They also carried with them something darker, more disturbing even, than the might of Katrina itself.
The Sante Fe Reporter has learned New Mexico police allege they witnessed numerous and shocking incidents of police abuse committed by members of the Baton Rouge Police Department.
According to New Mexico Department of Public Safety spokesman Peter Olson, the alleged incidents -- striking suspects in handcuffs, shooting innocent bystanders with taser guns and destroying property for no apparent reason -- occurred while New Mexico State Police patrolled Baton Rouge alongside local cops beginning Sept. 9.
"The officers were shocked to see what was being done to the citizens of Baton Rouge by people in uniform," Olson says. "They were there to help, and what they saw disturbed them greatly."
What happened so upset the New Mexico officers that the entire team pulled out of joint patrol operations in Baton Rouge after just two days. New Mexico State Police officials subsequently filed a complaint with the Baton Rouge Police and are planning on leveling a full report with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The trouble began shortly after the team of 21 New Mexico State Police officers arrived in Louisiana on Sept. 5. After two days helping evacuate residents in New Orleans, under the aegis of Louisiana State Police, their orders changed. On Sept. 9, the group was reassigned to help the Baton Rouge Police Department patrol that city, swollen with refugees from elsewhere around the state.
After the first day of patrols, New Mexico officers began complaining to their commanding officer, Major Daniel Lopez, who heads the State Police's Criminal Investigations Division out of Santa Fe, that Baton Rouge police were abusing their power. The complaints included reports that the local cops were hitting suspects in handcuffs, tasing people who were neither suspects nor detained and destroying personal property -- cars in particular.
After another day of such stories, Lopez decided he'd heard enough. On Sept. 11, he informed Baton Rouge Police officials he was pulling his team out; the New Mexico officers were reassigned by Louisiana State Police to help with body recoveries back in New Orleans. Later that week, Lopez filed a report with Baton Rouge police detailing his officers' allegations.
"Our guys were in disbelief that these sorts of things would still be taking place in any part of the country," Lopez says. "Without a doubt, they'd be considered misconduct in New Mexico, and we could not continue to subject our officers to those types of practices."
Interestingly, the New Mexico officers' experience is not unique. A team of Michigan state troopers, also assigned to Baton Rouge Police, say they witnessed similar abuses, pulled their team out after a day and half and filed a complaint with Louisiana State Police.
"Our troopers were reporting to their commander issues of concern which if they occurred in Michigan could potentially be considered acts of misconduct," says Major Anthony Gomez, who headed a team of 38 Michigan state troopers in Louisiana last month. "Shortly thereafter, we withdrew all of our personnel from that mission and reported these issues to the Louisiana State Police."
Baton Rouge Police Chief Jeff LeDuff issued a statement on Oct. 10 saying his department was conducting an internal investigation but had yet to uncover any evidence of violations of criminal law.
Baton Rouge Police spokesman Cpl. L'Jean McKneely Jr. tells SFR the investigation is still ongoing.
"No citizens have come forward to make a complaint. The complaints came from the state police troopers themselves. We're still trying to backtrack to find out what officers were involved and who the people are that they possibly violated," McKneely says.
For New Mexico State Police officials, however, what local officers saw and experienced in Baton Rouge is enough to keep their attention focused on the Baton Rouge Police Department and how it proceeds.
Says Olson: "Anytime something like this happens, it's frustrating and discouraging for law enforcement. It creates a bad image for all of us, and everyone is painted with the same brush...even the good officers."
(This article originally ran in the Santa Fe Reporter's Oct. 26 issue.)