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New Orleans police struggling professionally, personally

NEW ORLEANS—Two months after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Police Department is struggling to right itself from the storm's wrath and a series of damning headlines.

Life in the Big Easy is anything but easy for police.

Three-quarters of the department's members lost their homes. Two hundred officers fled during the storm instead of staying at their posts, and more than 300 police cars were lost in the floods. Three precinct stations took on water and remain unusable. About a dozen officers are being investigated for looting. And Police Chief Eddie Compass resigned.

In five minutes of streaming video, the public perception of the New Orleans Police Department took yet another hit. Images of a beating replaced scenes of officers providing life support to their city.

Two white police officers stand accused in the videotaped beating of a retired African-American schoolteacher during an arrest Oct. 8 at Bourbon and Conti streets, across from the temporary police headquarters at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. A third officer also was charged with battery for allegedly roughing up a news producer.

All three have pleaded not guilty, as has the retired teacher, who was charged with public intoxication, resisting arrest and battery on a police officer.

Capt. Tim Bayard, a 30-year veteran who commands the New Orleans vice and narcotics squad, said he thinks many of the accusations popping up about "bad cops" will turn out to be exaggerations. But by the time they're proved wrong, careers already would have been tainted, he said.

"There are still a lot of young and old dedicated cops here," Bayard said.

"The young kids are following their lead, and the older cops are leading from the front. ... Before you start crucifying someone, you need to know the facts."

It's not an easy place to work, he said. "People have no idea what this zoo is like," Bayard said. "Every criminal that comes to New Orleans comes to the French Quarter. They feel it's a safe haven, a place to hide out."

The department has endured negative perceptions in the past. It has a well-chronicled history of corruption, and two former officers are on death row. In the 1990s the city was known as "Murder Capital, U.S.A."

After a federal crackdown, 200 officers were dismissed and 60 more were convicted of criminal charges. Then-Police Superintendent Richard Pennington launched a reform effort that decentralized the department, gave more responsibility to commanders and raised officers' salaries. Violent crime dropped and the image of a cleaner police force emerged.

During and after Katrina, many cops went to extreme lengths to help others before taking care of their own needs. In Bayard's vice and narcotics squad, 48 officers stayed together as Katrina approached. After it passed, they worked with little sleep, no showers and no toilets. They dealt with survivors, grisly rumors and gruesome bodies—all with the knowledge that many of their homes were submerged in floodwaters.

Even now, the department's 1,500 employees are working 12-hour shifts for 14 days at a time and they have yet to receive overtime pay, they said. Most of the officers are living in tiny rooms on cruise ships—many without their families—because their houses are gone.

Bayard watches out for his men and women, asks how their families are doing and gathers crews to help an overwhelmed officer gut out moldy carpet or plasterboard on a precious day off.

He doesn't want his officers to lose hope. But no officer in New Orleans can escape the crescendo of negative publicity.

"All of this is really hitting us ... hitting me, hard," said Officer Nikki Johnson, 31.

"There's a lot of good cops. A lot of us are suffering because of what a few did," she said. "No amount of stress should make you beat someone like that. It looked bad."

Officer Ricky Jackson, 41, quit listening to the radio and TV because he didn't want to hear negative news about the police department. "Every bad thing a policeman does you hear about. But every day we do good things that you don't hear about. Why is it that way?" he asked.

Family telephone calls to Officer Mike Montalbano, 39, echo the same sentiment.

"`Why don't you just quit?' they ask me," said Montalbano, a 17-year veteran who was shot last year in New Orleans East. "I tell my kids, don't quit. My father was a policeman and I always wanted to be one. It's still fun chasin' bad guys."

Rebuilding the department is going to be a major task. "We are going to have to determine which areas are being repopulated and then determine the number of police officers we need," said Capt. Marlon Defillo, a spokesman for the department. "Right now we have enough officers to keep the streets safe."

Since the storm, Bayard's squad has gathered for roll call at Wagner's Meat Market on Claiborne Street, a Katrina-damaged business. The vice and narcotics officers are a mix of old and young, black and white, men and women—all with shaved heads. What began as a way to stay a little cleaner became a symbol of solidarity for the officers who stayed to save their city.

As the moon slowly rose over the blighted area one recent evening, Bayard gathered his team. "Let's get something going," he said. "If you got bad guys you can deal with, set it up. I'd like to get back to doing real police work again."

A little chorus of "all right!" floated around the officers. And soon a convoy of vehicles cruised into the night, into a city still suffering from the storm.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Beth Musgrave contributed to this report.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-NOPD

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