Police agencies to the south of New Orleans were so fearful of the crowds trying to leave the city after Hurricane Katrina that they sealed a crucial bridge over the Mississippi River and turned back hundreds of desperate evacuees, two paramedics who were in the crowd said.
The paramedics and two other witnesses said officers sometimes shot guns over the heads of fleeing people, who, instead of complying immediately with orders to leave the bridge, pleaded to be let through, the paramedics and two other witnesses said. The witnesses said they had been told by the New Orleans police to cross that same bridge because buses were waiting for them there.
Instead, a suburban police officer angrily ordered about 200 people to abandon an encampment between the highways near the bridge. The officer then confiscated their food and water, the four witnesses said. The incidents took place in the first days after the storm last week, they said.
"The police kept saying, 'We don't want another Superdome,' and 'This isn't New Orleans,' " said Larry Bradshaw, a San Francisco paramedic who was among those fleeing.
Arthur Lawson, chief of the Gretna, La., Police Department, confirmed that his officers, along with those from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and the Crescent City Connection Police, sealed the bridge.
"There was no place for them to come on our side," Mr. Lawson said.
He said that he had been asked by reporters about officers threatening victims with guns or shooting over their heads, but he said that he had not yet asked his officers about that.
"As soon as things calm down, we will do an inquiry and find out what happened," he said.
The lawlessness that erupted in New Orleans soon after the hurricane terrified officials throughout Louisiana, and even a week later, law enforcement officers rarely entered the city without heavy weaponry.
While police officers saved countless lives and provided security to medical providers, many victims have complained bitterly about the behavior of some of the police officers in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
Officials in Lafayette, La., reported seeing scores of cruisers from the New Orleans police department in their city in the week after the hurricane. Some evacuees who fled to the Superdome and the convention center say that many police officers refused to patrol those structures after dark.
"It's unbelievable what the police officers did; they just left us," said Harold Veasey, a 66-year-old New Orleans resident who spent two horrific days at the convention center. And in the week after the hurricane, there were persistent rumors in and around New Orleans that police officers in suburban areas refused to help the storm victims.
Mr. Bradshaw and his partner, Lorrie Beth Slonsky, wrote an account about their experiences that has been widely circulated by e-mail and was first printed in The Socialist Worker.
Cathey Golden, a 51-year-old from Boston, and her 13-year-old son, Ramon Golden, yesterday confirmed the account.
The four met at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. Mr. Bradshaw and Ms. Slonsky had attended a convention for emergency medicine specialists. Ms. Golden and her two children, including 23-year-old Rashida Golden, were there to visit family.
The hotel allowed its guests and nearly 250 residents from the nearby neighborhood to stay until Thursday, Sept 1. With its food exhausted, the hotel's manager finally instructed people to leave. Hotel staff handed out maps to show the way to the city's convention center, to which thousands of other evacuees had fled.
A group of nearly 200 guests gathered to make their way to the center together, the four said. But on the way, they heard that the convention center had become a dangerous, unsanitary pit from which no one was being evacuated. So they stopped in front of a New Orleans police command post near the Harrah's casino on Canal Street.
A New Orleans police commander whom none of the four could identify told the crowd that they could not stay there and later told them that buses were being brought to the Crescent City Connection, a nearby bridge to Jefferson Parish, to carry them to safety.
The crowd cheered and began to move. Suspicious, Mr. Bradshaw said that he asked the commander if he was sure that buses would be there for them. "We'd had so much misinformation by that point," Mr. Bradshaw said.
"He looked all of us in the eye and said, 'I swear to you, there are buses waiting across the bridge,' " Mr. Bradshaw said.
But on the bridge there were four police cruisers parked across some lanes. Between six and eight officers stood with shotguns in their hands, the witnesses said. As the crowd approached, the officers shot over the heads of the crowd, most of whom retreated immediately, Mr. Bradshaw, Ms. Slonsky and Ms. Golden and her son said.
Mr. Bradshaw said the officers were allowing cars to cross the bridge, some of them loaded with passengers. Only pedestrians were being stopped, he said. Chief Lawson said he believed that only emergency vehicles were allowed through.
Mr. Bradshaw said he approached the officers and begged to be allowed through, saying a commander in New Orleans had told them buses were waiting for them on the other side.
"He said that there are no buses and that there is no foot traffic allowed across the bridge," Mr. Bradshaw said.
The remaining evacuees first sought refuge under a nearby highway overpass and then trudged back to New Orleans.