A 45-year-old Housing Authority of New Orleans police officer was shot to death Sunday morning in his marked squad car near Erato and Freret streets, in a section of the Guste Homes public housing complex that’s still under construction.

The officer’s name was withheld pending notification of family.

New Orleans Police Department officers responding to a call found the officer’s body about 7 a.m.

Upon preliminary investigation, it appeared that the officer’s car was moving when he was shot, said New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who noted that the car continued rolling on its own for about a half-block and up onto the curb. The driver’s window was shattered.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu pledged that HANO and the NOPD would work closely together to identify those responsible for what he called a “heinous assault.”

Neighbors said the block was a tragedy waiting to happen because it has no streetlights. “It’s too dark,” one resident said.

As a result, thieves have long been drawn to the construction zone, which sits about two blocks toward the river from the Home Depot store at Earhart Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue.

Too often, people with criminal intent have tried to hop the chainlink fences with hopes of stealing construction materials from the partially built Guste townhouses, said the housing development’s president and CEO, Cynthia Wiggins.

As a deterrent, she said, the site used only PVC plastic piping, not copper, which can be a magnet for thieves looking for quick cash.

On Sunday morning, as officers searched not only the street but the nearby unfinished buildings, some neighbors speculated that the officer might have encountered his assailant on the construction site and perhaps ordered him to leave.

Wiggins said she had heard those theories. She’d also talked to all the Guste residents living within earshot of the block. No one had heard any gunshots or any confrontation, she said.

Until recently, private security guards hired by the general contractor Parkcrest Builders patrolled the construction site from the time workers left, about 4:15 p.m., until they returned at 6:30 a.m.

Mike Stewart, a vice president for the Houston company, said Parkcrest initially hired one security guard but quickly added a second to combat thievery attempts. “One was not sufficient,” he said.

But within the past month or so, HANO removed Parkcrest from the job because it hadn’t delivered units when promised for this section of rental apartments, which represents the third phase of rebuilding at Guste since Hurricane Katrina.

When Parkcrest left the job, it pulled its private security officers as well, so HANO officers were called in to patrol the grounds until a new general contractor could be put in place, Wiggins said.

Typically, she said, HANO had two officers in separate cars on its patrols. HANO had no immediate explanation for why only one officer was working Sunday morning.

But HANO police chief Robert Anderson said the officer was working an overtime shift when he was slain.

HANO Executive Director Gregg Fortner issued a statement saying HANO mourned the loss of a “valued and dedicated employee,” who Anderson said was the first killed in the history of the HANO police force.

Fortner said the authority is working with the NOPD in the investigation of the killing. He said patrols in the Guste area will be increased.

Until 2011, HANO’s officers provided security for the agency’s properties but didn’t have arrest powers and weren’t considered police officers. But in June 2011, a new state law, Act 117, authorized HANO to commission “peace officers” to patrol its properties.

HANO’s existing officers were given additional training at that time and the force was more than doubled from 10 to roughly 25 officers.

Many of the newly hired officers came from nearby police departments and sheriff’s offices.

Sources said the officer killed Sunday was a seasoned law enforcement officer who was hired two years ago, not long after the HANO force was upgraded and expanded.

“It’s a horrible thing for us,” Anderson said. “A young officer was taken way too soon.”