By Trymaine Lee, Staff writer
Copyright 2005 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has donated nearly $500,000 worth of unmarked vehicles to the New Orleans Police Department to help replace the 300 that the NOPD lost to Hurricane Katrina.
The 30 vehicles -- including late-model and high-end pickup trucks, sporty SUVs and luxury sedans -- were seized by federal agents from drug dealers across the country. The vehicles will be used in undercover NOPD operations to battle the stifled but not silent drug traffic still moving throughout sections of the city.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will replace some of the city's marked police units that were destroyed during Katrina, but none of the department's unmarked fleet, used largely by the NOPD's narcotics and vice units.
New Orleans Police spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo said the department lost a total of 300 vehicles to the hurricane. Defillo did not know exactly how many of those were unmarked.
"We felt like we had to help the department get back to being whole," said William Renton, the DEA's top agent in the New Orleans area. "We certainly feel for the city and the Police Department. We are members of this community. And we are law enforcement officers first, before we are federal agents."
While many of Renton's agents who lived in the city lost everything in the hurricane and flood that followed, he said he has retained his entire staff. Federal agents, he said, are not considered first responders and were encouraged to evacuate the city.
But many of them including himself were back in the city the day after the storm to help in the city's life-saving efforts.
The handover of the vehicles, 11 on Nov. 2 and 19 on Wednesday, shows how eager agencies across federal, state and local lines have been to aid the struggling department, said NOPD Deputy Police Chief Steve Nicholas.
"We didn't ask for this," Nicholas said. "The DEA did this on their own, unsolicited."
The cars and trucks will strengthen the department's fight against drugs, Nicholas said.
The NOPD has averaged about 10 to 15 drug arrests each day since the weeks just after the hurricane, Nicholas said.
Capt. Tim Bayard, head of the NOPD's narcotics unit, said his officers are making strides in identifying dealers who remain in the city and rooting out the drugs that remain burrowed deeply in some of city's more populated neighborhoods.
Recently, he said, police officers and DEA agents busted a dealer on the West Bank with 3 kilograms of cocaine, considered a large seizure in pre- and post-Katrina times.
With the city largely depopulated, officers are able to get a firmer grip on drug activity in a way they really couldn't before the storm, Nicholas said.
The addition to the NOPD's fleet makes staying ahead of the curve that much easier, he said.
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Trymaine D. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3301.
Criminals' vehicles get fresh start with NOPD