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Red Tape Keeps Capitol Cops From La.

With local resources overwhelmed by the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina and with aid efforts from normal channels not coming in fast enough, St. Charles Parish (La.) Sheriff Greg Champagne sent out a call for help last week through the Fraternal Order of Police.

The 321,000-member labor union picked up the SOS late last week and quickly began coordinating efforts Friday to send volunteer officers — including some from the Capitol Police — to the New Orleans area.

But despite the vast resources that sit at the fingertips of federal police agencies such as the Capitol Police, the process of actually getting officers down to the Gulf Coast has been frustratingly slow, according to local police labor leaders.

“I have no idea when it’s going to start. I was told we were sending people down there early this week,” said Capitol Police Labor Committee Chairman Andy Maybo, an officer in the force’s K-9 division. “We’re absolutely without a doubt frustrated. … It’s frustrating to hear how much heartache is going on down there and we’re stuck here, especially with all the manpower and resources we have from a search-and-rescue standpoint.”

According to one House Republican aide, about 15 officers would probably make up the team that would be sent to the Gulf Coast, but Capitol Police spokesman Michael Lauer could not say Tuesday how soon or even if the department would be dispatching officers.

“The department is still working with the committees on the release effort request. As police officers we would always like to help when we can,” Lauer said.

The problem for federal police agencies, according to Lou Cannon, president of the FOP lodge of Washington, D.C., is that “managers within the federal government are stuck in the old mode of ‘We need a memo to do this.’ Down there, the way business is getting conducted is an officer may go into a store and hand the owner a business card and say, ‘We need this now. You will get paid back, but we need to take care of this now.’”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Capitol Police officials and Congressional administrators were still waiting for an official request for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as a plan that would outline how those officers would be used, the House Republican aide said.

“We share their frustration, but you can’t go down there without a plan,” the aide said.

“From our end in the Senate we’ve authorized it, the Senate has signed off on everything,” said Amy Call, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “Sen. Frist is very anxious to get the officers down there.”

Cannon discussed the efforts Tuesday while on his way back from seeing the destruction in the Gulf Coast first hand. Over the weekend, he and several local officers drove a van full of supplies gathered from an impromptu FOP lodge donation drive to St. Charles Parish. He said that other local officers were already waiting for his supply convoy to return to D.C. so they could load it with more donations and head back to Louisiana.

Cannon said that state police agencies seem to be doing a much better job than the federal government in coordinating volunteer efforts.

“Your municipalities have certainly worked it out and gotten it done. The federal government needs to do the same,” he said.

Cannon said FEMA “is supposed to be handling the coordination of resources and overseeing this operation. Here you have a number of federal law enforcement agencies who want to help and FEMA keeps referring these agencies to work through their local FEMA groups. Well, a federal agency doesn’t have a local FEMA group.”

On Tuesday, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) held a joint press conference to introduce legislation to restore FEMA to Cabinet-level rank and establish it once again as an independent agency. They want to “ensure that [FEMA’s] primary focus is on preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation issues,” Mikulski said.

“The people of the Gulf Coast have been doubly victimized. First by Hurricane Katrina, then by their own government,” Mikulski added. “Frankly, the response of the government has itself been a disaster that has cost too many lives and resulted in too many tragedies.”

And while President Bush has said he wants federal agencies to cut through the red tape in getting resources to the Gulf Coast, Cannon said not enough is being done by federal administrators.

“We’ve seen managers worried about justifications and getting the numbers right instead of just dispatching them,” he added. “I can tell you, they don’t care who comes down to help, they just want help. They’re asking for able bodies, for anyone who can get down there. … The federal government has much more resources, such as the Capitol Police, that can go down there, and Congress should be doing everything in the world to get resources down there now, including their own resources.”