After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, federal officials flew Brian Murph and more than 100 other victims to Rhode Island. They were greeted by the governor and cheered by residents.
Then the handcuffs were placed on Murph.
State police did criminal background checks on every evacuee and found that more than half had a criminal arrest record — a third for felonies. Murph was the only one with an outstanding arrest warrant, for larceny and other crimes.
Around the nation, state and local authorities are checking hurricane survivors’ pasts as they are welcomed into homes, schools, houses of worship and housing projects. In some states, half the refugees have rap sheets.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Kyle Smith, deputy director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. “We don’t want to treat them like criminals after they have been traumatized, but we want to make sure they are in no danger nor the families they are housed with.”
Some detect bias in identity checks
Civil libertarians call the checks thinly veiled race and class discrimination against people who have suffered already. The checks, they say, are made on those evacuated or forced to seek help from charities or others — in other words, people who are often black and poor.
“I think it’s happening partly because of who these people are and where they came from,” said Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU. “The mere fact that people have past criminal records in and of itself doesn’t say anything about harm to the community.”
Some state and local governments screened just those refugees evacuated by the federal government. Others screened anyone placed in private homes — and screened the hosts as well.
In South Carolina, state police checked every evacuee flown there by the government. Of 547 people checked, 301 had criminal records, according to Robert Stewart, state Law Enforcement Division chief.
While most had been law-abiding for years or had committed minor offenses, the group included those convicted of rape or aggravated assault. Two had warrants but were not held because the states weren’t interested in extraditing them.
“This was all done for everyone’s protection,” Stewart said. “If you’re going to be sheltering people, it would be prudent for people taking them in to know what criminal pasts they might have.”
The state police in West Virginia said roughly half of the nearly 350 Katrina victims evacuated by the government to that state had criminal records, and 22 percent have a history of committing a violent crime.
In Massachusetts, where about 200 evacuees were flown to a military base on Cape Cod, criminal background checks turned up six sex offenders and one man wanted for rape in Louisiana. Two of the sex offenders have since left the state, said Katie Ford, a spokeswoman for the state public safety office. The rape suspect was being held on $250,000 bail.
In Tennessee, police checked every federal evacuee flown to Knoxville and found outstanding warrants for two people in Louisiana — but Louisiana did not want to extradite them.
In Texas, with more than 300,000 refugees, local officials have run 20,000 criminal background checks on evacuees, as well as the relief workers helping them and people who have opened up their homes.
Most of the checks have found little for police to be concerned about. Philadelphia police found no criminals as of the middle of last week, even though the local ACLU branch objected to the checks themselves.
Some states don't check at all
Several states with thousands of refugees aren’t checking criminal backgrounds at all. Missouri has no formal effort to check its 6,000 refugees. Neither has California, which reported about 3,800 refugees earlier this month, or Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan, which together took in several thousand evacuees.
In Middletown, a community just north of Newport, several evacuees shrugged at the prospect of background checks and said they understood the state’s desire to learn more about them.
“I would like to know if there’s any skeletons in the closet with my neighbors or the community,” said one refugee, 38-year-old Carmen Williams.