SEARCH Focus Group Looks at Katrina Criminal History Checks


One of the more controversial developments following Hurricane Katrina—criminal record checks of evacuees, aid providers and others—was the topic of a focus group meeting convened by SEARCH and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, in Las Vegas, Nevada on Oct. 17-18.

The August 2005 hurricane, one of the most powerful ever to make landfall in the United States, forced more than 1.3 million Gulf Coast residents from their homes. Many of the displaced persons underwent criminal record background checks upon arrival at relocation sites.

Some complained that the checks unnecessarily traumatized individuals who were already devastated by the storm and its aftermath. Others charged that the checks unfairly targeted African American and poor evacuees. Law enforcement and other officials expressed frustration with the difficulty, and oftentimes the inability, to obtain identification information from various aid organizations for those who arrived in their communities.

The National Focus Group on Emergency Housing and Criminal Record Checks: The Hurricane Katrina Experience was assembled to examine if such checks were warranted under the circumstances and, if so, how the checks were conducted. The focus group also considered ways that the checks could be conducted fairly, effectively and completely should the need arise in the future.

Areas of concern identified by the focus group included the large number of evacuees who lacked identification documents, confusion over which criminal history databases and other information could be used for the checks and how such databases could be accessed legally, the inability of criminal justice agencies to access evacuee rosters maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and by private aid providers and shelter managers, and the cost associated with effectively processing large numbers of unanticipated evacuees.

The focus group discussed various possible solutions and different approaches to the areas of concern identified above. The group’s deliberations and supporting materials will be compiled in a draft document that the group will consider. Following that, subsequent focus group activities will be determined.

The focus group included the following members:
  • Lt. Frank Higginbotham, Focus Group Chair, Alabama Bureau of Investigation (SEARCH Member);
  • Capt. John Anderson, Houston Police Department;
  • Deputy Debra Burden, Fulton County (GA) Sheriff’s Office;
  • Mr. Chip Corcoran, Refugee Services of Texas;
  • Lt. Cora Gentry, Arkansas State Police;
  • Ms. Terry Gibbons, Georgia Bureau of Investigation;
  • Mr. Mike Lesko, Texas Department of Public Safety (SEARCH Member);
  • Chief Avery Morris, Alexander City (AL) Police Department;
  • Mr. Scott Phillips, FBI;
  • Mr. Charles Pruitt, Arkansas Crime Information Center (SEARCH Member);
  • Dr. Lonnie Randolph, NAACP;
  • Mr. David Sim, Kansas Bureau of Investigation (SEARCH Alternate Member)
  • Maj. Carlotta Stackhouse, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SEARCH Member); and
  • Ms. Vicky Tsaparas, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Also attending were SEARCH staff Mr. Owen Greenspan, Director, Law and Policy Program; Mr. Eric Johnson, Justice Information Services Specialist; and Mr. Kevin Romero, Research Analyst.

SEARCH Member Lt. Frank Higginbotham, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, chaired the focus group meeting on criminal history record check issues following Hurricane Katrina.

SEARCH Member Mr. Charles Pruitt (on left), Arkansas Crime Information Center, and Mr. Owen Greenspan, Director of Law and Policy Programs for SEARCH attended the focus group meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 17 and 18.