We first heard of Sidney Torres and the French Quarter Task Force when he started to get some press early this summer. We were drawn to it for the same reasons a lot of people were probably writing about it: it sounded completely insane. A rich trash mogul in New Orleans is playing Bruce Wayne, running a private crime-fighting detail in the streets of the French Quarter? Really??
I had an old mentor who told me that the best litmus test for potential stories was whether or not hearing the one-line version of it made you look up flights to see how quickly you could get to wherever it was happening. This passed that test, so we went down to New Orleans in September to see it first hand.
I was initially fascinated by the origins of the Task Force. Sidney had run some ads critical of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The Mayor, in turn, had said that fixing the crime problem in New Orleans wasn't as easy as Sidney may think, and suggested he back up his big talk with some of his own money. Now, the annals of human history are littered with examples of 'put your money where your mouth is'-type challenges. It ends a lot of arguments. But in this instance, Sidney's response was, basically, "sure thing."
And that brings us to the French Quarter Task Force.
The French Quarter Task Force isn't as clean as some of our other stories. Last week's episode about the Food Computer, for example, spotlighted an unbelievably intelligent technology solution to a growing food crisis. It's amazing and beautiful and genius, but it's also years away from large scale deployment.
The French Quarter Task Force exists in the real world right now, and as a result, it's not quite as straightforward. In fact, it's pretty messy. It brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions about policing, at a time when the citizen/police tensions all around this country are remarkably fraught.
Are we comfortable with the idea of public-private partnerships in policing? Is the French Quarter Task Force simply private policing for the elite? Can it grow to lower income neighborhoods? Should it grow at all?
These are important questions being debated in real time as the Task Force is being stress-tested in the French Quarter. The results so far, both statistics and anecdotally, suggest it's working in a small, sample size. In perhaps the most ringing endorsement to date, the French Quarter Task Force is no longer being funded by Sidney - the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau is set to provide the capital for the program for the next five years.
We'll be keeping an eye on the French Quarter Task Force. New Orleans is a truly magical city and at the moment, it needs a bit of help and some fresh ideas. If the Task Force can be a new tool at its disposal in the French Quarter and hopefully beyond, this age-old 'put up or shut up' challenge may have just yielded an important new weapon in crime fighting.