- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) | More than a week ago, at the first hint that Gustav could be a threat to New Orleans, police Superintendent Warren Riley issued an unusual order - he gave all the city’s 1,485 officers paid time off to get their families to safety.

It was a lesson learned from the bitter experience of Hurricane Katrina, when dozens of officers were roundly criticized for abandoning their posts as their colleagues and the citizens they were sworn to protect were left swamped, scared and at the mercy of lawlessness. Some were called cowards. Several dozen ended up being fired.

Many of the officers who left said the storm forced them to make an agonizing choice: Take care of strangers or take care of your family.

This time around, the department was doing all it could to make sure that officers had enough of a chance to do both, well ahead of Gustav’s landfall.

“It’s a double-edged sword, and it’s either your co-workers or your family,” said Officer Carolyn Dalton. “And I will choose my family every time.”

Officer Dalton, who stood by her post during Katrina, took her two sons to her mother’s house in the days leading up to that storm. This past weekend, she made the journey again, leaving them with a hug and some money, then returning to New Orleans for her 7 a.m. shift.

Officer Dalton, an 11-year veteran of the force, said she is simply doing what she has to do as a police officer. But she won’t fault the choice that others made three years ago.

“It’s only so much a human being can take,” she said while managing an evacuation checkpoint. “Some of us are much stronger than others. … I know several officers who were fired. They were damned good officers.”

While hundreds of officers were initially thought to have abandoned their posts after Katrina, the numbers turned out to be much lower. Most were simply stranded, unable to report for duty.

A disjointed and antiquated communications system - coupled with crippled cell phone service - prevented various police departments and emergency rescue agencies from talking with one another. Some police districts were without boats to get around in the floodwaters. More than 300 police vehicles were destroyed in floodwaters.

In the weeks and months afterward, the force took other blows - retirements and suicides - that reduced the police force by nearly a third.

Superintendent Riley said that 97 percent of the city’s officers were staying but that officials would try to be flexible with those would couldn’t cope and asked to leave. In the meantime, some 1,500 National Guardsmen were on hand to help out.

In the years since Katrina, a communications system was set up that allows all the various police departments and emergency agencies to talk with one another. All police districts now have boats. And police cruisers are being put out of harm’s way, parked in high-rise garages.

Asked whether the measures will work, police spokesman Bob Young said: “The superintendent has done everything possible to ensure the officers will stay in, and he’s confident none of them will leave.”

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