They are worlds apart; in fact, it’s a 2.5-hour drive and a 15-minute boat ride from the white-shirted commanders of the New Orleans Police Department meeting at 118 City Park Ave., to the oil-injured brown pelicans struggling to fly at Queen Bess Island off Grand Isle.
“[The island] is the worst-hit area in the state in terms of wildlife,” state wildlife biologist Michael R. Carloss says, surveying the rookery from the bow of a small boat bobbing in the Barataria Bay on a warm June morning. “We don’t know about marine life yet because we don’t know how much of the oil is underwater.”
The job of protecting the once-again endangered pelicans falls to state and federal fish and wildlife authorities, and to British Petroleum – the oil company allegedly responsible for the broken wellhead polluting the Gulf of Mexico.
However, the NOPD’s “CompStat” (computerized statistics) crime management program could serve as a model of public accountability for the oil disaster responders – including the U.S. Attorney General who pledges to enforce the federal laws that provide penalties for injury and death to wildlife and bird species.
Ideally, NOPD’s CompStat meetings are designed to bring together top cops to strategize over improving public safety by producing accurate and timely data; effective tactics; rapid deployment of officers and assets; decentralized decision making; and rigorous follow-up.
BP and the U.S. Coast Guard generate plenty of daily data posted to a joint website (www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/go/site/2931), such as totals of “visibly oiled” birds found dead or alive.
However, Louisiana officials and aggressive reporters have pointed out various problems with the “unified command’s” oil-fighting strategy, tactics and the oft-delayed deployment of resources, such as oil-skimming vessels. NOPD’s CompStat might be a remedy.
Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf, a frequent critic of the NOPD, agrees. “The analytic principles of CompStat are applicable to mapping the devastation of the oil spill, especially as it affects various kinds of wildlife,” Scharf says.
Information can be uploaded into a data map, which can then be updated and analyzed, just as crime data is treated by NOPD commanders in the CompStat process, Scharf says.
“I don’t see why it wouldn’t work [for oil disaster responders],” NOPD public affairs commander Robert Young says. “All CompStat is, is a method to hold supervisors accountable for their particular area.”
CompStat wouldn’t track Louisiana’s oil-threatened pelicans. However the process “would extend to the persons responsible for the pelicans,” the NOPD spokesman said. Specifically, Young said CompStat would help the public – including environmentalists and wildlife groups – to monitor federal and state wildlife agents assigned to specific spill areas of Louisiana’s coast.
Moreover, Police Chief Ronal Serpas recently opened all CompStat strategy meetings to the news media and the general public. That kind of transparency may be crossing the Rubicon for BP and the Coast Guard. The alternative may be worse, however. Does the unified command want a reputation for being less transparent than the New Orleans Police Department?
The irony of a chronically troubled police department extending a helping hand to the federal government is inescapable – considering NOPD’s scandalous history and deep vetting by federal prosecutors. “Rarely has the NOPD been a knowledge exporter,” Scharf says of the oil disaster. “But in this case, the CompStat approach can be invaluable to tracking and analyzing the impact of the oil spill.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Chief Serpas face a computerized city map during the NOPD’s first department-wide CompStat meeting in early June. Schools are closing for summer vacation. Juvenile curfew enforcement is a key meeting topic.
Sgt. Timothy Morris, commander of the juvenile division, reports a “two-thirds drop in injuries to children” when the city curfew ordinance is enforced. “Are there any programs where we’re working with the community to help families [of truants]?” Chief Serpas asks.
“Yes, Chief,” someone replies.
A physician spearheads a counseling effort for truants. She is invited to the next CompStat meeting.
Sex Crimes Commander Capt. Gwendolyn Norwood files the next CompStat report. There are 618 registered sex offenders in Orleans Parish, with arrest warrants pending for 138, she says. “How many of those are child predators?” Serpas asks; “Two,” Norwood replies.
Maj. Gary Gremillion, commander of the NOPD homicide divison, says his detectives are working about 200 murders, not including an estimated 2,200 to 2,400 “cold” cases. Serpas orders a search for federal grants to help move the old cases.
After awhile, the statistical recitations becomes a familiar drone – like BP officials tallying barrels of oily wastewater “captured,” flared, skimmed or hauled away.
CompStat isn’t without flaws. The Baltimore police department recently suspended CompStat amid complaints that the meetings were becoming “stale.” Complaints of statistical manipulation and browbeating have dogged CompStat since the New York Police Department pioneered the strategy in 1999.
Serpas’ “open” CompStat effort may not restore local trust in NOPD anytime soon, but capturing the public’s imagination is a good start. Showing how NOPD puts “cops on dots” may stimulate fresh thinking among oil spill responders trying to plan more efficient rescues of oiled birds (“dots on ducks”) and deployments of skimming vessels (“dots on docks”).
On June 3, Michael Brune, national director of the Sierra Club, sits dejected at a Venice, La. marina. He and three boatloads of environmentalists have just returned from oil-scarred Barataria Bay.
“We saw a couple of brown pelicans drenched in oil (and a dolphin) unable to lift themselves out of the water,” Brune says. Someone called the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service but no help arrived in short order, Brune says, deploring an apparent lack of wildlife capture experts, despite the surging oil spill.
It turns out, emergency responders from the tiny federal agency were busy on a rescue mission nearby that day. USF&W reported taking 60 oiled birds – including 41 pelicans “coated with oil” – from Queen Bess Island to a wildlife rehabilitation center near Venice, La.
It was the first mass bird rescue since the spill began with a deadly rig explosion April 20 that left 11 men dead.
On June 5, two days later, a wildlife rescue boat slips past an oil-stained orange boom at Queen Bess Island. A pirogue glides toward the mangrove and a heavily oiled pelican floundering in near the island shore. A lone boatman, blue-gloved and dressed in a white oil decontamination suit, scoops the wounded bird into a net. It is then placed in a pet kennel.
A helicopter hovers nearby, carrying “hot-shot” biologists looking for the leading edge of the oil slick and helping to direct boat crews toward other heavily oiled birds below.
Wildlife “capture specialist” Rebecca Dmytrk awaits the oiled birds at the Grand Isle marina. Cleaning an oiled pelican can take four trained specialists 45 minutes, Dmytrk says. “Stress can kill wildlife; people need to know we’re not dealing with dogs and cats here.”
By noon, only five oiled birds are crated up for rescue; down from 34 at the same time yesterday; and 59 the previous day – a sign of improvement, says state biologist Carloss.
One month later, however, the USF&W number of “visibly oiled” birds collected alive in Louisiana has soared to 2,167, during a three-day period ending July 5. The USF&W figure doesn’t include another 758 oiled birds found dead.
Dozens of brown pelicans may die from oil-related drownings, ingestion or exposure by Aug. 29, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans police aren’t expected to stop the oil disaster. However, it would be a shame if those responsible didn’t consider the tool that NOPD so freely offers to share with others.