Staying Above Water

The double-wide trailer that passes for New Orleans Police Department’s 3rd District station is full of mismatched folding chairs and donated furniture, some pieces shiny and new, others old and musty. Some of the linoleum floor tiles are cracked, some streaked with black scuff marks, some missing altogether. A couple of desks are humming with brand new computers and recently installed telephones, yet officers get most of their information from paper notices taped haphazardly on the walls. 

Staying Above WaterOfficers Henry Newton Jr. and Ashish Shah patrol looking for copper thieves in the Gentilly area.

Next door, in the trailer used by the district’s command staff, a permanent stench hangs in the air, a combination of bad ventilation and poor sanitation habits. Most of the trash cans look like they haven’t been emptied in more than a week. Bottles of liquid hand sanitizer sit atop desks and file cabinets.

“Well, I guess there are several meanings to the work ‘rank,’” jokes Lt. Henry Dean, a 3rd District shift supervisor and president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “I suppose it’s a lived-in trailer smell but to tell you the truth, I don’t even notice it anymore. All I know is that the atmosphere is not conducive to a supervisor’s office.”

Despite the shabby conditions, officers assigned to the district have been charting signs of progress. The most popular measuring stick: the bathroom situation. Once the district returned to its Moss Street location after Katrina, the officers of the 3rd – which makes up Lakeview, Gentilly and parts of Mid-City – were forced to trudge from their trailer into their gutted district station to use the facilities, virtually the only thing left working in the ruined building. Eventually, mice, rats, squirrels, raccoons and aggressive geese made that trip too adventurous, so officers began hiking down the street to a Shell service station. Now, port-a-lets are set up outside the trailer, shared by everyone including cops, National Guard troops and passing civilians.

Staying Above WaterA trailer serves as the 5th District Police station.

“You can still get attacked [by animals] if you try to go at night,” says 10-year veteran officer Tracie Savala.

Another breakthrough was recently announced: The district will soon be moving to bigger, nicer trailers on City Park Avenue, complete with running water and working bathrooms. The upgrade comes courtesy of the communications department, which is vacating the trailers for its own temporary office space. Despite the seemingly good news, some of the officers’ cheers were sarcastic, others were mixed with grumbles.

Staying Above WaterOfficer Tracie Savala unlocks the accommodations at the 3rd District Police Station.

“Moving is hard. Just when we get settled in, we get uprooted,” Savala explains. “There’s no certainty about the future. You’re moving from one trailer to another. Well, I think first responders deserve a lot better than moving from one trailer to another.”

Welcome to the post-Katrina New Orleans Police Department. If ordinary citizens feel like they’re riding a roller coaster toward recovery, the city’s police officers have been whipsawed at home and on the job.

Staying Above WaterLt. Henry Dean stands in the gutted 3rd District Station.

They’ve been battered by the country’s costliest weather-borne disaster, yet forced by oath and driven by pride to answer the call of duty. They’re stretched paper-thin by more than 100 desertions during the storm, along with nearly 300 dismissals and resignations afterward but anticipating a pay hike and promotional exams to boost recruiting and combat retention. The traditional infighting and cliquish nature was badly exposed by the storm but the department is currently enjoying an historic infusion of outside expertise and resources.

Staying Above WaterIris Carey, a 23-year veteran says the slow pace of recovery at workcontinues to drag her down. “I really don’t know how to react anymore,”Carey says. “I’m numb.”

Many longtime officers say that the post-Katrina period has left the NOPD scraping rock bottom and that includes veterans who weathered the double body blows of nightmarish corruption scandals and sky-high murder rates of the mid-1990s.

“It’s dismal,” says one veteran detective of morale. “Heartbreaking. Two years ago we were everyone’s best friends when we were saving people from floodwater, sleeping in our cars and on the floor, doing whatever had to be done to keep this city alive. Now we’re being treated like stepchildren.”

Others, however, look at the same storm-tossed landscape and see the foundation of a  resurgence.

“I guess morale is relative,” says Superintendent Warren Riley, promoted to the top job on-the-fly when former Chief Eddie Compass was forced to resign three weeks after Katrina wreaked havoc. “It’s better than it was six months ago. And it’s a lot better than it was a year ago.”

This “best of times, worst of times” dualism that has gripped the NOPD is evident throughout the department, in some instances going all the way back to Katrina’s landfall on Aug. 29, 2005.

For example, the department was deflated – and hammered by the media – by wholesale  defections during the hell-on-earth days following the storm. But, in the eyes of many officers, those who stayed and helped bring order to the chaos – the majority of the pre-Katrina force – have forged the kind of bonds that only a shared traumatic experience can bring.

They waded through floodwaters, commandeered boats, chopped holes in rooftops, pulled people from attics, siphoned gas and ducked potshots in a city left dark and eerily quiet. They were rescuers and rescued. A handful took advantage of the lawless free-for-all that briefly gripped the city and looted. But scores more tried to prevent looting, even if it was just yelling across a flooded parking lot in an attempt to shame some opportunistic thief into doing the right thing.

“This department survived something nobody has seen since Noah’s Ark, only it was like Noah’s Ark with a hole in it,” says Assistant Chief Tony Cannatella, commander of the Operations Division. “Sure, there were some bad cops during the storm. But there were a helluva lot more good cops and they’re paying the price for the bad ones. I really feel in my heart and soul that 90 percent of the officers on the job were flat-out heroic.”

Today, some two years after the fact, the acute phase of Katrina is fading quickly in the rearview mirror. But for most NOPD officers, the lingering hardships created by the hurricane and resulting levee failures continue to mount. In addition to the department’s lost buildings, cars, equipment and troops, an estimated 70 percent of the remaining officers are dealing with personal losses, Cannatella says. They’re rebuilding homes, haggling with insurance companies, waiting in line for Road Home checks, keeping tabs on contractors, pulling together fractured families and dealing with the same malaise that has engulfed the entire region.

“The 3rd District station is gutted to the studs, just as it was one year ago,” Loyola University criminologist Dee Harper says. “It’s a good metaphor for the department. They’ve been gutted – in terms of manpower, buildings, equipment, you name it. I think they’re doing as good a job as they can under the circumstances. But obviously, it’s going to take some time.”

Cannatella says flagging morale will continue to take a gradual toll on troop strength, at least in the short term “We still have a lot of officers who haven’t gotten their Road Home money or their insurance settlement,” he says. “Some officers are in FEMA trailers, some are taking furlough to visit their families in some other state. We’re losing cops like that all the time.”

Take the plight of Officer Savala. Along with most of the officers in her district, she bunked at the Louisiana State University Dental School building to ride out the storm, only to be flooded, cut off from all communication and seemingly abandoned until a 10-boat flotilla of Ascension Parish Wildlife and Fisheries agents rescued them two days later. From there, she has slept on the cruise ship Ecstasy, a cot at the State Police compound in Baton Rouge and finally, a FEMA trailer next to her flooded home in eastern New Orleans. Not willing to wait for Road Home money, she says she used insurance money and savings to repair the house. She moved back in May.
Savala’s homecoming should have provided a big emotional breakthrough but she says instead it felt more like just another, albeit more comfortable, phase of a long, difficult recovery.

“When I moved back, I was the only one on the end of my block,” she says. “Total darkness. Total silence. I didn’t feel secure in my own home. I went from not setting any alarms (before the storm) to sleeping with a gun.”

Iris Carey, a 23-year veteran also assigned to the 3rd District, can relate. She traversed the same rough road as Savala, losing her eastern New Orleans home and everything in it. She says the psychic boost upon moving into her FEMA trailer was short-lived.

“It’s nice when you first get in it but pretty soon the walls start closing in on you. Cabin fever,” Carey says.

She says work during that time was both a blessing and curse.

“It could get very depressing,” she says. “You go from one trailer at home to another trailer at work, then you patrol the devastated areas, breaking up domestic fights in trailers. I was very stressed but I had to keep busy because if I hadn’t, I would have cracked. We all dealt with it. Officers would break down and cry and we’d hug each other and help each other get through it.”

Like Savala, Carey quickly rebuilt her home, fueled largely by a desire to get her two children – 6- and 9-year-old girls – back under the same roof with her. Her house was finished and family reunited last summer but the slow pace of recovery at work continues to drag her down.

“I really don’t know how to react anymore,” Carey says. “I’m numb.”

And so it goes throughout the department: two steps forward, one step back. Chief Riley and Assistant Chief Cannatella work in side-by-side trailers along Lafitte Street, waiting for the department’s five-story Broad Street headquarters building to be reopened. According to Riley, the building was supposed to be completed in July. Then the date was pushed back to September. Just recently, the estimate was revised to December.

The stop-and-start recovery is one of the few issues that brings visible consternation to Riley’s otherwise calm, business-like demeanor.

“Public safety should have been put at the very forefront of recovery,” Riley says. “Those district stations, special operations, our headquarters, should have been up and running within six months, at the maximum. Who dropped the ball, I don’t know. I do know it should have been at the forefront. It’s just common sense. It’s almost negligent, in my opinion.”

A study released in March by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, highlighted the glacial pace of rebuilding.

“Officers lack the basic essentials to do their job,” the report states. “The infrastructure that took years to develop is gone … Everything from toilet paper to copying paper seems to be in short supply. Private organizations must raise money to provide some of the basic supplies needed to do their jobs. In one instance reported to the RAND team, a neighborhood association held a bake sale to buy copier paper for a police district.”

Riley and his command staff have been offered more spacious and civilized digs in the Amoco Building downtown while they wait to move back to their headquarters but Riley refused the offer.

“We will not move until the rest of our officers are in decent facilities,” he says. “It would be an awful form of leadership to be in a corporate office when some of our officers don’t even have working bathrooms. That would kill morale.”

While the physical and psychological hardships faced by the NOPD are largely hidden from public view, the crime-fighting challenges are obvious and enormous. The harsh realities of the city’s violence-pocked streets are constantly in the news, whether it’s the steady drumbeat of local coverage or occasional take-outs from national media outlets who occasionally parachute into the disaster zone.

Few officers need to be reminded that New Orleans has regained the title of America’s murder capital, far outpacing other cities in homicides per capita basis. Yet even that depressing fact can be looked at two different ways: Riley was quick to point out that the city’s homicide tally of 162 last year was the lowest since there were 159 killings recorded in 1999. The bad news is that the city had a population of more than 450,000 in 1999, compared to a loosely estimated 255,000 today.

According to cops and criminologists, criminals have returned to the city at a faster pace than law-abiding citizens and Katrina’s forced exodus to cities like Houston and Atlanta gave drug thugs new connections and supply routes. On top of that, recovery of the city’s cops-to-courts-to-corrections justice system – marginally functional before the storm – has been piecemeal and sluggish.  
Given the city’s post-apocalyptic landscape, Riley says it’s unfair for the NOPD to be measured solely by standard statistical benchmarks.

“Crime is too high, obviously, but how can people judge us without identifying our issues?” he says. “We have kids living here without parents. People living in abandoned homes. We have domestic issues that are related to mental instability. We have very little support from the medical community. And for 21 months, we’ve had an insufficient criminal justice system. It’s a crazy and unique situation.”

While the crime picture is a dark cloud hanging over the city’s recovery, law enforcement officials say there’s a silver lining. Congress approved millions of dollars in emergency funding, consultants and think tanks have provided a steady stream of studies and expertise, citizens have stepped in with donations large and small. Larry Lundy’s donation of office space to the 7th District came right after the re-opening of the NOPD Crime Lab at the University of New Orleans’ lakefront campus, provided under a three-year lease.

On a more grass-roots level, community outrage and business community pressure has forced a shotgun marriage of sorts between the NOPD and the District Attorney’s office, despite the District Attorney’s grand jury indictment in Dec. 2006 of seven police officers. Those officers – known as the Danziger 7 – face murder and attempted murder charges stemming from a shootout that left two civilians dead and four wounded in Katrina’s chaotic aftermath. Even with that obvious sore spot, Riley and District Attorney Eddie Jordan adopted a 10-point plan to improve ties between their agencies and they meet periodically to keep the plan moving forward.

Perhaps the biggest impact on day-to-day crime-fighting has come in the form of unprecedented cooperation between federal authorities and the local police. Deepening an already solid relationship, federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA and ATF have embedded agents throughout the police department. In turn, the FBI has added NOPD officers to a variety of the agency’s most sensitive task forces, including counter-terrorism. The U.S. Attorney’s office – the federal prosecutorial arm – has accepted more local criminal cases than ever before.

“There is no better relationship between a municipal police department and federal law enforcement than what exists here in New Orleans right now,” local FBI Chief James Bernazzani says. “The FBI now has agents in every police district … Once NOPD is back standing on its feet, fully staffed with its headquarters operating, we expect to see a much larger dent in violent crime.”  

Riley is more cautious about predictions. He says his trial-by-fire tenure as chief has kept him jumping so quickly from one challenge to the next, he hasn’t had time to put the past 22 months into perspective.

“There nothing to compare it to,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll know the impact of this for many, many years. The police chiefs have a network around the country but there’s no one to turn to about how to deal with the aftermath of America’s greatest disaster.”

Recently, Cannatella was taking a drive to the 3rd District trailer – his old stomping grounds as a patrol officer – when he spotted a bumper sticker on the back of a car. It stated, “Thanks NOPD,” against the backdrop of department’s star-and-crescent logo.

“Now, that’s a first,” Cannatella says. “I haven’t seen that one before.” Then, as the burly chief pulled closer, he saw the car’s Mississippi license plate. “Out-of-state,” Cannatella grumbled. “Figures.”

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