New Orleans Police Finding Recovery Slow and Painful

When the National Guard first rolled into town 10 months ago, New Orleans was descending into anarchy, a city besieged by high water, fires, looting and other lawlessness.

The Guard's return last week was far less dramatic, but it underscored a fact no one seems to question: Stressed-out, undermanned and under-equipped, the New Orleans Police Department, like the city it protects, is finding recovery slow and painful.

"Our city is terribly injured, and these officers drive through it and see it every day," said James Arey, who runs the department's SWAT negotiating team and has a doctorate in counseling. "I advise them to get out of town at least every three weekends. But many are still cleaning out houses, dealing with the damage."

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Since last week, those on duty are getting help from 300 National Guardsmen and 60 state police officers called in after the murder of five teenagers on a downtown street corner, the deadliest crime in New Orleans in a decade.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco sent in the military at Mayor Ray Nagin's request amid fears that the bloodletting would scare away tourists, residents and businesses at a critical moment in the city's recovery.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren J. Riley has insisted that crime is under control, and that the request for troops was made months ago to assist with the expected summer influx of thousands of evacuees.

"This was a case of trying to get ahead of what could be a developing situation," Riley said.

Over the winter, New Orleans easily could have been the nation's safest city — largely because it was deserted. Now, with roughly half the 465,000 pre-storm population back in town, crime is on the rise.

New Orleans had 56 homicides for the year as of Friday, far below the 134 killed in the first six months last year. But the number has increased sharply, with 38 murders in the past three months.

Riley said having the Guard patrol desolate, flooded-out sections of the city has allowed him to increase patrols in more populated neighborhoods like Central City, where the five teens were killed.

"Having the Guard on the street is never a bad thing," said John Batiste, a Central City resident who fondly remembers the Guard's first stint. "Criminals are not going to mess with them. They know the Guard has superior numbers and fire power."

A man found lying shot on a street Thursday in the Ninth Ward was the first murder since June 21, when the Guard and state police began their patrols. Six people have been shot during that period but they survived.

Still, Riley said early results from the beefed up security have been favorable: Last weekend, from Friday night through Monday morning, the department made three times as many arrests as usual.

"You're going to start seeing a significant difference," Riley said.

According to the FBI, much of the violence is the result of gang members fighting over shifting turf in the transformed city.

The police department is not exactly primed for battle: A force that had 1,750 officers before Katrina is now down to 1,375. Riley said the department is losing four to six officers a month. Some are moving because their houses were destroyed, others for better-paying jobs.

The cash-starved city has had to cut the police budget 19 percent from $124 million (euro98.97 million) in 2005 to $100 million (euro79.81 million) in 2006, nearly all of which pays salaries. Most of the 300 squad cars lost to the flooding have been replaced, but police are still short of supplies such as bullets for the SWAT team and bulletproof vests.

Headquarters is now a group of trailers, some without running water or bathrooms, in a muddy field. After Katrina, 80 percent of the ranks lost their homes and possessions. Many officers still live in trailers or hotels, and their families are scattered.

The department's image has taken a beating. During the desperate days during and after Katrina, more than 240 officers walked away from their jobs. Others were accused of taking part in the looting. And a retired teacher was beaten in the French Quarter by three officers last fall in an incident captured on videotape.

Officer Jonathan Carroll Jr., a 10-year veteran of the department, said he welcomes the Guard, but because of the stresses of the job and the uncertainties that surround New Orleans' revival, he has decided to leave the department in August.

"There are too many questions," said Carroll, who is giving up patrolling the French Quarter to sell firefighting equipment. "Nobody knows if the levees will hold, if the city will flood again."

The police superintendent, whose predecessor left under fire about a month after Katrina, is working to correct some of the myriad problems exposed by the storm. He has lined up more reliable radio systems, developed a strategy that calls for better protection of vehicles and equipment, and pressed for more water-rescue training.

"The hard lessons are the ones you never forget," Riley said. "We learned a lot."