- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Police in Houston and Galveston have beefed up patrols and lengthened shifts to prevent looting in areas evacuated for Hurricane Rita, saying they won’t have a repeat of the large-scale lawlessness that plagued New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath.

“We’ll be ready to respond to any outbreak of lawlessness. We are in a high state of alert in all neighborhoods,” said Sgt. Nathan McDuell, a spokesman for the Houston Police Department.

The Houston department has 4,700 officers working 12-hour shifts in what Sgt. McDuell referred to as a rare “full mobilization.” They are sleeping at stations and are not allowed to go home.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago, New Orleans spiraled out of control with looting, gunfights and reports of rapes. Nearly a third of the city’s police force disappeared and has not been seen since.

Looting and shootings — with stolen firearms — were rampant in New Orleans. But many suspected criminals were issued citations and then set free, because, for a time, there was no place to put them.

Sgt. McDuell pointed out that on Wednesday, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt issued a “stern warning that looting will not be tolerated and that violators will be prosecuted to the highest extent allowed by law.”

He said looters could be subject to felony charges and anywhere from five to 99 years in jail if convicted.

“Bad guys in Houston know that this is one town that does not tolerate crime,” Sgt. McDuell said.

Asked whether police will be allowed to shoot to kill looters, the sergeant said, “There is not martial law yet. But the Houston community has been in a high state of readiness since Katrina.” That Category 4 hurricane struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29 and caused massive flooding.

As Hurricane Rita bore down on Texas, some Houstonians evacuated, but the majority “probably remained here,” Sgt. McDuell said.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which has at least 2,500 sworn officers and often collaborates with Houston police, is also geared up, said Lt. John Martin, a sheriff’s office spokesman.

For this emergency, he said, most officers, including plainclothes detectives and sheriff’s deputies, are in uniforms patrolling the streets, and “most are working 12-hour shifts.”

And while Harris County officers usually patrol solo, they are part of two-member teams for Hurricane Rita, he said.

Given that most of the Houston area was not subject to a mandatory evacuation, “the majority” of residents “probably remained,” Sgt. McDuell said.

But a mandatory evacuation was ordered for Galveston. “Pretty much nobody is still here,” except for police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel, who are all in working 12-hour shifts, according to Lt. Henry Porretto of the Galveston Police Department.

“There’s always the possibility of looting, but it’s very minimal. We have a proactive plan in place,” the lieutenant said late yesterday.

He added: “We have anti-looting SWAT teams working in every quadrant, looking for looters, burglars and other perpetrators. These are specialty teams whose mission is to look for crime. They haven’t encountered anything yet.”

Lt. Porretto declined to say how many with these special details are scouring the empty island city. “But it’s a really large number. We prepared for the worst, and I’m confident in the troops we have.”

If it turns out that storm-related violence is minor in Galveston, Lt. Porretto said it will be the result both of good planning and the fact that residents “responded to the mandatory evacuation order in a timely manner.”

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