Securing a crime solve rate last year of 51.3 percent, twice as high as the national average, Sheriff Jack Strain said momentum is on his side for the new year as he prepares for national funding fights and construction of two new $10 million facilities.
And as he touches on other issues such as mental health and St. Tammany’s growing tax base, one thing is evident: “The future of this parish is bright with the talent we have with this agency,” he said. “I have no concerns whether I’m here or not, the Sheriff’s Office will succeed.”
On Tuesday, as President-elect Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s 44th president, Strain said perhaps his office’s hardest challenge of the new year is understanding Obama’s approach to local funding.
Over the years, the Sheriff’s Office has earned thousands, if not millions, in federal monies to pad programs such as its domestic violence division. But like President George W. Bush differed from President Bill Clinton, Obama’s funding faucet is likely to trickle down different.
Clinton for example, “was easy,” Strain said, adding the two-term president offered a “whole new approach to local funding” that dedicated monies for domestic violence and other law enforcement programs. Bush however, removed direct local funding and made the money available through grants only, Strain said.
“There’s a lag time,” Strain said. “It takes a little time to transition the bureaucrats. It’s a challenge, but right now we have to learn the Obama mindset.”
To secure money Strain “must understand the philosophies of the president’s power,” but still it’s very “difficult” to navigate bureaucratic red tape, he said.
“My peers around the state are having to do the same thing we are doing,” he said. “It takes time.”
While Strain and his colleagues scramble to align themselves as funding recipient frontrunners, he’s also hopeful to secure some of that money to design and construct a new state-of-the-art, $10-million crime lab.
Unlike the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Crime lab, being constructed after a voter-approved sales tax in November 2004, Strain’s lab will focus much more on ballistic testing, fingerprint tracings, drug testing, blood splatter analysis and crime scene video programming.
By contrast, the coroner’s lab, Strain said, focuses primarily on cause of death, DNA analysis and identification of bodies. The difference between the two would be an investigative lab versus a forensic lab, he said.
“This lab has to be done,” Strain said. “We’re only scratching the surface of the new technology in this field … The best police work in world doesn’t mean a damn unless we get convictions in court.”
While Strain already operates a crime lab located behind the parish jail in Covington, Strain said its physical structure, a converted maintenance barn, is lacking in state benchmarks.
“That building will not last,” Strain said. “It would be negligent to not start working on a new one now.”
But Strain, who recognizes the nation’s financial distress, said he’s committed to building the lab without asking for new taxes. He hopes to convince Gov. Bobby Jindals’ administration to dedicate the money in its capital outlay budget.
“This building is in our future,” he said. “We will find a way.”
For now, with no officials blueprints drawn, Strain said the proposed crime lab would likely be anchored behind a new Sheriff’s Office complex in Slidell.
That roughly 40,000-square-foot facility, expected to open in late January of early February, is an eight-acre building, built on 40 acres of land on Brownswitch Road in Slidell.
Funded through a windfall of excess sales tax in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the $11 million facility is the first time since “1812 this Sheriff’s Office has stock in the ground,” meaning the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office has never operated its own stand-alone facility. The office currently has administration offices in Covington inside the larger scale justice center and in Slidell, where space is leased from parish government.
The new facility, built, funded and operated entire within the Sheriff’s Office budget, will house about 200 to 250 employees from Sheriff’s Office divisions already stationed in Slidell but scattered throughout various areas. Those divisions include traffic, payroll, internal affairs, domestic violence, investigations, human resources, juvenile, finance and more.
He called the new complex a “heartbeat of this parish,” where “$12 million worth of servers and computer brains” are located in offices that also collect and distribute sales and property taxes that fund every tax collecting body in the parish.