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Last Updated: Monday, 12 September 2005, 23:21 GMT 00:21 UK
New Orleans police under pressure
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, New Orleans

New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass (centre) with Vice President Dick Cheney (left)
The police chief says his staff had insufficient resources
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it also smashed the thin blue line of the city's police force.

Officers were overwhelmed by the scale of a disaster in which many of their own were victims.

Amid the chaos of water-filled streets they fought a desperate battle to stem a tide of lawlessness and looting.

Despite the heroic rescue efforts of many, there was still criticism - fuelled in part by reports that some police officers had deserted their posts.

Residents have told how they barricaded themselves into their homes, afraid to come out for fear of being robbed on the streets - and scared of becoming a target for armed gangs.

With the city now secured by the presence of 14,000 troops, the New Orleans Police Department is trying to rebuild its infrastructure, and its reputation.

Equipment and buildings have been destroyed. Scores of police vehicles are under water.

Officers missing

Almost 80% of police are homeless. More than 400 of the city's 1,750 officers are still missing.

Captain Marlon Defillo told the BBC: "Some of them could be casualties, they could still be displaced with their families - a small amount of them may have quit.

"What we do about them is a matter for another place and time, but have no doubt, we will deal with them.

I have been under fire before, but this was some of the most intense danger I have been in. Those men deserve medals for what they did
Darryl Hill
Hotel manager
"It is disheartening to know that there are individuals who may have abandoned the city in its time of crisis."

But he said many officers were angry at criticism of their efforts by outsiders.

"We stopped as much crime as we could," he said. "When you talk about the disaster, remember that we had to divert out people from rescue efforts to stop looting.

"Those who criticise the operation need not do so, because I know that they were not there to see what was done."

Intense danger

Others who stayed throughout the disaster also see the police as victims of an unforeseeable set of circumstances.

Darryl Hill, a British ex-pat who helps manage a leading city hotel now housing a makeshift police HQ, said he was deputised by the Eighth District of the NOPD in the lawless hours after the flooding.

New Orleans Police Captain Marlon Defillo
Defillo says a small amount of officers may have quit the force
Mr Hill, who served in the British military, said: "I have been under fire before, but this was some of the most intense danger I have been in. Those men deserve medals for what they did."

New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass has said that officers held their ground without food, water - even ammunition

Without powerful searchlights they traced criminals by the muzzle flashes of the weapons being fired at them, he said.

"In the annals of history, no police department in the history of the world was asked to do what we were asked," he said.

Compass said 150 officers were rescued from the waters. Others came down with infections from wading through chest-high waters polluted with chemicals and filth.

"We needed more resources, but those resources didn't come," he said.

Under-policed

Historically, New Orleans has been seen as a city under-policed. The most recent figures suggest it had about 3.14 officers per 1,000 residents - less than half the ratio in a city like Washington DC.

Yet violent crime is a major problem here, as well as the petty thievery that plagues many tourist spots.

The murder rate is about 10 times the US average, and is bucking the national trend by rising noticeably in recent years, fuelled by drug and gang violence.

What the future holds when New Orleans returns to some semblance of normality is unknown.

At the moment, the department is trying to rotate officers off duty, 200 at a time, to give men and women time to see their families and to recuperate from the traumatic events of the past fortnight.

The sight of exhausted officers slumped in chairs, awaiting their next mission is still a common sight at police command posts around the city.

And it suggests that when the city's residents finally flood back, New Orleans will need all the resources and all the help it can muster.


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