The New Orleans police SWAT team is running dangerously low on firepower, says the New York Times. Flooding ruined 300 of its guns, its bullet-resistant shields, and most of its ammunition, none of which have been replaced more than nine months after Hurricane Katrina. The 40-man team has had to borrow body armor from suburban forces, and the Police Department is lining up corporate sponsors to contribute more. Like the rest of the city, the police force is still struggling to recover from Katrina, which knocked out its headquarters, overwhelmed its ability to maintain control, and prompted desertions that tarnished the force’s reputation.
Sharp budget cuts – and a recent spike in drug-related killings in the city – are adding to fears that years of overhauls and modernization may be undone, and that New Orleans could return to its former notoriety as one of the nation’s murder capitals. The blunt-talking new police superintendent, Warren Riley, insists he will not let the drug dealers and “gutter punks” take over again. He is determined to restore discipline and a sense of professionalism among the others. He has also formed an intelligence unit to track the most ruthless crime suspects and built strong ties with federal authorities to catch them. But in other areas, problems abound. More than 200 officers deserted during the storm and were fired or suspended. The size of the force has dropped to about 1,400 officers on the street, from nearly 1,700 before the hurricane. Recruiting replacements is difficult, partly because it is hard for candidates to find affordable housing. The department’s budget has been slashed by 19 percent, from $124 million in 2005 to $100 million this year. It has received federal or state aid to replace many of the 300 patrol cars lost to flooding, buy new uniforms, and restore communications system. But it is awaiting federal assistance to replace other gear, like the SWAT team’s weapons. With police headquarters still shuttered, Riley and top commanders work out of trailers.