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New Orleans mayor to relieve police, firefighters

NEW ORLEANS—Exhausted police and firefighters planned to relinquish control of the streets Tuesday to outside help, leaving uncertainty over who's now in charge.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Monday that he'd still call the shots, but Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the U.S. Army commander overseeing the city's security, said that, too. Asked about the state's role, the mayor said: "I'm not sure. I can't speak for them. It's me and Gen. Honore."

Nagin said he planned to relieve the entire force from duty Tuesday, and to sideline firefighters, ambulance paramedics and emergency dispatchers, allowing outside agencies to take up the chore of restoring order in the aftermath of Katrina.

"I'm taking them out of here as quickly as I can," Nagin said. "I'm not going to sit back and let another one die."

Two police officers committed suicide after several days of attempting to quell the chaos, and pressure on many of the rest was extreme, top officials said.

"No police department in the history of the world was asked to do what we've done," said Superintendent Eddie Compass, chief of the force, adding that some of the officers slept on the streets, were infected by tainted floodwaters, and had to operate without cars or radio communication.

"These guys, they're dead on their feet," said Capt. Tim Bayard, head of the vice and narcotics squad.

Even before the storm, members of the New Orleans Police Department complained they were undermanned, underpaid and ill equipped. Officially, the department is described as a 1,700-member force, but Lt. Chris Mandry of the city's tactical squad, said only about 1,500 are "gun-toting" officers—considered an usually small number to protect a city of 600,000 residents. Police say they have argued for several years that manpower needed to be increased to 2,000 officers.

Since Katrina hit, the police force has been harshly criticized by those who felt it was failing to protect the innocent from looters and violent criminals who came out in force after the city flooded. Some police officers, including high-ranking ones, quit or walked away in the midst of the catastrophe and that disturbed many officers.

"When you turn your back on your brothers, when you turn your back on your fellow officers and run, what kind of heart do you got?" said Bayard. "I call that cowardice."

The city's 750 firefighters also were taxed to the limit, responding to one fire after another—many of them set by looters—with little water, and even less water pressure, to fight blazes. Louisiana state troopers armed with AR-15 rifles accompanied fire crews to protect them from random shootings.

"Guys have been working 24 hours a day," said District Chief Richard Hampton.

Police, many of whom lost their squad cars in floodwaters, resorted to breaking into cars—some of them luxury models—that were left behind by fleeing residents. "I'm not as good at this as the bad guys are," said one police captain as he used pliers to pluck the ignition wires of a late-model SUV.

Police by Monday looked as haggard as the people they'd have been trying to help. They patrolled with their shirttails out, their faces unshaven and their badges smudged on their unkempt uniforms.

Of the suicides, Mandry said: "They were just overwhelmed with what happened, saw no hope. They're homes were totally destroyed," said Mandry, who knew one of the two officers.

That officer, Mandry said, lost his mother in the hurricane. "And then he couldn't find the rest of his family. I guess he assumed the worst," the lieutenant said.

"I've seen things I wouldn't want anyone to see," said officer M.R. Woodfork, standing outside a motel near the convention center that police turned into a resting spot.

Mandry thought police, firefighters and other city emergency workers should be proud of their work.

"You can't rescue everybody," he said. "I don't think there is one city in America that is capable of handling, in one single moment, a catastrophe that completely displaces 100 percent of its citizens."

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(Bolstad reports for The Miami Herald. Bahari and Douglas report for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Nicholas Spangler and David Ovalle of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.)

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

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