New Orleans police, saddled with a reputation for desertion, corruption and thuggery, are now fending off accusations of racist brutality.
The bloody beating of a 64-year-old African-American man by white officers in the French Quarter over the weekend was the latest black eye for a department already reeling from blows to its integrity.
"For the life of me, I don't know what happened," former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial said recently of the department he spent a decade working to reform. "It was a massive collapse.
"We are almost faced with rebuilding the police department."
Approximately 250 police officers, nearly 15 percent of the department, are being investigated for apparently deserting their posts in the tumult of Hurricane Katrina which hit the city on August 29.
Another probe has been launched to determine why officers took luxury cars, including two vintage automobiles, from a Cadillac dealership in New Orleans in the lawless wake of the vast storm.
Officers have been accused of ignoring reports of rape and other savagery at a shelter for refugees in the city's Superdome.
Police have also been accused of making sport of shooting dogs that residents were forced to leave behind while escaping the then-flooded city.
The city's police superintendent resigned amid the criticism of his department. He was replaced by veteran cop Warren Riley, who has staunchly defended his officers' honor.
Riley, who is African-American, attributed problems to "a few bad cops" and vowed they would be "weeded out." Acts of heroism by officers were plentiful during the anarchy that followed twin storms in New Orleans, Riley said.
The beating of Robert Davis on Bourbon Street on Saturday was captured by a television news camera crew and has been broadcast repeatedly across the United States.
The retired teacher spoke out publicly on Tuesday, saying he was not drunk as police contend and that he did nothing to provoke the beating that ended with him bloodied and handcuffed on a sidewalk.
"I'm talking in a nice, cordial way to a black officer on a horse," Davis said, recounting the start of the incident for civil rights leader Jesse Jackson in New Orleans.
"All of a sudden, the white officer hit me in the eye and dazed me and threw me up against the wall."
A white officer yelled "I'm going to kick your ass," Davis recounted, saying he was pummeled face-down to the sidewalk.
Davis's blood-red left eye was swollen half in his battered face when he encountered Jackson on a downtown New Orleans street.
"I'm going to live through it," said Davis, who is to appear in court Wednesday to face charges of public drunkeness and resisting arrest. "I'm just happy to be here."
It seemed that the mounted officer was condoning the beating by not trying to stop it, Davis said.
Jackson considered the drubbing to be blatantly racist.
"The officer on the horse was too cowardly to protect Mr. Davis," Jackson said. "His cowardice made him complicitous to these four officers who were white."
Three white officers accused of participating in the beating were suspended from their jobs without pay and face criminal charges of battery. The trio pleaded innocent after being arraigned in court on Monday.
Their trial is slated for January.
On Tuesday, US federal officials launched a civil rights probe of the beating.
"Before they rush to judgment, even though it looked really damaging, these officers deserve due process," Lieutenant David Benelli, head of the New Orleans police union, said in a televised interview.
New Orleans officers have been under tremendous stress, working long days while dealing with personal losses, Riley said.
About 75 percent of the city's police officers lost their homes to the storms, according to the superintendent.
"You don't beat someone when you're tired," Jackson said of the rationale. "You arrest them when you are tired. These officers must not just be fired; they must face strong criminal charges."
African-Americans and others interviewed in the city since the weekend contended the storms exposed the area's racist underbelly.
"I've seen how racism is in New Orleans and Louisiana," said Malik Rahim, a 57-year-old former member of the Black Panthers army of activists.
"Before, it was just hidden, but its ugly head reared itself," said Rahim, who rode out the storms in his fortified home. "I saw so-called neighbors show how they really feel about people of color and black people in particular."
"I saw the worst in my own people. I saw so-called God-fearing people who profess brotherhood pack up and leave, not leaving anything to help those left behind."
It was not until troops swept in that order was restored and a potential race war averted, according to Rahim.
US National Guard officers and police from as far away as New York and California arrived to patrol streets and enforce the law in the wakes of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"The New Orleans police department is just really out of control," said Sandy Welander, 27, who came from Wisconsin and works for the aid group Common Ground.
Welander told of police stopping him and others in a rooftop parking lot one day and ordering people to kneel at gunpoint.
A large white officer charged at an African-American member of the group, kicked him, pressed a foot to his neck and threatened to "blow his brains out" if he moved, Welander said.
"It seemed this cop was looking for the first black person he could find to get his licks out," Welander said.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.