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Officers' numbers dwindling, stress mounting

Published September 6, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - A voice crackled over the police radio, alerting the officers to yet another signal 29, the code for a dead body.

Det. Eric Baehr, a 13-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, groaned and turned to face his partner, Officer Dimitri Ikonitski.

"Man, that's like the fourth or fifth this hour," Baehr said. "I hate this. And it's only going to get worse."

Like the other members of the force, Baehr hasn't slept for more than three or four hours in more than a week. He and the others have gone days without food. They are rattled by the suicides of two colleagues. And their numbers are dwindling.

"Morale is shot, completely shot," said Baehr, 36. "But we've got a job to do. You've got to put away your grievances for now and just get the job done."

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, the New Orleans Police Department had about 1,700 members. But after a wave of resignations, and one officer getting shot in the head by a looter, no one is sure how many remain today.

The command staff operates out of a Sheraton hotel because its headquarters is underwater. They are without hot food or running water, and they sleep on floors or in their cars.

The work is hard: collecting the dead, coaxing reluctant residents out of their homes and arresting looters. The chores, such as filling generators and finding supplies, never stop. And most officers have not seen their families or checked on their houses since the storm hit.

But of New Orleans police officers continue to show up for work each day, laying the foundation for what they hope will be the eventual rebuilding of their city.

"We're tired," Baehr said. "But somehow, we just have to keep going."

Baehr is a member of Platoon 7, which patrols the Downtown Development District. Three of their officers have resigned since Katrina, which increases the workload for the rest. But their commander, Sgt. O. L. Sanderlin, doesn't fault those who left.

"They've got families to take care of," said Sanderlin, 40, a former Army field medic and a New Orleans native. "We don't know everything they're dealing with. You shouldn't judge anyone for making their families a priority."

The platoon's headquarters also is flooded, so members are working out of the O. Walker Perry High School library in Algiers, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Between service calls, officers sprawl on couches in the wood-paneled library, watching television news and downing ready-to-eat meals. A few sleep on cots or the floor.

The past week was filled with grim moments. Sanderlin had to scour hotels after the storm, asking for food for his officers. Last Wednesday, his small force was on Canal Street when a gang of about 1,000 looters came toward them.

"It looked like a tidal wave of people," Sanderlin said. "We just had to stand down. There was no way we could stop them."

And the cries echoing in the night as they rescued people from the flooded 9th Ward still haunt them.

Officer William LaBiche, 50, who works in the city's Fifth District, said his worst moment came when he was in a rescue boat, watching bodies float by in the murky water.

"They were swollen," said LaBiche, a 23-year department veteran. "That's a sight I'm never going to forget for the rest of my life."

LaBiche already is eligible for retirement and would receive his entire pension if he resigned today. But he won't leave.

"I love this city and I want to see it come back," LaBiche said. "But it sure would be nice if the city did something nice for the guys who did decide to stick around."

The waves of federal troops and out-of-state officers relieved some of the pressure. Starting today, officers will start receiving five-day holidays so they can check their homes and reunite with family. Counselors will also provide therapy.

But after a terrifying week, the strain is sometimes too much to bear.

Det. Baehr's face crumpled as he snapped shut his cell phone. His daughters, ages 3 and 13, had called to check on him.

"Oh, God, I just need to get out of here," said Baehr, as his eyes filled with tears. "I'm so tired of all of this. I wish things could go back to normal."

[Last modified September 6, 2005, 21:33:02]

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