N.O. Paper Details Police Conduct in Storm

The Times Picayune runs an in-depth profile of what New Orleans police officers did in each district amid Katrina's chaos. Reporter Michael Perlstein tells Scott Simon what the paper learned.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Much of the focus on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans has been trained on the future: what it will take to rebuild, reclaim and renew. But questions still linger about what actually happened during and after the storm when the levees gave way and the city filled with water. Early reports had the city slipping into depravity and lawlessness. Then reports emerged to dispute that view. This week The Times-Picayune took a long view at the chaotic hours of the evacuation of the city through the lens of the New Orleans Police Department. Reporters Michael Perlstein and Trymaine Lee talked with police commanders and officers to determine when police helped and when they hurt the evacuation process. Michael Perlstein joins us from New Orleans.

Mr. Perlstein, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL PERLSTEIN (The Times-Picayune): Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And remind us again of the overall picture in the hours we're talking about when 70 percent, I guess, of the department had lost their homes. Police stations were filling with water. There were suicides.

Mr. PERLSTEIN: That's correct. The chaos began really even before the storm hit. The New Orleans Police Department was going to work closely with the Louisiana National Guard, and the game plan was to use National Guard boats and high-water vehicles. And so right off the bat, the first news that the New Orleans Police Department got was all of the rescue boats and high-water vehicles that they had on hand were ...(unintelligible).

SIMON: Now there have been so many reports about desertion, but I also want to give you a chance to talk about some of the officers who fulfilled their duties with honor and courage. Let's even use the word `heroes.'

Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah, and I think that certainly applies. Some were truly heroic, you know, pushed beyond anything they could imagine in any job description of being a police officer. One example is the narcotics unit. You know, normally these are guys who are serving search warrants, busting down doors, doing surveillance of drug dealers. And they commandeered boats. They launched into action, plucking people from the floodwaters. And just by virtue of making that sort of on-the-ground decision, they became the city's front line of boat rescue unit. They continued that for a month.

SIMON: The Second District, about 30 officers there reportedly walked off the job. This was the biggest desertion of apparently any police district. Why was this district hardest hit by that, would you venture?

Mr. PERLSTEIN: The Second District had a different style of commander, number one.

SIMON: Captain Hosli.

Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah. Young guy. Not the sort of, you know, military bearing type of commander. And probably the biggest factor there was he had a lot of younger officers. As the captain told me, at one point he realized half his officers were gone. Eventually, they trickled back in and, you know, he welcomed them back.

SIMON: Not a propitious time to start disciplining officers who'd left their post?

Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah. There was just too much to do to turn any officers away or begin disciplinary hearings. So the way that the department handled that was simply to put them on a list for, you know, disciplinary hearings later where all that would be sorted out, and it ended up being a total of 228 officers.

SIMON: Mr. Perlstein, I wonder were there people shooting at police officers in New Orleans?

Mr. PERLSTEIN: You know, a lot of the reports of gunmen all over the city, you know, blazing away at rescue workers and helicopters--and, frankly, we were out there on the ground, in the field and this wasn't happening. There were gunshots off in the distance that sometimes were misconstrued as gunfire, you know, aimed at helicopters.

SIMON: Could some people who had weapons have been firing them up in the air to try and alert people as to where they were?

Mr. PERLSTEIN: Absolutely. Many officers indicated that they were hearing gunshots, you know, deep within flooded neighborhoods. They interpreted it as, you know, people saying `Don't forget us, we're still here.' But there were some instances where police did engage in shootouts. The final tally, as given to us by the Police Department, was seven shooting incidents in which police fired their guns and hit somebody. In those, four civilians died. Seven others injured.

SIMON: I want to ask you about Police Chief Eddie Compass, who subsequently resigned. He's the man who's often identified as the first person to say that there was widespread rape and murder going on inside the Superdome.

Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah, that's correct. And he's a very emotional leader, born and bred New Orleanian; you know, maybe he should've been a little more cautious. But on the other hand, there was a little strain of desperation from the mayor, police chief and other officials at a loss as to why there was not this, you know, massive show of force from, you know, FEMA, military. And in a way it was we have a crisis and, you know, he was announcing it in the way he knew would get attention.

SIMON: The department was confronting a lot of problems even before the hurricanes. Certainly a very high murder rate and, for that matter, charges of internal corruption. And I'm wondering if the hurricanes had the effect of emphasizing some of the fissures inside the department and what effect it has now. Is the department presented ironically with an opportunity to rebuild itself?

Mr. PERLSTEIN: There is no doubt about that. Now they have one of the safest cities in America right now, and it's given the Police Department an upper hand. They have a whole new bureau called the intelligence bureau that's supposed to gather information on who's coming back to town to do some surveillance and tracking of the known bad guys and hopefully keep an upper hand on that crime problem and keep it from returning.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the feeling of many officers about the image of the department whose badge they wear, because I guess we heard so much during this crisis a few months ago, that crisis reveals character. And a lot of New Orleans police officers, particularly on the force now, might feel that the country got the wrong impression.

Mr. PERLSTEIN: The media picked up on the fact of wholesale desertions, over 200, but the Police Department looks at it as out of a police force of about 1,700, the vast majority stayed. And unlike so many of, you know, ordinary citizens who weren't on the front lines, you know, as first responders, a large percentage of those officers lost everything, lost everything they owned and had to go through some heavy grieving. And it's a bit of an untold story. We still have hundreds of officers living temporarily on a cruise ship, you know, whose families are still separated from them out of town. And they're only now coming to grips with some of their personal loss, things that had to be put off because they were, you know, up to their eyeballs in alligators, as they say.

SIMON: Times-Picayune reporter Michael Perlstein speaking with us from River Road Recorders in New Orleans. Mr. Perlstein, thanks very much.

Mr. PERLSTEIN: Well, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

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