10/16/2005

Some question whether police are ready for New Orleans residents' return

By MATT SEDENSKY
Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS- Plywood covering Terry Knister's back door had been pulled off, his stained-glass window smashed. He feared a burglar and dialed 911.

Trouble was, no one was willing to help. All he was given by the New Orleans police was an incident number for insurance purposes. No officers were dispatched.

Police say they can't explain Knister's experience and insist it was an exception. But as this devastated city repopulates, and the number of military and out-of-town law-enforcement agents drops, the challenge of dealing with crime grows.

"We just don't have enough police officers to handle the calls we're getting," said New Orleans Councilman Jay Batt, who has received calls from more than 100 other residents with similar concerns.

Victims' accounts vary. Some allege police refused to take reports, others say their calls were never answered.

"I would not say we're at 100 percent. We're still in the process of rebuilding our infrastructure," said Capt. Marlon Defillo, a police spokesman. "But in terms of the department's responsiveness to the community, we are functional."

Tell that to Knister. The 49-year-old lawyer was told police would not be sent to his home.

"What about the bodies?" Knister said he asked the dispatcher, questioning what authorities would do if he or intruders were killed in a potential showdown. "They said, 'Call back if that happens.'"

The streets of New Orleans are patrolled now by a much-reduced force.

The National Guard _ whose uniformed soldiers and Humvees were a daily fixture in the weeks immediately after Hurricane Katrina _ now has 2,361 people in New Orleans, down from more than 6,000 after the storm struck Aug. 29, said a spokesman, Lt. Col. Pete Schneider.

Some see the absence of such patrols today as a sign of progress, but others say it increases the strain on the city's already-fractured police force.

About 300 federal, state and out-of-state officers remain on the streets, Defillo said, as little as one-tenth the level after Katrina hit. The city's police force is said to number about 1,500, down about 200 officers from before the storm.

The active-duty military has 257 people in Louisiana, but all but a dozen are medical support personnel. That's in contrast to just under 20,000 active-duty personnel right after Katrina.

"There's only so many hands that they have and so many cruisers and so many officers," Batt said. "We don't have a lot right now."

Fearing a rise in lawlessness as residents returned home, the New Orleans police set up an anti-looting unit of 200 officers.

"You got people going home, with people seeing they got nothing and spotting a house that's high and dry," said Capt. Bruce Adams, who leads the unit. "It's a sad situation. Illegal, nonetheless."

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