Monday, March 13, 2006
Search thy neighbor
Who's your neighbor? Do many of us really know much more than "Hi, how are ya?" about the people next door?

Well, Steve Prator, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, has made it his mission to get to know some of his new neighbors. He's trying to do background checks on hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in his jurisdiction -- the area around Shreveport, Louisiana, about a five hour drive from New Orleans.

But Sheriff Prator is infuriated that FEMA refuses to release the names, social security numbers and dates of birth on the evacuees who are getting FEMA funds to stay in Shreveport-area hotels and shelters. We talked to him about this issue for the show.

The sheriff is convinced that a lot of the evacuees are criminals. To back up his claim, he points to 33 evacuee names he got from an informant. The sheriff ran background checks on those evacuees, all of whom are in the Shreveport area, and found they all had criminal records and a combined total of 340 prior arrests.FEMA maintains that federal privacy law prevents the agency from releasing any personal information about evacuees to law enforcement.

But Sheriff Prator points out that people in federally funded public housing developments have to go through background checks, and he doesn't see why it should be any different for evacuees living in FEMA-paid hotel rooms and shelters.
Posted By Susan Roesgen, CNN Correspondent: 10:24 AM ET
  53 Comments
These people are just trying to get by, and don't need to jump through more hoops. I'm glad that FEMA isn't releasing information to this person. It's got to be embarrassing enough to have to rely on FEMA to live without Sheriff Prator using it to 'check you out'.

And one might ask what the informant's payoff was for those names. An informant's motives can't be completely above-boards, either. What is the informant getting out of it?
Posted By Anonymous Lisa G, CA : 10:45 AM ET
Good for Sheriff Prator. I live in Shreveport, and I want my community to be many things. 1. Safe for everyone. 2. A home for refugees from Katrina. (Notice I used refugee, look up the word refuge before you criticize me.) He is trying to do the Job he was elected to do.
Posted By Anonymous Robert Baker, Shreveport Louisiana. : 10:47 AM ET
Past behavior should not be used in some new and improved form of profiling.
Posted By Anonymous Steve ,Orlando,FLA : 10:48 AM ET
I agree, to a point, if this situation was just a person looking for housing based on normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. I think he needs to be reminded about what happended last year and that what he's doing can be look at a harassment. This just shows you that all public officials don't try to see the big picture, but just the screen saver.
Posted By Anonymous Jo, Stone Mountain GA : 10:57 AM ET
Were any crimes committed? If not, then the sheriff should mind his own business and pursue criminals instead of going on a fishing expedition for people with a criminal record who have done nothing wrong. The fact that someone has a record doesn't automatically qualify them for persecution by the local sheriff.
Posted By Anonymous Harry Fisher, Los Angeles, CA : 11:00 AM ET
Now that his informant filled him in, will the sheriff evict his new residents? Is that right? Have any committed crimes since being in Shreveport, and even if one evacuee committed a crime, would that be cause enough to remove all the others? After last year's tragedy, many people are trying to turn over a new leaf.
Posted By Anonymous Malik, Brooklyn, NY : 11:06 AM ET
We are checked for employment reasons, and I can certainly understand why we MUST have background checks for Katrina evacuees. Ninth ward was its own little criminal hotbed, and no one dared bother it. We don't need or want these people in our towns. I can still remember see the New Orleans evacuee from the Ninth Ward refusing to enter the Astrodome, because she said "you just don't know what kind of people are in there, just how bad they are". Well, she was right, but we do know now.
Posted By Anonymous Waynette Seamans, Chester, TX : 11:06 AM ET
I'm not sure I understand what FEMA funding has to do with a person's criminal history. Are those with a criminal background excluded from federal disaster funding? The judicial system deal with crime and let FEMA do their job. One has nothing to do with the other.
Posted By Anonymous Tim, Compton, CA : 11:06 AM ET
So now people are guilty until proven innocent, or in this case, "guilty by association." Just because these people are "evacuees," they are presumed to be crimnals with no cause?

What this sheriff is so outrageous it's almost laughable. The tell-tale sign that what this sheriff is doing is borderline harassment is the fact that if these people were being arrested for crimes, the sheriff would automatically be entitled to criminal histories. The fact that he CAN'T just do a check means that these folks aren't breaking the law or being arrested. As if these people haven't been through enough, now this. So much for "compassion."

Welcome to the new America. The rules have changed. First the Patriot Act and now this. It's open-season on the privacy of Americans. Today it's "them," tomorrow it'll be you.
Posted By Anonymous Tracy, Bloomington, IN : 11:09 AM ET
Just out of curiosity, is anyone else in this country subject to such scrutiny when they move (be it forced or otherwise)?
Posted By Anonymous John Dawson, San Jose, CA : 11:12 AM ET
thank god for nosy neighbors...seems like fema needs a MAJOR overhaul, top to bottom. sheriff prator is doing his job, which is protecting and serving. when's fema going to start?
Posted By Anonymous elizabeth, hutchinson ks : 11:14 AM ET
I agree with the Sheriff, there has to be some kind of order when it comes to hundreds of people coming into town. I think that FEMA should supply the names and the sheriff should be able to see if any of the people are wanted on warrents. The hurricane should not be a used as a free pass for criminals.
Posted By Anonymous J.W. Fort Lauderdale, FL : 11:15 AM ET
Good to see a local Sheriff that cares about the safty of the community he serves. Sorry but based upon the criminal data I've seen reported elsewhere in the press I'd be worried too! We had some "evacuees" here at a hotel. After the family left their two rooms it was founf they took the irons, the hair dryers, and two 30" plasma TVs.
Posted By Anonymous Jeff, Chicago, IL. : 11:17 AM ET
Susan,

I'm not sure if we should keep trying to figure out why FEMA does or doesn't do the things they do? It seems like such a waste of time. I agree with Sheriff Prator that he needs information in order to keep his community safe. I'm glad he isn't waiting on FEMA to give it to him. Good police work on his part.
Posted By Anonymous Cheryl Welch, Raleigh NC : 11:18 AM ET
Here's a story angle for CNN: Please interview indivduals whose room and board are paid by federal funds about their plans for getting a job.

Here's another story angle: Interview employers about their hiring experiences in the past six months. (I understand the jobless rate is near zero in the Gulf Coast.)

Please show viewers a story on people on the Gulf Coast who were on welfare but have decided to join the job market(oh wait, that's not DRAMATIC enough a news story, right?)
Posted By Anonymous Tina -Chicago IL : 11:20 AM ET
The Sheriff has every right to do this, here in Canada individuals seeking public housing must undergo strict background checks just to reach the waiting list, if FEMA is giving away free housing to criminals what does that say about the system?
Posted By Anonymous Ohm, Toronto, Ontario, Canada : 11:21 AM ET
I don't think FEMA should release the evacuees personal information, just so Sheriff Prator can investigate them. Sheriff Prator should understand that the evacuees are still American Citizens. Only when a crime is committed should a investigation begin.
Posted By Anonymous Darren, Atlanta, GA. : 11:23 AM ET
Sheriff Prator has every right as a law enforment officer to know the identity of someone in his jurisdiction. What if some of these individuals are registered sex offenders and they are now living near a school? What if there is an outstanding warrant for one of these people? You can't tell me all of these evacuees are law abiding citizens. He needs to know what he's up against.

As long as the evacuees are living off of the US government, there's no reason why the people who paid in the money (taxpayers) to house them shouldn't know who they are--especially when they come from the most crime-ridden city in the nation.

I am so glad I can sleep at night--my community did not take in any evacuees. If they had, I would have immediately applied for a gun permit.

Sheriff Prator wants to protect his community, which is what the taxpayers in his community expect of him--let him do his job.
Posted By Anonymous Penny, NW suburbs of Chicago IL : 11:25 AM ET
If you want FEMA money, any federal money, then you should be able to be checked. Katrina was a very bad thing that happened, BUT some people are turning it into a "profit". Those are people that do not deserve any money and should be penalized for doing it. Hearing that hotels costing over a $100 a night have been rented, people getting money that did not live in the area, that Louisana wants to blame the feds when you should start at the mayor, local government, state government, then go to the feds. We towns don't want the state telling us everything and the states don't want the feds telling them, BUT when something like this happens, .. let's blame the top people. Let's start at home! -- Let the sheriff help and tell him who is on the list. Start at home, and let them help themselves, .. like this sheriff wants to do!
Posted By Anonymous Valeria Barfield - Lewisburg, WV : 11:26 AM ET
This does seem pretty straightforward. If people in one type of federally funded public housing have to go through background checks then people in any other type of federally funded public housing (such as FEMA shelters and hotel rooms) should too. It will be really sad if it takes a violent, or even not so violent, crime by an unaccounted for criminal to make FEMA realize that.
Posted By Anonymous Jennifer, Durham NC : 11:29 AM ET
Hmmmm. So what will Sheriff Prator have to do? Get a court order so FEMA will release the necessary info? Why not spend MORE tax dollars on MORE illegals? Come on FEMA, show us you really CAN do something right. Give him what he needs.
Posted By Anonymous DE Columbus, IN : 11:34 AM ET
Unless someone is under suspicion of committing a crime, law enforcement authorities have no right to do background checks, or at least shouldn't have such a right.

Absent probable cause that someone has committed a crime, the sheriff of Caddo Parish ought to mind the public's business and leave otherwise law-abiding citizens alone.
Posted By Anonymous Carl W. Goss Los Angeles California : 11:35 AM ET
I completely agree with the sheriff... if they are not criminals, they should have nothing to hide! I am not a criminal, and I would have no problem with someone doing a background check on me... wish they would do one on everybody.
Posted By Anonymous Amy in Jackson, MS : 11:36 AM ET
Is there a way to force FEMA to provide information to law enforcement?
Criminals thrive after a disaster because they regain their anonymity and are free to operate without interference, and they have no social conscience. After Hurricane Andrew, we lived in an armed encampment because the government was unable to provide protection. But they were unable to help us because their offices were also decimated, not because government bureaucrats were withholding information!
Posted By Anonymous Shari, Gainesville,FL : 11:37 AM ET
Since when was having a criminal history in and of itself a crime? If they were arrested for those crimes, then they were handled the way all captured criminals are handled: through the justice system. If there is an outstanding warrant, then yes there is an issue, but some sherriff just can't go on a fishing expedition to hunt them down. That's sort of the same thing as pulling over every car on the freeway and running their licenses just because he's "convinced that one or more of them are criminals."
Posted By Anonymous Andrew, Miami, FL : 11:40 AM ET
Good for FEMA . It's about time the laws of the land ,are placed ahead of Sheriff Prator's ego. There are reasons we have the Federal Privacy Laws and Sheriff Prator is one.
Posted By Anonymous Michael , Genoa Wi. : 11:40 AM ET
I'd be interested to know what Sheriff Prator plans to do with this information if he gets it. Is he going to put 24-hour surveillance on anyone with a criminal background? Or would he like to have a list of "suspects" at the ready when any crimes are committed in Shreveport?

Sheriff Prator should have information on anyone who is required to register with local authorities, such as sex offenders. In all other cases, the sheriff needs to mind his own business.
Posted By Anonymous Susan, Houston TX : 11:41 AM ET
This and the many other things we're seeing in government (illegal wire tapping, The Supreme Court's ruling on eminent domain, and on and on) are just more examples of how we are becoming a FACIST state. Our "freedoms" are eroding daily. We need to overhaul our government and agencies at all levels. STOP the lying, STOP the hypocracy, STOP being FACISTS - this is the USA, the best country in the world - but it's quickly becoming just another oppresive state....
Posted By Anonymous D.G., Hagerstown, MD : 11:47 AM ET
It's not hurting anyone to check their criminal records. Effective law enforcement requires that the police know what criminals are where. To those concerned with privacy issues I have a simple answer: don't break the law and you have nothing to fear.
Posted By Anonymous J. Hughes, Miami, FL : 11:50 AM ET
What a sticky situation. The evacuees have the same rights as the rest of us. Since when did we become a communist state? Maybe he should call it a fight against terrorism, or national security. On the other hand my hypocracy hides only so far; I'm glad they aren't in my neighborhood.
Posted By Anonymous Cinzia McLeod Miami, FL : 11:51 AM ET
I wonder how many of these bleeding hearts would be willing to put some of these "evacuees" up in their homes or immediate neighborhoods? I find that this bleeding heart liberalism lasts only as long as it's someone else having to deal with the problems. I'd be willing to bet they would want some sort of background check before doing that. If you have nothing to hide than a simple background check shouldn't worry you. The stories abound of the "evacuees" ripping off places they've stayed at and the destruction they have wrought on unsuspecting hotels, motels, and other places that have put them up. These places don't deserve that kind of treatment, when their only "crime" was to take these people in. Granted they are being paid for this, but they still don't deserve to be trashed or ripped off. They local areas don't deserve to be trashed or looted either. Give this Sheriff the information he needs to protect his community or send the evacuees packing!
Posted By Anonymous Dave S. Corpus Christi, TX : 12:15 PM ET
I'm not sure i totally agree w/ the Sheriff's motives, but my concern as a mother, is the sex offenders that have not been accounted for since the hurricane, I think there has to be some way to identify and search to register these types of offenders, because they could be preying on our most innocent residents.
Posted By Anonymous Paula, Bella Vista,AR : 12:15 PM ET
Law enforecement officials have lost track of many of the criminals from the area that the hurricane hit. NPR reported not too long ago on a surge in crime rates in areas that victims fled to (not small percentage differences either). So if this sheriff is trying his best to do his job and locate those that have been MIA since the hurricane, then so be it. If he is tracking down those with outstanding prior convictions, or those who have not reported in yet to their parole officer, then yes he is doing his job. I don't agree with his actions if he's tracking down those who have paid their debt to society. This report is too vague to dictate what he is doing and for what reason he is doing it.
Posted By Anonymous Heather, Jax, fl. : 12:18 PM ET
Those of you posting comments along the lines of "if you aren't a criminal, then you have nothing to fear" are only able to say that because you aren't the people being investigated. It's a matter of privacy, and a demand for background checks smells of racial profiling.

If you're so concerned about your neighbors, perhaps you should consider a private community where you can be sure everyone fits your ideal of background, status, and ethnicity. I hear there's a new town in Florida that might suit you.
Posted By Anonymous Chad Trepanier, Milwaukee, WI : 12:21 PM ET
I can see why people would argue for either side of this story. On one hand it is important to protect people's liberties (something our country is not always very good at), but on the other hand, if these people were convicted of sex crimes, especially on children, then they do need to be registered to keep everyone safe. Yes, people change and yes, special circumstances call for special considerations, but we don't want Katrina to claim yet another victim, whether that be personal freedom or personal safety. Someone in that chaos that followed Katrina we need to find a balance so that everyone can begin their lives once again.
Posted By Anonymous Kimberly Miller, Lancaster, PA : 12:21 PM ET
I'm curious about what everybody's reaction will be if it turns out that one of those new members of the community turns out to be a child molester or repeat offender of another nature? By law, all such criminals must notify their local law enforcement agency when they move, but here in MA, we've had several refugees come from LA who were child sex offenders and who failed to register. They got caught when their records finally arrived here, sometimes several months later. Let the sheriff do his job, to make sure that everyone is safer.
Posted By Anonymous Sally, Peabody, MA : 12:27 PM ET
I agree with sheriff Prator. He's concerned about the backgrounds of hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in his jurisdiction. Criminals are habitually repeat offenders. I would expect any concerned citizen to support a proactive police department. If you don't have anything to hide then why should this concern you?
Posted By Anonymous Scott S, Wilmington, DE : 12:29 PM ET
What's really sad is that this guy said 30 something people. So people are going to sit here and judge hundreds of thousands of people affected by Katrina and say we don't deserve FEMA and we should have background checks? So I being a victim myself, should have to wait for some aid when at the time I had like 4 days worth of clothing? Are you serious? You can never understand what we went through unless you were there or had your life stripped from you. We had no control over what happened, and please believe that we would be just as pleased if it never happened. Not all of us are being assisted by FEMA, but I am college educated and had the resources to move on which many people in New Orleans did not. So please understand why "these people" need help. Just because someone has been arrested means that they should not receive help? How cruel of a statement to make! Not all of us are criminals, and since I'm attending law school I doubt I'm putting my legal career in jeopardy by coming to your neighborhood to rob you. Get it together people and have some compassion for your fellow AMERICANS!
Posted By Anonymous Nadia, Houston,TX : 12:35 PM ET
Of course these people need our sympathy and our help, but as in any community (whether you notice or not), the law enforcement knows where the "bad neighborhoods" are and recognizes those folks that come through their station pretty often. It is one thing for someone to move from one city to another and not have thier background checked in order to rent an apartment. It is another for masses of people with vast criminal records applying for federal assistance and not wanting their history for deception and criminal activity to follow them to their new home. Yes, we can give them leeway. No, we cannot overlook who they are because of what they have been through.
Posted By Anonymous Katie, Chapel Hill, NC : 12:38 PM ET
A check would also reveal last known address. This would help to ascertain whether or not they are actually eligible for Federal disaster relief funding - or if they are just being leaches on society.

BTW - at this point, they should be self-sustaining members of society, not in need of the government's help.
Posted By Anonymous DB Alameda, CA : 12:39 PM ET
The sheriff has the right idea.

If there was one pedophile, or one rapist, living in your town, wouldn't YOU want to know?

Before you start screaming about civil rights, please bear in mind that Louisiana, like so many other states, has its own database of sexual criminals. Many of those criminals from the New Orleans are can no longer be found. It would be hopelessly optimistic, and foolhardy, to assume they all died in the flood.

Personally, I wouldn't mind a background check if it meant they were looking to pinpoint a criminal element in a town.

The only ones who actually fear background checks are those who have something to hide.
Posted By Anonymous Donna LeBlanc, Lafayette, LA : 12:42 PM ET
As with most things, the answer is that it depends. He should be given the name of any one required to register as a sex offender, any one on parol and required to be in contact with a parol officer, and any one whose trial was pending at the time of the disaster. He should not be given the remaining names.
If, as I suspect, FEMA has no way to know who in the housing falls into these buckets, then the only recourse is to give him the whole list in order to prevent a child molestor being roomed next door to kids.
Then again, I can't imagine not having found a job and still living in Federal housing so long after the storm....
Posted By Anonymous Mike, Maple Heights OH : 12:42 PM ET
I agree 100%. I can't see what the difference is between Shreveport and Rapid City. I'm a Law Enforcement Officer in South Dakota and we were provided all vital information of the refugees (A person who is forced to leave their home due to natural disaster) when they arrived. We had some BAD apples who were placed in special housing units away from children and women. Did we keep a sharp eye on these 'special' people? You bet we did...
Posted By Anonymous Bill Foster, Rapid City, SD : 12:50 PM ET
I absolutely agree with the Sheriff. This is further example of FEMA mismanagement.
Posted By Anonymous D.Ebright, Grandview, MO : 12:50 PM ET
I appreciate that some of these "bad" hurricane victims are trying to "turn over a new leaf", as one reader commented. However, Katrina cannot be the free pass for those who have murdered, raped, stolen, etc, to foist themselves onto an unwitting community. Let them move in-- employ them, see that their needs are being met, ALONG WITH the needs of the community that has opened themselves to the evacuees. It is not an injustice for criminals to have to share that information-- it's a question on every job application I've ever seen. We force sexual offenders to declare themselves to their neighbors in the rest of America-- why not in Caddo? The sherriff has not done anything but try to ensure that the needs of ALL the residents, new and established, are being met.
Posted By Anonymous Vanessa, Anniston, AL : 12:53 PM ET
Poor Sheriff Prator... he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. If he does the background checks then he's violating somebody's rights; but if he doesn't and a crime is committed then his name will be at the top of the civil suit because he "didn't do more to protect his community." Of course I also notice that all the people speaking on behalf of the displaced evacuees don't have to deal with this issue since they have not been overrun. Just ask the folks in Houston if background checks could've helped matters down there.
Posted By Anonymous P. Anderson, Spangdahlem AB, Germany : 1:17 PM ET
I think many of you have jumped to the conclusion that Sheriff Prator is "fishing" for criminals simply to be nosy, that he's somehow part of the problem and not the solution. I don't see it that way and let me explain why. Quite frankly, I feel there must be a modicum of oversight if our government is to dole out checks to "victims," especially given the scope of the destruction and the subsequent chaos that ensued. Numerous cases of Katrina-related fraud have been documented thus far--unfortunately, at times facilitated by well-meaning staffers of relief agencies who neither have the time nor the power to police where this government assistance is going--so I don't think the sheriff's idea is too far off the mark. As a law enforcement officer myself, however, I'm afraid his efforts, however noble, are every bit as questionable as G.W. Bush's program of "domestic surveillance." With all of this said, let's give the sheriff the benefit of the doubt instead of forming a cynical knee-jerk reaction to his proposal. He's simply doing his best to serve the constituents and citizens of Caddo Parish and I suspect being "nosy," per se, has little to do with it.
Posted By Anonymous Robert, Rochester, MN : 1:18 PM ET
I think given the problems encountered since evacuees have moved into communities, that the sheriff is trying to protect his citizens from potential criminals who have passed beyond police oversight.
Posted By Anonymous M Pearson, Richardson, TX : 1:19 PM ET
I am not some right wing nut, I like to think that government should intrude in the life of citizens as little as possible. This is one of the instances where intrusion is warranted. When Katrina hit, we heard stories about the now missing Sexual Predators who are required by law to register any change of address. If the Sheriff of Caddo Parish finds any of those people in FEMA housing, he should arrest the non-cooperating FEMA officials for aiding & abetting.
Posted By Anonymous Dave Golterman, Plentywood, MT : 1:20 PM ET
I am really confused as to where the definition of refugee posted here is coming from. I'm looking it up in Webster's and it says: " One who flees, usually to another coutnry for refuge, especially from invasion, persecution, or opression." These are Americans they did not escape from a third world country- we are obligated to make sure that they are taken care of. If they've done something wrong in the past, served their time and are decent citizens-why should their privacy be invaded? If they're not caught in the comission of a crime-they should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Posted By Anonymous Ginny, Atlanta, GA : 1:26 PM ET
Good for the Sherriff. It's not just thieves, drunk drivers, folks who have been arrested for assault, etc. that have been displaced. They have hundreds of sex offenders unaccounted for, and ANYONE with kids should have no objection to what the Sherriff is trying to do.
Posted By Anonymous J.P., Dallas, TX : 1:30 PM ET
I know a lot of people will disagree, and this has been a subject of many discussions, but I feel that the government (federal, state, and municipal) has an obligation to the people to know what is going on within our borders at all times. It is in the best interest of our security. If you haven't done anything wrong, or don't have anything to hide, where is the problem. I believe the liberties of one person, or a small group is worth the safety and security of the masses.
Posted By Anonymous T.J. Milwaukee, WI : 1:42 PM ET
I'm sorry, but what does receiving FEMA aid have to do with having someone pry into your background? This is not about public housing qualification, it's about disaster relief. FEMA officials are following the law, not breaking it. Investigating hundreds of people because there might be a few with unsavory backgrounds is paranoia.

To the gentleman who thought that the intrusion on the liberties of one person is worth it for the security of the masses, I would then ask you to make you life an open book. Please, ask the sherriff to investigate your background, just because you moved into the neighborhood. This is NOT about bleeding heart liberalism, it's about conserving the very core values of our Constitution experssed in the Bill of Rights, the fundamental protections for all citizens.
Posted By Anonymous Carl DeFranco, Ava, N Y : 1:10 PM ET
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