be two hours until that first parade actually reaches you. If you came on the bus, this means standing for more extended periods of time without sitting. God forbid you see an officer sitting instead of standing at attention.
This is the fun part. There are new floats (both political and perverted) and joyful people. Maybe you’re catching things and handing them out to people, having a positive interaction with the community and adding to their experience. It feels good.
But on the longer days, the 18-20 hour days, you are checking the Mardi Gras app on your phone, seeing how many floats are in each parade, and paying more attention to what float number it is rather than enjoying the moment.
Your assignment plays a huge role in your Mardi Gras Experience (Personal Opinion)
St. Charles @ Napoleon
This is the family area for the most part. This is a bit of an easier gig where you get to have more fun but still exhausting. Bad things can still happen here as they can anywhere in New Orleans, but tends to happen less frequently here.
St. Charles – From The Interstate to Louisiana Avenue
If you’re an ambitious street cop who finds it difficult to look the other way when you think someone is illegally carrying a gun (should be all police but…) you may find yourself actually working during Mardi Gras. This is where I was assigned, and there wasn’t a single Mardi Gras where my unit and I weren’t chasing someone with a gun and preventing shootings in the middle of crowds. For some reason, all of the “gangs” want to hang out near the fast food joints, which are in this area. So, this type of work is natural with that type of crowd. Personally, I enjoyed it. It was a solid balance of real police work and Mardi Gras fun.
A nightmare. This is close to the interstate underpass and draws a similar crowd from the last, as well as families, but there is a different safety issue here. In a circle like this, although it’s barricaded, people like to jump over them anyway and eventually bring the entire crowd with them. It’s Mardi Gras, we couldn’t care less, if only people had any idea what “Trail Over” was. With massive floats being driven by tractors, the float’s tires are not going to take the same exact path as the tractor while in a wide turn. This causes a dangerous situation for people on the inside of the turn who are not behind the barricades and running up to the floats to catch things. Don’t get run over– I’ve seen it. A pretty high-heel that you’ll never wear is not worth a broken femur.
Canal Street @ Bourbon
This is another nightmare. Of course, I am speaking from my own perspective here, so it’s all preference. This area can be entertaining as it is the heart of New Orleans. The crowd is similar to the area I worked in but with a lot more people. Here, you have to find a balance of extra vigilant and easy-going. This is the end of many parades and can be a lot of fun (Especially if you’re single… wink* wink*).
Tchoupitoulas Street- From Canal to Poydras
Although this is the end of the parade routes and makes for an extremely long day, this is similar to St. Charles @ Napoleon with a family-oriented crowd and an opportunity for a lot of positive community interactions.
I’ve never been so happy to see a firetruck!
During Mardi Gras, a firetruck follows the end of each parade. For the police, a firetruck resembles being one step closer to the end of the day. Or at least the end of the parades…
If your bank account is lucky, but you are not, you’ll have what they call “second assignment.” This is exactly what it sounds like. When the entire day of parades is over, you are the one whose day is not over. Second Assignment is protecting the men and women who clean up the beads, beer bottles, and Mardi Gras debris along the parade route at the end of each day.
Once you are clear from second assignment, it’s back on the bus to the station, then straight to sleep, wherever that may be.
Within the first day of this schedule, you quickly remember how important proper footwear is. If you’ve seen the movie End Of Watch— Jake Gyllenhaal tells you exactly this, it’s all about comfortable footwear. He is correct, at least during Mardi Gras.
My first Mardi Gras was by far my best Mardi Gras. As a rookie, I absolutely loved it. I stood in the street between the barricades and the floats and caught beads, handing them out to people. I even picked stuff up off the ground for children begging for the billions of bouncy balls and gadgets. In between parades, we had dance-offs with kids in the middle of the street and eventually brought the whole crowd in for dances like ‘The Wobble’ and ‘The Cupid Shuffle.’ I remember thinking at that moment how amazing my job was and how crazy life was for leading me there. I also remember how surprised people were at how “nice” we were to them. They commented about how their police were back home, wherever they lived and how they were rude or too serious etc. Instead of entertaining these comments, I simply said “thank you” over and over. Changing people’s perspective on police was a goal of mine daily. As I arrested convicted felons with firearms and put them back in prison for decades, my goal was for them to shake my hand at lock-up, and most of the time they did. Positive interactions with the public are essential to keep yourself thinking and feeling positive. Mardi Gras is an excellent avenue for positive interaction.
By the end of my third Mardi Gras, I was exhausted, and the ‘Rookie Mardi Gras’ officer was no longer present. At the beginning of the 2+ week event, I would catch things for people and entertaining their requests from behind the barricade, but at some point in those two weeks, I started ignoring people who wanted me to bend over and pick something off the ground for them. If you don’t have hands that can catch, bring a fish net, because I’m too sore for all that “MY BABY” (pronounced MAH-BEEEBY). Of course, I made an exception for children, but when a grown man is begging me for a plastic hand-clapper that’s on the ground covered in beer and Hepatitis A through Z, my ears just don’t hear too well. By this point, I had developed a clear love/hate relationship with Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is amazing. New Orleans is amazing. The men and women of the New Orleans Police Department who protect the citizens and tourists enjoying Mardi Gras are amazing. Each day they continue to sacrifice themselves, their health, time with their family and most of all, their sanity (seriously).
As you stand on your decorated ladder, sit in your lawn chair or stand on the neutral ground watching the floats go by, somewhere (maybe right behind you), there is a New Orleans Police Officer stopping something bad from happening (a shooting, robbery, car burglary, etc.). And as long as that bad thing doesn’t happen, you will never hear about it. You will never know about the HEROES that stood between you and evil (This doesn’t apply only to Mardi Gras).
As the title of this article states, there is a Love-Hate relationship with Mardi Gras for New Orleans Police. The love comes from the festivities, culture, food, fun, positive interactions, change of pace, and memories it creates.
The hate solely comes from the exhaustion Mardi Gras brings—The long hours of standing, the sore feet and back pain, the lack of sleep and most of all… not being able to enjoy it as a civilian for at least one day a year.
So… thank them. Thank the men and women of the New Orleans Police Department. Whether they are working the parade route or in the district, they are keeping Order from becoming Chaos. If you know anything about New Orleans, the police are truly protecting you from evil, so that you can enjoy the beauty of the city without a tainted experience.
Remember that they LOVE it for the right reasons and HATE it for understandable reasons.
THANK THEM – APPRECIATE THEM
HAPPY MARDI GRAS!