Last month, the Justice Department 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, says USA Today, was 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. A plan may emerge 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 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 fewer than 600,000. The jurisdictions had more than 4,900 law enforcement officers before Katrina. Now they have fewer than 3,500. Local officials may be 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.