Thursday, September 1, 2005

katrina, police, and social control

Some of the saddest reports from Hurricane Katrina involve looting and a breakdown in informal social controls and public safety. While no law enforcement agency could efficiently operate in such disastrous conditions, New Orleans is especially poorly positioned. Long before the hurricane, the city had an extremely high and rising rate of homicide and gun violence, a long record of corruption, and too few officers and staff in both the police department and prosecutor's offices. They were also poorly paid: according to Law Enforcement Management Administrative Statistics for 2000, starting pay for a new officer in New Orleans was $25,164 and the only educational requirement was a high school diploma (by way of comparison, St. Paul, MN, starts officers at $37,860 and requires at least a two-year degree at entry). Similarly, Louisiana State Patrol officers start at $22,716 and lack collective bargaining for both sworn and civilian officers (relative to $38,252 with collective bargaining in Minnesota).

I do not point this out as a hindsight critique or an insensitive shot at the many good officers working around the clock in New Orleans. It is just disheartening for a criminologist to watch other cities laying off officers or stretching their forces to the breaking point while law enforcement is so overwhelmed in New Orleans. Is it unreasonable to think that such cutbacks will put public safety at risk elsewhere in coming years? Or to think that we might make a more rational allocation of our existing public safety dollars?

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