Storm-battered parish considers hired guns
Contractors in Louisiana would make arrests, carry weapons
By Renae Merle
The Washington Post
Updated: 1:06 a.m. ET March 14, 2006
ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. - Maj. Pete Tufaro scanned the fenced lot packed with hundreds of stark white trailers soon to be inhabited by Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Shaking his head, he predicted the cramped quarters would ignite fights, hide criminals and become an incubator for crime, posing another test for his cash-strapped sheriff's department, which furloughed 206 of its 390 officers after the storm.
Tufaro thinks the parish has the solution: DynCorp International LLC, the Texas company that provided personal security to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and is one of the largest security contractors in Iraq. If the Federal Emergency Management Agency approves the sheriff's department's proposal, which would cost $70 million over three years, up to 100 DynCorp employees would be deputized to be make arrests, carry weapons, and dress in the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Department khaki and black uniforms.
But while the plan is for the DynCorp employees to eat and live with the other deputies in the same trailer camp, the hired guns would earn "significantly more" than the $18,000 annual salary of an entry-level deputy and the $30,000-a-year salary of a seasoned officer.
For DynCorp and other private security companies, the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, like Iraq, is a land of opportunity. Hired shortly after the storm to protect several New Orleans hospitals, its first domestic security job, the Texas firm has earned about $14 million from work in the Gulf Coast since Katrina, not all of which has involved security.
Blackwater USA, which protected the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and lost four employees in a brutal ambush in Fallujah in 2004, earned about $42 million through the end of December on a contract with Federal Protective Service, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, to provide security to FEMA sites. Most of the 330 contract guards now working in Louisiana are employed by the company.
The Homeland Security Department's Inspector General said the company's costs in its FEMA contract -- it earns $950 a day for each employee -- were "clearly very high," and it expressed hope that competition would lower them. But costs are not the only concerns raised by critics of the companies.
"Katrina broke all of the rules. It was the first time you had the deployment of armed private security contractors in the U.S.," said Peter W. Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of "Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry."
Singer said the proposed contract with DynCorp raises a number of questions, including whether the DynCorp officers will be properly supervised, whether the pay difference will cause tension in the sheriff's department and whether it suggests that even government jobs that assume a level of public service can be done by private corporations.
Danielle Brian, executive director of Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, said that instead of using the money to hire contractors, the sheriff's department in St. Bernard should invest in training more officers or try to rehire those they furloughed. "Our law enforcement system is based on public service employees and not private contractors pretending to be law enforcement," Brian said.
Greg Lagana, a DynCorp spokesman, said companies like his with experience in security and logistics have a lot to offer government agencies in emergency situations. "We do a lot of work for government that the government finds, for its own reasons, more convenient or more economical to contract out," he said. "Sometimes it's more efficiently done by the private sector. We don't make those determinations; they do. If there is work we can do, we'll do it."
To Tufaro and other law enforcement officials, St. Bernard Parish is facing an emergency. Money dried up so fast after Katrina hit that Sheriff Jack Stephens, an imposing, 6-foot-4-inch New Orleans native, took out a loan of more than $4 million on behalf of the department, which he says he would be held personally responsible for if he left office before its repayment. "It is what I had to do," he said.
Besides being nearly broke, the department has a host of new challenges. The FBI has warned that gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, could come attached to construction crews and establish operations, prompting the department to establish a strike team that has already arrested eight alleged members, police officials said.
Before the storm, the department tangled with "local toughs, slinging dope," not sophisticated international gangs, Stephens said. Added James Bernazzani, the FBI's special agent in charge in the region: "We would be naive to think that this being perhaps the largest construction boom for a region for a long, long time, we're talking eight to 10 years, that they might not try to take advantage of the situation."
The officers have also been turned into part-time psychologists as they deal with the 5,000 or so residents who did not leave the parish. There was recently a standoff with a man who threatened to shoot himself unless he spoke to a FEMA representative and another in which someone chained himself to a trailer. There have been five suicides since the storm, compared with one every other year before, they said. "I think that kind of thing will just increase as time goes on," Capt. Darlene Poche said, noting that a traffic stop can turn into an hour-long conversation. "Everybody wants to tell you their story."
Stretched thin, the department is ready to turn to private contractors to head off what it fears will be an increase in crime as construction in the parish booms and residents adjust to life in cramped trailers.