The thousands of people forced to leave their homes in New Orleans have created a dilemma for the cities that are taking them in – whether or not to do a background check on them.
Some victims may be on parole. Some may be wanted for crimes. Security screeners at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans confiscated dozens of handguns from evacuees boarding flights out of the city after it flooded.
With many people offering their homes as a refuge, communities are being forced to balance the need for information with the need to respect the dignity of those who have lost all they have.
Winston-Salem and Greensboro are taking different approaches to the issue.
Greensboro police will do everything they can to check the criminal background of anyone arriving in the city from New Orleans, said Brian James, a police lieutenant who works in the chief’s office.
“If we do in fact get a plane in of people, we would take some precautionary measures, to the best of our ability, to make sure that no one who is currently wanted by law-enforcement is actually released,” he said yesterday. “Are we going to fingerprint everybody who gets off the plane? No, we’re not going to do that.”
Winston-Salem, which already has people from New Orleans staying in the city, is not doing background checks, though City Manager Bill Stuart said it was a “valid concern.”
Forsyth County’s director of emergency management, Mel Sadler, said, however, that he did not believe background checks were needed.
“What are we going to do? Send them back?” Sadler said. “This is a humanitarian mission.”
Other cities face the same dilemma.
More than 400 hurricane victims now living at the convention center in El Paso, Texas, will not be subject to a background check, the El Paso Times reported this week.
“There is no need to run criminal background checks unless a police issue arises,” an assistant police chief in El Paso told the newspaper. “We don’t do warrant checks of other people who come into the city through Greyhound or the airlines.”
Winston-Salem Police Chief Pat Norris said she, too, sees no need for background checks.
“These people aren’t under arrest and we can’t treat them like arrestees,” she said. “We’re just there to provide safety in the event people open up a shelter.”
The American Red Cross is helping with relief efforts. In Winston-Salem, the executive director of the local chapter said the Red Cross does not screen people needing help because it would be discriminatory.
“It goes against our mission,” said Marcia Cole, the executive director.
In Greensboro, officials said they realize it is difficult to keep track of who’s coming to the city.
“Some people will not have any kind of identification with them, because they’ve lost everything,” James said. “And in a case like that, for the most part, we would be relying on them telling us who they are.”
The city wants a list of evacuees who arrive, he said, in case they are presumed dead and have relatives in other states trying to find them.
Sharon Warren Cook, an assistant professor of social work at Winston-Salem State University, said a background check is not a bad idea in order to ensure the safety of both someone providing shelter to evacuees, and for the evacuees themselves.
It appears distasteful, she said, “but I do believe there might be some legitimacy in that.”
If people from New Orleans are going to move into someone’s home with them, she suggested that a background check be done on everyone.
“A nice way to do it would be to make sure that everybody in the relationship would agree to a background check before they were placed,” she said. “From a health and safety and mental health standpoint, we just need to know who we’re dealing with so we can make the best match.”
Patrick Wilson writes for Media General’s Winston-Salem Journal. Journal reporters Bertrand M. Gutierrez and Les Gura contributed to this story.