June 13, 2006
Police Struggles in New Orleans Raise Old Fears
By CHRISTOPHER DREW
NEW ORLEANS, June 9 — Within the Police Department here, the SWAT team is known as The Final Option. Before Hurricane Katrina, it was assigned to the city's worst crimes, and as residents return, it is once again kicking in the doors at the worst drug dens and engaging in shootouts with violent offenders.
But the team is also running dangerously low on firepower. Flooding ruined 300 of its guns, its bullet-resistant shields and the bulk of its ammunition, none of which have been replaced more than nine months after the hurricane. The 40-man team has had to borrow body armor from suburban forces, and the Police Department is lining up corporate sponsors to contribute more.
"I tell you what: we're hurting," said the team's commander, Capt. Jeffrey Winn.
The SWAT unit's difficulties reflect how far from normal many police operations remain here, as residents return and another hurricane season begins. Like the rest of the city, the police force is still struggling to recover from the calamity of Hurricane Katrina, which knocked out its headquarters, overwhelmed its ability to maintain control and prompted desertions that tarnished the force's reputation.
Now, as the department tries to fight its way back, sharp budget cuts — and a recent spike in drug-related killings in the city — are adding to fears that years of overhauls and modernization may be undone, and that New Orleans could return to its former notoriety as one of the nation's murder capitals.
There is also concern that the department's own notoriety could resurface. For some residents, the sense that the city is on edge and the department's future uncertain has brought echoes of the days when the local police were considered among the least competent and most racist and brutal in the nation.
"Given where they are mentally and emotionally, we've gotten more citizen complaints about the way the police are treating people than we have in a long time," said Oliver M. Thomas Jr., the City Council president. "Over the last two years, they'd been getting better and more professional. But I've been hearing lots of complaints about verbal abuse."
The blunt-talking new police superintendent, Warren J. Riley, insists he will not let the drug dealers and "gutter punks" take over again. Mr. Riley says many officers have not gotten the credit they deserve for "standing tall" during the storm, and he is determined to restore discipline and a sense of professionalism among the others. He has also formed an intelligence unit to track the most ruthless crime suspects and built strong ties with federal authorities to help catch them. But in other areas, problems abound.
More than 200 officers deserted during the storm and were fired or suspended. Many veteran officers retired, and some of the youngest officers quit and left town. As a result, the size of the force has dropped to about 1,400 officers on the street now, from nearly 1,700 before the hurricane. Recruiting replacements is difficult, partly because it is hard for candidates to find affordable housing, Mr. Riley said.
Because of the deterioration of the city's finances, he said, the department's budget has been slashed by 19 percent, from $124 million in 2005 to $100 million this year. It has received federal or state aid to replace many of the 300 patrol cars lost to flooding, buy new uniforms and restore its communications system. But it is awaiting federal assistance to replace other gear, like the SWAT team's weapons.
With the police headquarters still shuttered, Mr. Riley and his top commanders are working out of trailers. And while forensic experts are making progress in restoring many of the items from the flooded police evidence room, newly gathered evidence is being stored in rental trucks parked at what was once a motor-vehicle inspection station.
The storm has also left a lingering emotional toll. More than 80 percent of the officers lost their homes, and some have had to double up with other officers or move to distant suburbs to find housing they can afford on their salaries of $35,000 to $50,000. Many who were heroes in the storm, plucking victims out of the floodwaters, are also resentful that their actions were overshadowed by those who abandoned their posts.
And with many residents here under stress, the police say they are also receiving more back talk from people stopped for even minor violations. "Since the storm, you have a lot of displaced anger among many people, and it seems that police officers always get the brunt of that displaced anger," said Capt. Kevin B. Anderson, the police commander in the French Quarter.
But in the end, nearly everyone here realizes that what defines the Police Department is how well it handles crime, particularly in terms of the murder rate. Before the storm, the city averaged 250 to 300 murders a year, always placing it at, or near, the top spot in the nation on a per-capita basis. So far this year, there have been 45 murders — most of them in the last two months — compared with 114 at this time in 2005, when the city's population was at least twice what it is now.
Superintendent Riley — who was promoted from the department's No. 2 job after his more flamboyant predecessor, Edwin P. Compass III, resigned after criticism over the police response to the hurricane — appeared on radio talk shows recently to outline his crime-fighting plans. They include repeated raids in the poorer neighborhoods that have been resettled, where he said drug dealers who had lived in different parts of the city were converging and killing one another over turf.
The superintendent also urged residents to band together to demand a toughening of the city's criminal justice system, where jury trials resumed only recently. Drug dealers who evacuated to Houston are returning home because it is much easier here to avoid jail, Mr. Riley said, through the "revolving door" of the New Orleans court system.
The courts have long been criticized as relying on plea bargains and setting lenient bail. And since the hurricane, the public defender system has been so short of money and staffing that one judge, Arthur L. Hunter Jr., recently moved to let some people already in custody back onto the streets.
Mr. Riley said, for instance, that police officers were in a shootout last month with one man who had been roaming a deserted neighborhood while wearing an ankle bracelet. He was supposed to be under house arrest while awaiting trial on a burglary charge, but the authorities had apparently not responded to the bracelet monitoring system.
"Obviously, the murder risk factors are coming back," said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans, "and this creates incredible challenges." Whether a growing nervousness about the murder rate gives way again to a feeling of being under siege could end up determining if many people return home and tourists start coming back.
Captain Anderson, the French Quarter commander, said there had been only two murders there this year, along with several stabbings among construction workers carousing on Bourbon Street. He also said the SWAT team had been called in for undercover patrols after groups of youths had accosted people.
James F. Scott, the deputy police superintendent, said the department's intelligence bureau had focused on 112 drug dealers and murder suspects, and 30 had since been captured. Mr. Scott said some drug dealers who evacuated to Houston were killed in turf wars with gangs there, while others were now moving back and forth between the two cities, almost like commuters.
He added that federal prosecutors here were now bringing charges in smaller drug-sale and gun-possession cases to help get criminals off the street. "Since the storm, that is one of the most positive things that has happened to the Police Department," Mr. Scott said.
The department has also worked with the Louisiana National Guard to avoid a repeat of last year's disastrous storm response. Superintendent Riley said 3,000 troops could be in the city ahead of a storm, with high-water trucks and satellite communications gear positioned to assist each police district. There will also be more boats on hand for search-and-rescue operations.
Barring another disaster, Mr. Riley said, "Katrina has given us an opportunity to refocus our educational system, our economic system and our law-enforcement efforts, and change the culture of this city."
"If we're able to change it," he said, "that would give us a silver lining."