"Our city is open. Come enjoy yourself," Sgt. Joseph Narcisse, a 17-year veteran on the New Orleans (Louisiana) Police Department (NOPD), invites.
The city and the NOPD are excited about hosting the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) convention in October. "While we're still dealing with the damage caused by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina and the levee failures, things are coming along," he says. "Our city is not falling apart. Come down and visit."
The national news gave people a sense of the devastation New Orleans experienced two years ago, but Narcisse clarifies some of the challenges his department faced and still is dealing with.
The NOPD's headquarters, crime lab and three of eight district station buildings were flooded and severely damaged. "This had a tremendous impact upon the amount of services we could provide," Narcisse explains. "Police officers had to operate from their cars until FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers could be moved in. In addition, they had no supplies. The huge headquarters was destroyed, and it housed departmental resources such as the print shop and property room housing evidence for upcoming trials. We're still operating out of seven FEMA trailers on the headquarters' grounds."
Losing the well-equipped crime lab, including DNA testing machines, created a long-term backlog. "As the city ramped back up and the criminal justice system got back in gear, we had a real challenge," he points out. "Officers were making arrests, but there was not a local place to process evidence and test for drugs. In Louisiana, we're required to charge individuals within 60 days of arrest. Because of the lab backlog, we often had to release dangerous people, especially those involved in drug trafficking. Some of these later were responsible for murders. It seems violent crime and the drug business go hand-in-hand."
Normal police work wasn't that any more. "All the little things you take for granted, such as pens, ink, paper, tape recorders and computers, were all gone," Narcisse recalls. "It was like going back to the Stone Age without the resources we were accustomed to. We couldn't simply run a person's name for background checks or to find wants and warrants. Officers had to use their resourcefulness and creativity to get the job done. It wasn't always very efficient, but 'work-arounds' were necessary immediately after the storm."
On a personal level, he recalls the surreal first trip back to his home for a much-needed change of clothes and supplies. "I had to take a boat down Canal Street, passing by dead bodies of people and animals," he says. "There was 12 feet of water outside my home. It's something I'll never forget."
Hard on officers
Before the storms and flooding, the NOPD had 1,740 officers. It currently has 1,350 on its roster.
"We lost officers for a number of reasons," Narcisse explains. "Some resigned for family reasons; the families might have relocated to another state during the evacuation. Some were nearing retirement and decided they'd had enough. Some were fired for various reasons, but mostly for failing to show up for regular shifts."
Those who remained on staff were haunted by what they had seen. "Two officers, one a dear friend of mine, committed suicide during the storm," he says. "There's nothing that can prepare you for such a huge loss of life and property."
The NOPD sought mental health support from many agencies and trained their supervisors in being aware of the subtle signs of stress and depression in their officers. "As police officers, we're used to being the ones saving others and hiding our emotions," Narcisse says. "We don't cry and don't like to admit we need saving, so it was key to have supervisors who offered time off to those who needed it and closely monitored their staff."