New Orleans: Police Still Underfunded

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"I'm going to tell you something, Senator, that I think will really upset you."

New Orleans Police Department Deputy Superintendent Anthony Cannatella was addressing Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. Speaking at a hearing on rising crime in post-Katrina New Orleans, Cannatella, a 40-year NOPD veteran, went on to relate a story about officers at the city's 5th District police station who had to take a collection in order to pay for the cleaning of Port-o-Potties located outside their trailers. "I didn't want to go there," Cannatella said, apologizing for the somewhat scatological anecdote.

"No," said Leahy. "I think you've made your point."

And that point was a grim one, made with a mixture of anger and exasperation and a plea for more federal help. Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina cut its destructive path through the Gulf Coast, the NOPD has found little relief. Six FEMA trailers make up its headquarters. The traffic department and SWAT team also call several double-wide units home. Seventy-two officers have left the force this year. Of the 1,200 that remain (down from 1741 before the storm), there is only a single fingerprint examiner and only one expert firearm examiner. This year, the deadliest city in America has seen over 90 killings, eight of them in the past week and a half alone. In 2006, the city saw 161 murders (only one of which has resulted in a conviction).

The list of woes went on and on. Because of a lack of storage space, criminal evidence is still kept in the back of an 18-wheel truck. The city's crime lab just reopened after finally finding a home on the University of New Orleans campus. The resources that most major cities take for granted just haven't existed for the past 22 months. And according to Cannatella, it's not just the infrastructure—it's the manpower. Several hundred of his officers still live in temporary housing. "They live in FEMA trailers, they come to work in a FEMA trailer, and they patrol FEMA trailers," said Cannatella. "It's demoralizing. We say FEMA trailer like it's something specially built. It's not."

Senator Mary Landrieu, a Lousiana Democrat, sounded a particularly frustrated note at the conditions facing officers in her state's signature city as she called for increased federal assistance to New Orleans. And while Congress recently appropriated over $50 million towards combating crime in Mississippi and Louisiana, Landrieu nonetheless criticized the Administration for overlooking the Crescent City's police force and echoed Sen. Leahy's earlier shot, "While the Administration has written a blank check for the war in Iraq, it cannot seem to find the necessary support for those who need it in New Orleans."

Or at the very least some bulletproof vests. Robert Stellingworth, president of the non-profit New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, told the panel how private funds were needed to replace police body armor lost in the floods since the city—whose tax base has fallen off precipitously since the disaster—couldn't afford it and FEMA couldn't guarantee that it could reimburse the city to replace the waterlogged vests. It's not exactly what an officer in one of the nation's most gun-ridden cities wants to hear. "You just cannot ask officers to worry about whether FEMA's going to buy them new vests sometime in the future," he said. The call went out to local donors and the NOPD was eventually able to buy over $400,000 worth of bulletproof vests. Yet, says Stellingworth, "It's still not enough."

Other problems remain. Jim Letten, the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, pointed to the local D.A.'s office as a key candidate for improvement if crime is to decrease. He pointed specifically to the state's "section 701" release policy, which mandates that suspects need to be formally charged within 60 days or released. Due to lack of evidence or witnesses, approximately 3,000 people were released in 2006 under the section 701 rule. Since January of this year, about 2,100 criminal suspects in New Orleans have similarly been let go, a number Letten termed "disturbing."

And the police may actually be overcompensating for their problems in keeping up with the city's problems. Several weeks ago, the city's independent Metropolitan Crime Commission released a report that chided the NOPD for its "high number of arrests for minor offenses to address New Orleans' crime problem." And, as MCC Senior Analyst John Humphries put it, "right now, we're on track to make one arrest for every four citizens in the city." One can interpret that number as one will, but it's one that will definitely have to drop if New Orleans, and its police force, is to find any sort of footing.