BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Hurricane Katrina didn’t merely toss the lives of law-abiding Gulf Coast citizens into chaos, it disrupted the routines of criminals in ways that law enforcement officials and criminologists are still struggling to understand.
Like the currents and eddies of the storm’s devastating surge -- which at times left one home standing while flattening another next door -- Katrina’s impact on crime rates has been both fickle and hard to quantify.
Edward Shihadeh, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University and co-coordinator of the university’s Crime and Policy Evaluation Research Group, noted that measuring Katrina’s impact in the storm zone and areas that received large numbers of refugees is impossible because of the massive population shifts it caused.
“In order to calculate a crime rate on a per capita basis, you need to have an intelligent guess what the population is,” he said. “Any calculation based on the (pre-Katrina) population data is worthless.”
Also complicating matters in many of the hardest-hit areas is the destruction of police department computer systems used to track arrests and convictions.
“We’re only now kind of getting back to where we can operate,” said Maj. Bobby Underwood, chief of the patrol division of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, which has set up shop in an old Dollarwise store miles inland from its wrecked former headquarters in Bay St. Louis.
Anecdotal evidence and interviews with local law enforcement officials in Hancock County, Miss., indicate that crime rates have climbed in some areas and declined in others in the months since Katrina. Certain crimes, such as looting, rose sharply in the storm’s wake and then abated, while others, including domestic violence and alcohol-related offenses, are becoming more pernicious as the months drag on.
Changing the face of crime
Some examples of the varied ways the storm has changed the face of crime in the Gulf Coast:
· The exodus of much of New Orleans’ populace has slashed the violent crime rate in what was annually ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in America. Police Lt. Billy Cerevolo told the Houston Chronicle in December that the city’s Ninth Ward -- once a hotbed for crime -- is now considered a “retirement district” because officers there do very little aside from protecting the badly damaged property of residents who may never return. A citywide decline in serious crime led Louisiana state Rep. Peppi Bruneau to suggest in November that the city should begin downsizing its police department.
· In Houston, home to an estimated 100,000 new residents displaced by Katrina, police said last week that at least 23 people who relocated to the city from the hurricane zone are either victims or suspects in murders. Mayor Bill White has asked FEMA to pony up $6.5 million to help police combat increased crime.
· In Baton Rouge, La., which saw its pre-Katrina population of 227,818 approximately double overnight, police statistics show no significant increase in serious crime in the three months after the storm. “Police officers I talked to … said the one big increase has been in traffic accidents and traffic altercations,” said Shihadeh, the LSU professor. “They said, ‘This is pretty much what we do around the clock.’”
Interviews with law enforcement officials in Hancock County, Bay St. Louis and Waveland support the premise that the storm had nuanced effects on individual jurisdictions.
For example, officials in both cities say that they have been making few drug busts in recent months while the Sheriff’s Department narcotics unit, which lost two of its four officers in the aftermath of Katrina, is now seeing more drug activity than before the storm.
“It was dead, but it started picking up around Nov. 1, and in December, we had a case a day,” said Matt Karl, the department’s director of narcotics enforcement.
Dealing drugs from FEMA trailers
Some recent busts carried out by the squad include the seizure of 7 pounds of crystal methamphetamine from a local dealer and a raid that led to the arrest of 10 suspects who allegedly were selling crack out of a pair of FEMA trailers.
The latter case is a source of frustration in the overtaxed department, since the suspects were released on bail and have returned to selling drugs from the encampment, said Deputy Abe Long.
“They’re still there, and they’re back at it,” he said, adding that calls to FEMA to try to get them evicted were in vain: “They all say, ‘We’re going to get back to you,’ but we’ve had no further contact.”
Other trends, though, are universal among the departments.
All made numerous looting arrests in the first weeks after the storm, and Waveland Police Chief James Varnell said his officers continue to pick up the occasional “accidental looter.”
“A lot of people are sightseeing and just pick something up,” he said. “These are people who never would ever have thought of stealing anything and didn’t look at it as stealing.”
Overall, he said, crime in Waveland is probably up slightly from pre-Katrina levels, “but I don’t think it’s that much more.”
'Crimes of opportunity'
Frank McNeil, police chief in Bay St. Louis, said his department has seen an increase in “crimes of opportunity,” such as residential break-ins and theft of building materials, tools and heavy equipment. But that rise has been offset by drops in drug-related arrests and petty crime, leaving the overall number of crimes reported today at about the same level as before the storm, he said.
But he said his officers do get called out on a lot more calls from residents hearing “suspicious” sounds.
“In those trailers, you can hear everything that’s going on outside,” he said.
All three departments say that one area where they have seen a significant increase is domestic violence, a trend that experts say tracks with what they’ve seen after previous natural disasters.
Kenny Hurt, director of investigations for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, attributes the rise to frustration among residents over the extended hardships they’ve had to weather and to nerves frayed by extended periods spent in close quarters.
“Everybody’s confined in the trailers, and a lot of neighbors are crammed in so close (in FEMA encampments),” he said.
Waveland’s Varnell agreed with Hurt’s general assessment but said the bureaucracy surrounding the rebuilding process is the biggest source of frustration.
“Everything you do takes an act of Congress. Everything is a task,” he said. “Nobody has any patience, and the officers are on edge, too.”
A matter of control
Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that while difficult circumstances play a role, they aren’t the underlying reason that violence in the home typically increases after a natural disaster.
“I think for perpetrators of domestic violence, control is a huge issue, and when they have no control over anything else in their lives, control of their family is still available to them,” she said, adding that rape also often climbs after natural disasters. “(The frustration) doesn’t cause it, but it impacts frequency and severity.”
Some of the changes in crime patterns since Katrina are the result of changes in police agencies’ ability to combat it.
All three police agencies in Hancock County have been able to replace most of their essential equipment –– patrol cars, guns, bullet-proof vests and computers -- thanks to donations from out-of-state departments. But all have lost staff since the storm and have had to reprioritize to meet post-Katrina realities.
No place to put drug task force
“We haven’t seen as many drug arrests as before, said Waveland’s Varnell, speaking from a trailer in the parking lot of the city’s wrecked police station on Highway 90. “But that’s probably a result of the (diminished) population and the time dedicated to it.
“We lost all our equipment for our narcotics task force, … (and) now we don’t have a place to put it or to put the task force.”
At the makeshift sheriff’s station, meanwhile, narcotics officer Long is trying to work through a thick pile of backlogged drug cases on his desk.
“We’re not allowed to work overtime, … we can’t hire anybody and we have no relief,” the 35-year-old deputy said, shaking his head. “We’re just taking care of problems as they arise instead of being proactive.”
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