New Orleans gets a "do-over"

     "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."

Mind-boggling conditions
     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."

     To help diffuse the situation, the NOPD rotated officers out of the worst areas so they weren't constantly bombarded with devastation. "When the situation settled down, we gave all officers five days leave and urged them to get away from the city, check on their families, get their kids enrolled in school, etc.," he recalls. "Mental health issues were taken seriously."

     He says there were some immediate reports of injuries as officers helped the public. One person lost his leg due to the putrid waters and an infected cut, but the injuries were less than you might have expected in such conditions.

     Another challenge for officers during and immediately after the storms was the looting and general lawlessness. "People acted out of frustration," Narcisse comments. "It seems like such extreme pressure brings out the good in some who risked their lives to save others and the bad in others. Their true characters came out."

     One officer was shot in the face by a looter and others dealt with being shot at daily.

     "Our city, like any large city, is affected by societal ills," Narcisse notes. "They were compounded by Katrina and a lack of resources. While the NOPD can't address all the root causes of crime, we're working to deter crime and address those issues because we want to reduce crime in the long run."

     He reports that all crime rates are currently down, but admits some of this is due to having a smaller population. "For example, murder numbers are down, but the percentage is actually up," he says.

Actively recruiting
     To replenish the ranks of officers, the NOPD is aggressively recruiting in the city, state and across the nation. Regionally, it's using billboards and advertising on TV, radio stations and in newspapers.

     The NOPD isn't alone in its efforts. "The City Council has voted us two pay raises in the past eight months," Narcisse says, "to attract new officers and keep existing ones that might be lured away by higher paying agencies in the area. That's amounted to a 20-percent raise."

     One creative recruiting activity is "Inside NOPD," a half-hour cable TV show that's aired several times each week, with a new show produced every two weeks.

     "It's actually geared to everyone, not just recruits," Narcisse admits. "It's a fast-paced, exciting program that relates what different divisions do, shows clips of SWAT teams breaking down doors or a scuba diver pulling up a car. We give crime prevention tips, explain crime trends and report on significant arrests. We're selling the NOPD to the public as well as reaching potential recruits. The episodes also are available on our Web site,"

     Some officers attend campus drives and others make their presence evident at regional job fairs. "We're actively recruiting to those finishing up their military service and pitching our opportunities to them," he says. "We also recruit among the National Guard that has been helping out, and have some of those people either graduate from the academy or enrolling in the current class."

Positive changes
     "The storm allowed us the opportunity for a 'do-over,' " Narcisse says. "Most cities don't have this chance to get rid of what didn't work well. Our old way of doing things was washed out and we're allowed to start new."

     One positive technology result is the new radio system installed since the storm. "It's regional now, while before all the police departments in the area had their own," he notes. "This allows interoperability, so officers can talk with the next department if a perpetrator leaves our jurisdiction. All they have to do to speak with an adjacent city is turn the radio dial, and it works as far away as Baton Rouge. It links us to the state police as well. It's a huge positive!"

     The NOPD learned that property rooms don't belong in a basement. "We'll never do that again," Narcisse says. "In its 'do-over' we put it in a building with a higher elevation, and it's bright, clean and organized -- a great work space for evidence."

     Like many departments, the NOPD tended to put generators, electrical, telephone and information technology infrastructure in basement spaces. "It seemed like a good out-of-the way place to house these necessary lines and hardware, but that won't happen again," he affirms. "We won't have our technology compromised by flood waters again."

     The NOPD's hurricane plan has been revamped as well. "The new one is more robust and detailed with simple things like any officers requesting leave during hurricane season must provide all their contact numbers and information," Narcisse points out. "The new plan is about an inch thick and is detailed on what to do, in stages, when the storm is so many hours away."

     The plan calls for a new command structure during storms or other natural disasters, so everyone knows what to do, who goes where and when. Every commander is responsible to train his command in the plan.

     "We've learned from the past and incorporated things we wouldn't have considered before, like when an officer's family should be evacuated," he says. "We've also taken advantage of current technology and will rely on pagers, text messaging, personal data assistants and e-mails to communicate. It was interesting during Katrina that cell phones only worked intermittently, but text messages went through well. All the officers carry some personal type of communication device, and we'll use them."

Advice for other departments
     Narcisse shares several pieces of advice the NOPD has learned the hard way:

  • Have a plan for your department -- "The natural disaster plan shouldn't expect help and resources from others," he says. "You want to take care of your department and officers without counting on state and federal agencies. You want to work in concert with them, but if our history proves true for others, you can't rely on them wholeheartedly. Have your own ice, water and MREs (rations) staged. Plan with 'expect the unexpected' thinking."
         He admits that like others, his department couldn't visualize a storm of such magnitude, with the amount of rain and levee failures. "We weren't prepared, but if you have a thorough plan, you can be," Narcisse notes. "Our plan even covers other disasters and realizes that the next hurricane might not cause such a water problem, but it may bring powerful winds."
  • Finish your interoperability plan -- Since 9/11, police departments have been encouraged to have such a plan, but many have dragged their feet. "Finish it," he advises. "You really need to communicate with other city and regional agencies. We found it would have been great to reach the department of public works, which had the equipment to move down trees and limbs, for example. It was a problem for us to talk with the fire department and other agencies -- don't let that happen to you."
  • Encourage your citizens to have a family plan -- Keep telling your citizens to prepare for disasters with canned food, medicines and clean water. "The public needs to understand the importance of following their leaders' evacuation orders and have a family plan (including pets) of what to do in an emergency," Narcisse says. "First responders can't reach everyone who stays behind in a timely manner. Let people know the importance of going when asked and planning what they'll take and who they might take along, like Grandma or the elderly neighbors."
  • Plan for pets -- Because some New Orleans citizens remained in their homes to be with pets and died as a result, the city has made sure shelters and hotels will accept evacuees and their animals. "Talk with your municipal, county and state leaders to create a plan for pet owners," he suggests. "You can even give us a call to see how we did this."

     He sums up his advice, "When we pulled the city back after the storm, we didn't have much direction," Narcisse recalls. "We were writing the book, day by day because no city in the United States had faced such a storm with so much damage and 80 percent of the city flooded for weeks. To avoid this happening to your police department and citizens -- Plan, Plan, Plan!"

Kay Falk is an independent writer with more than 18 years of experience in writing for trade publications. She can be contacted at (920) 563-1511.