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New Orleans police begin to show signs of stress

NEW ORLEANS—After days of attempting to return order to an unruly, hurricane-ravaged city, New Orleans police on Friday began to openly lose their tempers, complaining that they've become easy targets for looters with guns and that outside help was slow in coming.

One officer has already been shot in the face, others have ducked bullets while conducting rescue missions and the entire 1,700-officer department has been forced to work in the dark, without emergency radio communications, since Hurricane Katrina struck this city of 600,000 residents on Monday.

With many of their squad cars submerged in floodwaters, police have had to resort to "taking" vehicles abandoned by residents—just like some citizens have done—by busting ignition locks and driving off to patrol the streets.

Some officers, including high-ranking ones, have turned in their badges, opting for civilian life after seeing what police work has become in this city of turmoil.

On Friday, police cheered when the Louisiana National Guard arrived in force. But they also complained that state and federal officials should have ordered help quicker.

"They need to let all the police and firemen go home to their families and let somebody else run the city," said Lt. Mike Cahn, one of several weary-looking officers who were attempting to keep people at bay, while a downtown building burned out of control.

Even Police Superintendent Eddie Compass, head of the force, lost his cool when reporters asked about his department's inability to maintain order in the crime-plagued emergency shelters in the Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

"I'm so tired of this ...," Compass said, his voice trembling as he stormed off.

"We've been here since Day One," said officer M.R. Woodfork, standing outside the shuttered Marriott, where city police have set up makeshift headquarters across the street from the madness of the convention center.

"I've seen things I wouldn't want anyone to see," Woodfork said. He pointed to a yellow blanket in the road median and said, "There's a body under that." Asked how the elderly man had died, at least a day earlier, and Woodfork responded: "No one knows."

The officer said he was also approached by a woman left homeless by the hurricane. She was holding her 8-month-old baby, who recently underwent heart surgery.

"The baby's hands, legs and feet just started turning blue," Woodfork said. But with all of the hospitals shut down in the city, he said, "There was nothing we could do."

After witnessing one tragedy after another, all the while trying to protect themselves, New Orleans police officers are beginning to look as haggard as the people they're trying to protect. Their shirttails are out, their faces unshaven, their badges tarnished, their uniforms unkempt.

Officer Catherine Beckett was wearing a bulletproof vest borrowed from a federal agent because her department had none to give her. But she said she worries more about not getting shots, or any other kind of medicine, to protect her from disease when she wades through floodwaters infected by human waste and decomposing bodies.

Fellow officer Charlie Miller had other concerns. "Most of us don't have extra ammunition. We're taking gunfire and we don't have armor," said Miller, adding: "This thing happened so fast, we didn't have time to prepare."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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