NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans police are in the middle of an unprecedented security challenge with an estimated 150,000 Super Bowl fans packing the city during the raucous annual buildup to Mardi Gras, when thousands of revelers flock to the historic French Quarter and its restaurants, bars and strip clubs.
It all began in earnest Friday night with the first of the city's major float-filled Mardi Gras season parades. This week, the parade schedule is on hold while the Super Bowl takes center stage. Mardi Gras preparations resume once Sunday's game is over and the parades roll again starting Wednesday.
The city's police force of 1,200 officers is working more than three weeks' worth of 12-hour days, on the lookout for everything from petty crime and public drunkenness to random gunfire and the threat of terrorism. It will be an exhausting stretch that city officials say will cost the city several million dollars in police overtime.
"If we can, we'd like to give them some time down," said police chief Ronal Serpas. "But if we can't, they know it and they'll stand up for it."
It's also a unique chance for Serpas to show off one of the strengths of a department beset by scandals involving brutality and mismanagement. City officials have carried out numerous reforms aimed at cleaning up the department, which has seen five officers convicted of civil rights violations stemming from deadly shootings of unarmed residents after Hurricane Katrina.
For years, though, crowd control has been the department's bright spot, especially during Mardi Gras revelry on the narrow streets of the nearly 300-year-old French Quarter, home to fancy restaurants and art galleries as well as sleazy bars and strip joints.
"I think the NOPD does take a particular pride in its long-standing history and long-standing demonstration that managing large crowds is something we do very well," said Serpas, who is in his third year running the department.