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NEW ORLEANS -- Sometime on Monday, as Hurricane Gustav's winds whipped, New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley climbed atop a stack of wooden pallets inside the darkened Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, visible to his troops only by their flashlights.
He looked out at roughly 700 officers, clad in battle dress, awaiting his command. He didn't need to say it: Everyone remembered that Hurricane Katrina had decimated and, in many ways, disgraced the department. The actions of some rogue officers had affixed painful labels -- looters, deserters, crooks and bullies -- on each of the 1,400-plus men and women who wear the crescent and star badge.
But now, with Hurricane Gustav on the doorstep, Riley told his charges to use this as an opportunity. This was their chance not only to show the world that they can handle a catastrophe, but also to restore their image and bolster confidence among local residents.
--- A positive list ---
Slouched in a plastic chair Friday morning inside the Union Passenger Terminal, Riley watched returning residents bustle past and nod. Members of other law enforcement agencies stopped to greet him.
"Good job, chief," one state trooper told him, shaking his hand. Another patted his shoulder, telling him to keep his head up.
Riley stopped short of declaring a victory this week. He relied instead on a football analogy, saying he believes the NOPD is in the fourth quarter, with a substantial lead.
He recited their accomplishments: No officers abandoned or deserted their posts. No officers have been accused of looting, stealing or any other criminal acts. Patrol cars, with blue lights flashing, blanketed the city's pitch-black neighborhoods at every hour. In some instances, the only traffic they encountered was other emergency responders.
Although property crimes such as burglaries and break-ins have spiked in recent days in the semi-abandoned city, violent crime has abated for the time being. And new anti-looting units have largely kept thieves and criminal opportunists in check. Worried that strung-out citizens would revolt, Riley ordered patrols deployed to every closed pharmacy and food store in the city.
By Thursday evening, residents had reported more than 63 burglaries to police. Nine of them were considered looting cases, police said.
--- The Katrina lessons ---
Though a formidable storm, Gustav can hardly be compared to Katrina. Nonetheless, Riley, who led police operations during Katrina, called the catastrophe of three years ago a harsh lessen. The department's 67-page hurricane emergency plan reflects that learning curve, he said.
For one, the force huddled in five command posts this time, as opposed to 10 separate command centers.
"We didn't want to have to rescue our own officers this time," Riley said.
The nature of the storm also allowed for several days of preparation. Last week, police commanders handed out evacuation forms to each officer, and in most cases, accommodated the officers' requests for a little time off to take care of family needs. Midlevel managers were ordered to report any officers who exhibited physical or mental fatigue to department doctors. No officers sought help.
The NOPD's emergency plan also relied heavily on outside help. More than 1,500 Louisiana National Guard soldiers were dispatched to help the local police. About 500 soldiers helped in Katrina.
State Trooper Joseph Piglia, spokesman for State Police, said the communication among the many agencies was fluid.
Another key improvement to the NOPD response came in the area of radio communications. Police radio traffic and dispatches broke down in Katrina, leaving officers operating in isolated pockets, without orders or coordination. But few problems with communications emerged during Gustav.
City public safety agencies joined forces to create a joint information center, which housed spokespeople for city police, fire, paramedics and more. The agencies briefed the public regularly.
City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson praised the interagency effort, which kept leaders abreast of the latest hurricane-related news.
"They perform better when we create the team," she said. "The police were masterful."
--- Standing firm ---
When the issue of checkpoints and re-entry became a hot button issue this week, Riley faced much of the criticism. The chief stood by the decision, which was made by him, the mayor and other city leaders.
"We are still without power and resources in some sections of the city," he said Thursday. "An empty house in a dark city clearly has a great potential for looting."
He said the re-entry decisions made by neighboring parish leaders "forced us to become more lenient."
City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell praised the police in light of the circumstances.
"I don't think there is anything they could have done differently when you look at the fact that they were protecting neighborhoods that didn't have lights, anything," she said.
The city's first shooting since Gustav's landfall happened Friday about 2:50 p.m. on the Earhart Boulevard exit ramp off the Pontchartrain Expressway. Two suspects in a white car fired several shots into traffic and hit their target, a 24-year-old local man, police said. The man crashed his new Range Rover into the ramp's cement barrier and was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
--- Every plan a test ---
Among the rank-and-file, the complaints were steady, but they rose little above the level of annoyance. Several officers were irked about a lack of cots and hot food, along with the dreary conditions of the Convention Center, especially in the first few days. Others disagreed with curfew enforcement and the re-entry policy.
"No plan is perfect, everyone in emergency management will admit that," said Lt. Henry Dean, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "But look at this as a test. You learn from the past and make the plan better."
If anything good came from the disaster in 2005, Dean said, it's experience.
"We had no foresight or knowledge of the devastation that would take place," he said. "Now we have Katrina as a model."
. . . . . . .
Staff writer Sarah Carr contributed to this report.
Brendan McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 504.826.3301.