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Houston looking for assistance in policing Katrina evacuees

Houston looking for assistance in policing Katrina evacuees

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HOUSTON - A spike in homicides and other violent crimes since an influx of more than 100,000 Louisiana hurricane evacuees has prompted Houston officials to ask the federal government to pay for a new $6.5 million police task force.

Houston Mayor Bill White is working on a formal written request and asked a FEMA official during a Dec. 15 meeting to consider the police reimbursements, White spokesman Patrick Trahan said Tuesday.

Don Jacks, FEMA's Texas director, said under federal guidelines FEMA normally only pays for emergency protective measures, such as police and fire overtime, for the first 72 hours of a disaster.

However, Jacks said FEMA would consider closely White's request to fund the police department's new Neighborhood Enforcement Team Taskforce.

"We are facing issues that we have never, ever faced before in the history of the agency," he said.

Houston police say the increase in violent crime and homicides cannot be solely attributed to hurricane evacuees, but much of the influx of crime is happening in two areas of the city with the heaviest concentration of apartment complexes.

Many who fled Katrina are living in apartments temporarily, but the complexes house local Houston residents as well.

"We have 100,000 to 150,000 new people in this city, and we cannot expect that influx of people to come with no problems," police spokeswoman Johanna Abad said. "We need to realize that we have our own criminals here. So we are not going to say it is either A, Katrina, or B, ours. It is just a combination of everything."

There have been 121 homicides in Houston since September, compared to 92 during the same period last year. There were 26 homicides in September both years, but the homicide rate climbed in October to 29 from 24 a year ago.

The increase escalated in November, to 32 from 22 a year ago, and again in December, with 34 so far compared to 20 last year.

Louisiana evacuees have been linked to at least eight homicides in Houston since September, police said. Katrina made landfall in late August.

If FEMA can't help Houston with increased police costs, Jacks said White could look to the state's emergency management office, consider a tax increase or go through state officials to request federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security or Department of Justice.

The sudden population increase combined with the retirement of hundreds of Houston police officers over the past year has left the department in need of funding to get more officers on the street, spokesman Alvin Wright said.

Wright said the goal is for police working on overtime to target the areas where there have been crime increases and "make sure the criminal element understands they are not going to go in and roost in these areas and victimize the people who live there."

The new task force plans warrant sweeps to arrest those wanted for misdemeanors or felonies and to focus officers on curbing fights, disturbances, burglaries, thefts, assaults, robberies and gang activity.

Additionally, the task force will expand its undercover operations, speed follow-up criminal investigations and increase foot, bike and auto patrols.

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