New Orleans Police Seek to Regroup

The New Orleans Police Department was eroded by Hurricane Katrina. Some officers quit and many lost their homes. The force also lost much of its equipment. But many police stayed on the job. Now the recovery begins.

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Weathering Hurricane Katrina and Rita has been an exhausting balancing act for the New Orleans Police Department. There are more than 1,700 officers on the force. Nearly 80 percent of them have lost their homes when floodwaters inundated the city but still managed to save thousands of residents. Now the New Orleans Police patrol an empty and devastated city. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

It was early in the morning Thursday, when hundreds of police officers walked down a ramp, leaving their temporary home, a cruise ship docked on the Mississippi River. Due to the approaching Hurricane Rita, the ship was moving out of New Orleans for several days.

(Soundbite of ship's engine)

CORLEY: You know where you go from here?

Unidentified Man #1: No, ain't that something?

CORLEY: And it's just police leaving?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes.

CORLEY: Where many of the officers end up is at a hotel down the street. In their dark blue police T-shirts, they surround the desk sergeant who's taken over the hotel's bell stand. He shouts out names and gives the officers keys to their rooms.

Unidentified Man #3: Greg Hamilton! Greg Hamilton!

CORLEY: The hurricanes have made the search for temporary housing frustratingly commonplace. Superintendent Eddie Compass says it's not only been a job to find lodging for personnel but also for the department since Hurricane Katrina and the floodwaters that followed severely damaged a number of police buildings.

Chief EDDIE COMPASS (Superintendent, New Orleans Police Department): Well, one of the main challenges we have is to find some type of physical structure so we can come back and have a semblance of a police department whereas we're gonna have to have some type of central location, some type of headquarters where we can be housed at or you go on a day-to-day basis, you know, day-to-day working basis as a police department.

CORLEY: The department also lost half of its vehicle fleet--600 to 700 cars. Other police agencies and the military have helped the department survive. The Louisiana State Police and Delaware donated vehicles. The National Guard and officers from other towns helped conduct search-and-rescue missions. The department's new command central is housed at the elegant Royal Sonesta Hotel on the French Quarter. The crystal chandeliers in the hallway, a stark contrast to the Quarter's debris-filled streets. Captain Marlon Defillo sits at a table. The police department spokesman lost his home in the flood, but his blue uniform looks crisp and freshly pressed.

Captain MARLON DEFILLO (New Orleans Police Department): A lot of the uniforms are donated, so we have uniforms from around the country. We have military fatigues. I just got this yesterday, what I'm wearing today. And prior to that, I was wearing Army fatigues and a T-shirt. So we're starting to try to get everyone in similar uniform.

CORLEY: It is an effort to return to normalcy. In many ways, the department has. There's roll call and regular street patrols of the evacuated town. However, there have been some problems. Hundreds of officers didn't show up for work for days after the hurricane; some resigned, others face hearings. There have even been charges of officers looting vacant homes. Superintendent Compass says in many instances, the police were simply recovering stolen property.

Chief COMPASS: If we find in any of our officers any violations and any type of proof that these acts did take place, they will be punished.

CORLEY: The chairman of the New Orleans Police Foundation has only praise for the police. John Casbon says many of the officers have lost everything and still remain on the job. He wants to make sure the police force remains intact and that officers receive the financial help they need to care for themselves and their families.

Mr. JOHN CASBON (Chairman, New Orleans Police Foundation): We've got to rebuild. The New Orleans Police Foundation for 10 years, a decade, has been dedicated to making sure that the police officers had everything they needed. And even though budgets are supposed to do that, they just don't. They always fall short.

CORLEY: And now New Orleans is a city on lockdown without a revenue base. The foundation is looking to raise money, $10 million, from private donations and corporations for police and other groups. It will be a morale booster for a department that has struggled through the city's catastrophic disaster and a boon to many of the police officers who say they are just now beginning to think about rebuilding their own lives. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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