NEW ORLEANS – Nearly 250 police officers — roughly 15 percent of the force — could face a special tribunal because they left their posts without permission during Hurricane Katrina (search) and the storm's chaotic aftermath, the police chief said.
Police Superintendent Eddie Compass (search) plans to assemble a tribunal of four of his assistant chiefs to hear each case and sort the outright deserters from those with a legitimate reason for not showing up for work.
In all, 249 officers were found to have been absent without permission, he said in an interview published Tuesday in The Times-Picayune.
"We have a penalty schedule for each violation, and when that process takes place, individuals will have the right to appeal the decisions made by the bureau chiefs," Compass said adding that "the final decision and recommendation will be by me as superintendent of police."
Mayor Ray Nagin (search) said the city attorney's office will review Compass' plan to ensure that it falls within civil service regulations. Compass did not say how many of the 249 officers are asking to return. The department has about 1,700 officers.
Lt. David Benelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans (search), the union for rank-and-file officers, said true deserters should be fired.
"For those who left because of cowardice, they don't need to be here," Benelli told the paper. "If you're a deserter and you deserted your post for no other reason than you were scared, then you left the department and I don't see any need for you to come back."
But Benelli said he believes only a small fraction of the officers will wind up being deserters.
"We know there were people who flat-out deserted," he said. "But we also know there were officers who had to make critical decisions about what to do with their families."
Telephone calls from The Associated Press to the police department, the mayor's office and the police union were not immediately returned on Tuesday.
At a news conference Sept. 5, Deputy Police Superintendent Warren Riley had said between 400 and 500 officers on the 1,600-member police force were unaccounted for.
Some lost their homes and some are looking for their families.
"Some simply left because they said they could not deal with the catastrophe," Riley said.
Tuesday marked the second day of the official reopening of New Orleans, which had been pushed back last week when Hurricane Rita (search) threatened. Nagin welcomed residents back to the Algiers neighborhood on Monday, but imposed a curfew and warned of limited services.
Many residents came home far ahead of his timeline, slipping past security checkpoints. "Because of my connection to this city, I could never just stay away," said Denise Taylor.
Taylor and her husband grew tired of wandering after Katrina, so they loaded their SUV with generators, bottled water and Ramen noodles. On Sunday, they evaded police and moved into the French Quarter building that the family has owned for a century.
A steady line of cars waited 20 to 25 minutes Monday to get through police checkpoints into the neighborhood of 57,000 people, which largely escaped Katrina's destruction, said police spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo. Defillo had no estimate of how many people had returned.
At a Texaco station in Algiers, owner Mohammed Mehmood found damage both from the storm and from looting. His gas pumps were vandalized, his computers did not work and his ceiling was about to collapse.
"I have immediate problems," he said. "I have no money. They broke and stole everything."
Only scattered handfuls of people even bothered to return to neighboring St. Bernard Parish (search).
They came to salvage what they could from homes where the waters from Hurricane Katrina topped the attics, where mold is blooming on the walls and toxic sludge covers the floors. Many said they wouldn't be back, not after the double blow of Katrina and Rita, which reflooded parts of the parish.
"There's just too much devastation," said Dionne Thiel, who wept in the middle of her block. "There's no way we could rebuild all this."
Marlene Costanza (search), 72, climbed in the front window of her shattered home, but could save only a teapot her parents got as a gift for their 50th wedding anniversary, the date embossed in gold.
"My daddy's tree stayed up — I didn't expect that," she said, gesturing at a sweeping live oak. "My daddy planted that oak from an acorn when we moved in, in 1967."
Nagin also invited business owners in the central business district, the French Quarter (search) and the Uptown section to inspect their property and clean up. But he gave no timetable for reopening those parts of the city to residents.
Katrina's death toll for Louisiana stood at 841. Police and federal workers planned to complete a second sweep of the city's homes within a couple of days.
"We've searched every place once, so the likelihood of finding a body now is not very good," said group supervisor Richard Deir.
Power has been restored to portions of New Orleans, including Algiers, the French Quarter and the Central Business District, said Entergy Corp. spokesman Chanel Lagarde. The utility planned to restore power to parts of Uptown on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, pumps were draining water from the Ninth Ward, an area reflooded by during Hurricane Rita. The water receded to 2 to 4 feet in the neighborhood by Tuesday, said Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Also on Monday, the corps began removing temporary barriers from the mouths of two other canals where levees were breached during Hurricane Katrina. The barriers protected the levee repairs from Hurricane Rita's storm surge, but prevented the city from pumping rainwater out into Lake Ponchartrain.