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The Joys of Art

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Damn straight we are mad!!!!

Waiting for help, officers keep a lonely vigil
Loyalty binds them to victims
By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff | September 3, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- Across from the mass human suffering at the fetid convention center yesterday, before a convoy of Humvees finally delivered hundreds of National Guard troops to this crime-ridden intersection of dashed hopes and mounting anger, a city police officer touched his finger to his eye and began to cry.

''I'm going to stay here till everything's done," the officer said. ''I love this city."

Until the troops arrived at midday, the police officer and five colleagues had been the only round-the-clock security for the convention center, where a few thousand displaced residents had languished for five days without food, water, medical attention, and the transportation that federal and state officials had promised them.

In the morning, when the police officer cried, he spoke caustically about the supplies that had yet to arrive for the storm victims, and the lack of food and equipment for the officers. Whatever they needed to eat, the officer said, they had taken from the looted stores around them. The officers asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the department.

Since the unit was assigned to the post on Sunday, the police said, they had not heard from their superiors, on their working radios or in person. The officers were exhausted and bitter, unwilling to patrol the danger-filled Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where they would be hopelessly outnumbered, where dead bodies lay in cafeteria galleyways, and where children played on urine-soaked carpet.

''These guys have not only been victims of the city and Katrina," said the officer who had cried, referring to the storm-displaced residents, ''but also the thugs who keep going in there."

The officers had been shot at every night, he and his colleagues said, by criminals who entered the teeming convention center to rob, assault, and rape some of the hurricane victims. Given their own vulnerable circumstances, the officers said, they took over an empty Hampton Inn to serve as a command post, positioned a backhoe as a barricade, erected a bogus ''Raw Sewage Danger" sign to keep away meddlers, and bulked up their firepower, supplementing the department-issue .40mm Glock pistols with their own shotguns.

''We had to arm ourselves," said another officer, a nine-year veteran who had been on duty for 29 straight hours. ''It's against regulations, but they're shooting at us constantly."

In one foray for supplies, the officers said, they broke open a store's safe containing a cache of weapons and added the firearms to their own stash at the Hampton Inn.

The scene described by these police officers contrasted drastically with the picture of steadily increasing security and streaming relief efforts that had been painted before yesterday by state and federal officials in daily briefings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's capital. On Thursday, Governor Kathleen Blanco said she had no confirmation of corpses in the open at the convention center. But at the site, nearly everyone interviewed there yesterday knew where to find them.

In the morning, no security was present in the area outside the center other than the small police unit, some of whose members had outfitted themselves in jean shorts, running shoes, and even a motorcycle-club cap to establish a rapport with the crowd. But they also wore bulletproof vests, their unauthorized shotguns dangling from their arms or slung backward over their shoulders.

''We think of these people as our people," one officer said, referring to the displaced people in the convention center.

Whatever other police presence had been seen in the area, many storm victims said, consisted of quick passes by gun- brandishing officers in pickups and cruisers. ''Go home!" Gregory Bentley, 57, yelled at a speeding cruiser yesterday. ''They don't help nobody here. They just come through here with their guns drawn."

The half-dozen police stationed across from the convention center said they understood the frustration of the displaced. The officers said they had been bombarded with questions seeking any information about food and transportation. ''We have nothing to give them," one officer said with a sigh.

The group said many of their colleagues on the 1,800-member force had resigned after the hurricane.

In Baton Rouge, Lieutenant Lawrence J. McLeary of the State Police said there were widespread reports of resignations by New Orleans police, but it was impossible to determine how many. ''I think what's probably taking place is they're still in a state of disrepair," McLeary said. ''We know there are [officers] who have said, 'That's it. I've had enough.' But some [missing officers] may be still trapped in their houses."

About a half-mile away, in the downtown business district near the Riverwalk along the Mississippi River, about a dozen police armed with automatic rifles guarded intersections where few people ventured.

At one crossing, a middle-age man in a T-shirt approached an officer who had come to help from the central Louisiana town of Hessmer and said politely that he wanted to ask a question.

''Keep on going! Keep on going," barked the officer, Boyd Blankenship.

Outside the convention center, as edgy National Guard troops began taking up position shortly after noon, the New Orleans police who had been there since Sunday posed for photographs with some of the storm victims.

''Y'all did a wonderful job," said Yolanda Camese, 49, as she hugged one of the officers. ''You made us feel safer. I watched you every night."

''I made a commitment to the city," said the officer, who paused for nearly a minute as he looked at the pavement. ''I made a commitment to my [police] district, and I made a commitment to these people out here and to my fellow officers. That's why I'm here."

Thomas Farragher contributed to this report from Baton Rouge, La.

Even grown men can cry!!!


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