New Orleans area sees hope in restructuring its police forces

Kevin Johnson

Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

WASHINGTON- Just before Christmas, the Justice Department quietly held a meeting in Quantico, Va., that included New Orleans-area law enforcement officials and police chiefs from across the nation.

At the top of the agenda: finding ways to ensure public safety in the hurricane-battered region, where police and sheriff's departments are struggling to deal with personnel losses, broken communications systems and a range of other problems.

The meeting was an important step in developing a plan that could dramatically reshape law enforcement in the New Orleans area by merging functions of the city's police department with those of sheriff's departments in four parishes hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.

The plan -- which would require approval from local governments and millions of dollars in federal aid -- would consolidate the agencies' programs for analyzing evidence and training recruits. It also would create a regional crime lab and an emergency communications system that would link much of the area.

The plan would involve New Orleans and Orleans Parish, as well as Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The coastal region was home to roughly 1 million people when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, but now it has a population of less than 600,000. Those jurisdictions had more than 4,900 law enforcement officers before Katrina. Now they have fewer than 3,500.

Beyond the structural changes, the plan would require unprecedented changes in local politics. It would take power away from municipally appointed police chiefs and publicly elected parish sheriffs, who for generations have been influential because of their power to dole out jobs and government contracts.

Such officials now say they are willing to give up some autonomy because they are facing a new political truth: Without some guarantee of security, the region's massive rebuilding effort -- and its campaign to lure commerce and taxpaying residents who help pay police salaries -- could be hobbled from the start.

"Our situation absolutely requires a new political reality," says St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens, who has been the chief law enforcement officer in the now-ravaged parish for 22 years. "No one would have raised (the idea of consolidating) in the past. But if we can make good decisions now, we can save ourselves. If we don't change, we die as institutions."

Stephens says he and his colleagues from Jefferson Parish, Plaquemines Parish and greater New Orleans have reached a basic agreement on what would be a historic experiment in law enforcement.

Several communities across the USA, including Louisville, have merged city and county police operations to address urban sprawl and concerns about mounting costs. In New Orleans, consolidating operations would require the approval of entrenched political institutions spread across at least five agencies.

Nearly every issue involved in how law enforcement operates is on the table, including whether agencies should be downsized dramatically or merged to reflect the area's reduced population. "The slate is clean," Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle says. "We have a big opportunity to decide how we come back."

'Heck of a problem'

Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera, one of five chiefs the Justice Department chose to advise New Orleans-area officials about how to rebuild their agencies, says he was surprised at local officials' willingness to surrender power for the greater good.

"This is a heck of a problem," says Najera, who attended the Quantico meeting. "The survival of the (New Orleans Police) Department is in real jeopardy."

The talks about revamping New Orleans-area law enforcement also have focused on another problem: the lack of housing for hundreds of officers and deputies who lost their homes during the flooding.

In New Orleans, an estimated 80% of the police department's remaining 1,435 officers lost their homes, Police Superintendent Warren Riley has said.

Since Katrina, most of the homeless officers have been living on a cruise ship docked in the Port of New Orleans. But the federal contract securing the ship expires March 1, and there is no formal plan to house the officers when the ship pulls out.

"If that ship leaves in March, there may be more than a few officers who decide to take their trade somewhere else," says Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White, a member of the New Orleans advisory group. "It's a major problem."

String of crises

Since Katrina, New Orleans' police department has been rocked by a series of crises. Much of the city was still underwater when the first reports emerged that some officers had abandoned their posts or had taken part in looting.

During the chaos, then-police superintendent Eddie Compass resigned. Mayor Ray Nagin appointed Riley to take his place, and Riley took charge of a department that had lost its downtown headquarters to flooding.

Shortly afterward, Riley had to deal with allegations of police abuse stemming from the videotaped beating of a man. Two officers were dismissed in the incident.

White says the incidents have given New Orleans police an image problem that will need to be repaired along with the department. He says restoring confidence in public safety could help thousands of residents and businesses decide whether to return. "If you are gonna have economic development, you've got to have some confidence the environment will be safe."

Local business leaders have been involved in discussions about consolidating agencies, Stephens says. The New Orleans Police Foundation, a group of business and religious leaders, is raising money to help officers find housing.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has pledged to help rebuild the region's law enforcement agencies, but it's unclear how much money the federal government will contribute. Although funding for the consolidation is unsettled, Stephens says that plans for a regional crime lab, a law enforcement training academy and other programs are moving ahead. Possible sites for a lab and an academy have been identified.

"We may need to be propped up (with federal funding) for a couple of years until people return and we get our tax bases back," Stephens says. "But the federal government is not gonna waste enormous amounts of money and energy to finance turf wars." 
January 20, 2006

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