One day in 1997, during the height of the last major attempt to “reform” the New Orleans Police Department, I found myself back in the cancer ward of Ochsner Hospital – with unexpected company.
Seated on the powder-blue reclining chair next to me was a new arrival: New Orleans police Sgt. Ron Cannatella, the irrepressible president of the Police Association of New Orleans.
Cannatella, then 47, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. As a chain-smoker, his statistical chances of long-term survival were dim.
I was 41, and undergoing a second chemotherapy regimen for hairy cell leukemia, the same rare but highly treatable cancer that nearly killed me in 1994.
My “chemo day” with Ron Cannatella happened more than 13 years ago. It was a unique encounter that changed the way I look at police reform efforts today. I had covered NOPD and PANO for 15 years, but Cannatella and I were never friends. In fact, we were long-time adversaries.
He was the fiery police union leader who tirelessly advocated for higher pay, better working conditions and the collective bargaining rights that his PANO predecessor lost during the 1979 police strike.
I was just a reporter who saw a police department rife with corruption, brutality and racism. I wrote a lot of stories.
PANO’s rank and file often called me directly, responding with fresh fury. (NOPD brass and top city officials called the editor or publisher.)
Anyone who has stepped into the public arena knows an adversary can give your work a special raison d’être. For 15 years, Cannatella’s strident opposition had worked for me. Now, seated in the chemo unit, the end of our adversity was near, and I didn’t want to see Ron Cannatella leave public life – just change his union’s direction, strategies and tactics.
I certainly didn’t want him to die.
We passed the time telling “war stories.”
“Man! When we got behind closed doors with (former mayor) Dutch (Morial), and he got mad – he’d start running around the conference table, yelling at us – “You buncha motherfuckers!” Cannatella chuckled, then added: “But at least you always knew where you stood with Dutch.”
The first time I saw Cannatella at Ochsner, he strutted into the waiting room next to the chemo unit, as if reporting for duty. His blue, short-sleeve police uniform was neatly pressed, his black shoes polished.
When a quiet desk clerk asked a routine question about his health, the police sergeant’s reply boomed across the room. “They’re frying me with radiation!”
He smiled, and winked at a cancer patient nearby.
His “chemo day” was less upbeat.
Sunlight poured into the first-floor window of the chemo unit. Some patients shivered under white blankets. Others shuffled up to the nurse’s station in the center of the room. One man drew a privacy curtain around his blue chair and began to wretch; a sign the poisonous “chemo” was taking effect.
I handed Cannatella a dish of lemon drops. Sucking on the candy might help settle his stomach, or keep his mouth from feeling like pigeon droppings at Jackson Square, I said.
He smiled, then stared at the river levee in the distance. “They say there’s an emotional component to this …” he began.
I nodded yes. Research suggested protracted stress could accelerate the growth of existing cancers.
Cannatella replied his “emotional component” was a once-trusted NOPD officer and PANO treasurer, who ultimately served 21 months in federal prison, after admittedly stealing $185,248.26 in union funds.
The federal vetting of PANO cleared Cannatella of any wrongdoing. Yet the scandal took a toll. The price of other police “betrayals” became clear.
During the last years of his life, Cannatella’s friends and family members would later recall, Cannatella worked to build a monument dedicated to officers killed in the line-of-duty statewide after attending the 1995 funeral of Officer Ronald Williams. Promotional letters for the $250,000 monument at Lake Lawn cemeteries don’t dwell on the unique horror of the Williams’ death. NOPD Officer Antoinette Frank and a civilian were convicted of fatally shooting her former police partner and two other people during a robbery of a restaurant in eastern New Orleans.
During the Pennington Era (1994-2002) then-mayor Marc Morial would later write – 600 police officers were arrested, fired, disciplined or resigned while under investigation. Dozens of officers went to jail and two went to Death Row. Others were never prosecuted.
During our chemo visit, I reminded Cannatella of the 1990 in-custody death of accused cop-killer Adolph Archie.
No officer was even disciplined for the mob-like conduct cops displayed following the murder of a patrolman.
Yet, no officer stood taller that day than Kevin Cannatella, as I reminded his ailing uncle.
Under questioning from civil rights attorney Mary E. Howell during a 1993 civil proceeding, Kevin Cannatella recalled that he and another cop rushed downtown in response to the rush-hour shooting death of Officer Earl Hauck.
Transcripts show that Kevin Cannatella testified how he found Archie under a car in a nearby parking lot, armed with a revolver. The rookie said he holstered his weapon as the cursing suspect alternately tried to shoot himself or provoke the cops into killing him. Cannatella testified he feared any gunfire would hit innocent passerby. The rookie managed to extract, then handcuff the slightly injured Archie, who he then turned over to veteran Officer Joe Maumus, a friend of the dying officer.
Instead of receiving medical treatment at Charity Hospital, where a crowd of angry cops awaited, Archie was taken to the First District station. Forty-five minutes later, four cops returned the suspect to Charity, national deadly force experts James J. Fyfe and Jerome H. Skolnick, wrote in their book, Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force (The Free Press, 1993). “This time he has two skull fractures, a broken larynx and fractures of the cheekbones. He had bleeding testicles and his teeth had been kicked in. Archie died 12 hours later.”
The authors called his death “vigilante justice.”
The experts don’t mention Kevin Cannatella, whose by-the-book arrest invited scorn from other NOPD officers.
“I was ridiculed severely,” Cannatella recalled. He left NOPD to join the Louisiana State Police.
On Oct. 14, 1996, then-Chief Richard Pennington promised to slash the city’s nation leading murder rate by half within three years.
Afterwards, Ron Cannatella worried about the chief’s ability to field a 1,700-officer force, citing the stress of policework.
“It frightens me, but the average age a police officer lives past retirement is 57-years-old,” Cannatella said. “It’s very stressful; it takes its toll. I’m eligible for retirement right now. When I retire next June , I will have 29 years, nine months on the Police Department. It’s fortunate that I’m only going to be 48 years old because I started out very early in my career.”
Ron Cannatella died Feb. 20, 1998 – three days shy of his 49th birthday.
Former Chief Warren Woodfork remembered Cannatella as the founding father of NOPD’s Child Abuse section, a contribution to the city that far exceeded his advocacy at PANO.
If Kevin Cannatella is available, “reform” Superintendent Ronal Serpas should ask him to return to NOPD as a deadly force-training instructor.
Chief Serpas should also invite his partners in the FBI’s Civil Rights Cold Case Squad to reopen an investigation into the death of Adolph Archie. We shouldn’t forget the lesson Ron Cannatella learned in his dying days: there is an “emotional component” to cancer and police misconduct that takes a terrible toll on us all.