Police patrolling devastated Ala city under curfew

AP News
Posted: May 03, 2011 7:33 AM
Police patrolling devastated Ala city under curfew

The looters come out at night. So does the curfew patrol.

With a long, broad band of this city of 94,000 laid waste by a tornado that killed at least 45 people and destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and churches, Tuscaloosa police have been working 12-hour shifts without any days off just to keep order.

Mayor Walt Maddox imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the ravaged areas, where the power remains off, so officers are now patrolling pitch-black, storm-tossed neighborhoods they once knew by heart to keep the storm's toll from getting any worse. The flashing strobe lights of their patrol cars reflect off the leaves of downed trees that line the streets, giving the scene an other-worldly pall.

It's Sunday night, what should be a quiet time, but the radio in Sgt. Brent Blankley's car crackles constantly.

Someone spotted possible looters in a neighborhood, and they're running _ send a car.

A volunteer needs a free place to stay for the night _ anyone know where they might find a bed?

Overhead, a police helicopter circles, patrolling from 300 feet up in the night sky with a spotlight.

In the days right after the twisters, residents complained of widespread looting. People took items from the rubble of a convenience store in broad daylight as officers drove by on the way to calls about missing children, injuries and natural gas leaks.

"We were completely overwhelmed, there's no question," Blankley said.

Since then, Gov. Robert Bentley has sent in Alabama National Guard troops to staff checkpoints into the mostly heavily damaged areas, and other cities and counties that weren't affected by the violent weather have pitched in by sending officers, patrol cars and other equipment.

Tuscaloosa police have only made a few arrests each day for storm-related offenses like looting and curfew violations, Blankley said, but Attorney General Luther Strange said the cases will be taken seriously. Speaking during a stop in an area that was pummeled by the twisters, Strange said the curfew was "helping tremendously," yet problems remain.

"I was just talking to an officer here in this area where we are, and they caught a guy stealing some goods out of a person's house 10 minutes ago in this location," Strange said Sunday. "That person has been arrested and we have made it clear that we are going to make prosecuting looters a high priority, hopefully discouraging people from coming to this area, and that's one of our missions."

Tuscaloosa has about 280 officers, some of whom sustained tornado damage themselves. Blankley was at home watching televised storm coverage with his wife when a tornado ripped through Cullman, to the northeast. Soon, another twister touched down near police headquarters in Tuscaloosa, then plowed through some of the city's most densely populated areas.

Blankley didn't suffer damage. But since then, time off has been precious and sleep tough amid 12-hour shifts that start at 6 p.m. The city hasn't said how long the curfew will remain in place, but it could be days.

"It's an emotional time, but we're doing the best we can with it," Blankley said.