“When an old man dies, a library burns.” – African proverb

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Chief Ronal Serpas have unveiled a crisp “Get Behind the Badge” recruitment campaign to shore up a 1,200-officer force depleted by retirements, firings and resignations. The goal is to hire 150 new recruits this year and lateral transfers from other agencies.

A strategy for retaining older, experienced veterans wasn’t apparent from the NOPD’s initial media blitz.

They will be needed to both train and supervise the new recruits, and to implement “constitutional policing” practices at every level of the NOPD – as required by a court-supervised consent decree. “Citizen complaints are often higher for less experienced officers,” according to a recent study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In addition, “new, inexperienced officers tend to have more automobile accidents.”

Dwayne Orrick, an IACP expert and author of a “Best Practices Guide” for police retention and recruitment, recommends that law enforcement agencies trying to stop the loss of cops should perform “stay interviews” with “high-performing” officers who remain on the job.

The goal is to determine “individual traits in persons who are more likely to stay and fit within an agency.”

Until recently, no officer has stayed on the New Orleans Police Department longer than William “Trap” Trepagnier, now 70.

“Trap” retired July 6 as one of the NOPD’s longest-serving patrol officers with nearly 50 years of service. He left as lead fugitive investigator, with extensive contacts in prisons, police departments and courthouses nationwide.

“Trap has a sterling reputation,” says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission and a retired NOPD detective. “He is well-known, well-trusted and well-respected.”

He could have retired with the full benefits of a 30-year police pension and built a second pension,” Radosti continues. “It was dedication that kept him with the New Orleans Police Department.”

In the tough Sixth Police District, where he spent 15 years as a patrolman, Trepagnier was “legendary.”

“He treated people like he wanted to be treated and it worked out for him,” says retired Detective John Montalbano, who worked with Trepagnier as a patrol officer and later as an investigator assigned to the District Attorney’s Office.

This columnist caught up with Trepagnier at a small retirement party, hosted by residents and business owners from the Lakeview Crime Prevention District (LCPD) at Gulf Coast Bank & Trust.

“If you really want a good cop, go find one with gray hair!” Trepagnier says, prompted by a middle-aged officer. A group of NOPD veterans roar with laughter. The younger cop smiles, repeats the catchy adage and forks a slice of cake.

Trepagnier’s name appears on the retirement cake along with Sergeant Joseph F. Bouvier, who would retire two days later with 34 years on the NOPD.  Both officers worked part-time details for the LCPD, a model for the neighborhood security districts in New Orleans.

“He was always on time and never left early,” Bouvier says of Tregpanier. “I’ve seen him work sick as a dog when he should have been at home or in the hospital.”

Someone in the neighborhood group asks Trepagnier to say a few words. “I started at the age of 18 and left at the age of 69,” he says. He joined the NOPD in 1964 – the same year the department changed the colors of patrol cars from solid-black to powder blue-and-white. He quit three months later, citing a family illness. He rejoined the force Nov. 11, ’65.

On his first day on the job, he worked an undercover assignment with the vice squad, canvassing bars for illegal gambling payoffs on pinball machines. He also worked stints for the NOPD intelligence division, monitoring demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

There was no air-conditioning in police cars, which were equipped with police radios. Police didn’t have hand-held radios then and the murder rate was far lower than today.

“When I first started, we had 30 murders a year; most homicides were barroom violence,” he says. “We hit 50 murders one year and everybody got chewed out. Joe Giarrusso was chief back then. He said, ‘We’ve got to put a stop to these murders!’”

Several Lakeview residents gasped with surprise at the low numbers of homicides Trepagnier cited. (The city recorded 155 murders in 2013.)

Trepagnier spent 15 years in the Sixth Police District, a high-crime area with four housing projects.

He says he preferred the St. Thomas development in the Irish Channel. “I knew all the people in the St. Thomas. I used to walk St. Thomas from 11 at night to 7 in the morning. I’d go sit on the porches and talk to people.” He says his best years on the force were in the Sixth District under Manuel Curry and Perry White, white and black sergeants, respectively, who lifted their squads above the racial tensions of the day.

From 1979 to 1989, he served as a police investigator assigned to District Attorney Harry Connick. He began working fugitive extraditions until he retired last summer. “I got the traveling criminals,” he deadpanned.

He recalled nights of broken sleep and late-night phone calls to his home and weighty decisions over the fates of suspects in handcuffs. “You have to make sure the suspect is the same fugitive sought on a warrant. You don’t want the wrong person in jail.”

With the help of old newspaper clippings, he recalls colorful details of the arrests of fugitive killers, robbers and scam artists found hiding in New Orleans.

In 1994, Trepagnier and fellow Detective Yvonne Farve arrested a man here who was wanted in Houston for a murder and armed robbery 30 years earlier.

“This is the guy who looked like Andre the Giant,” Trepagnier says, pointing to the name of the suspect. “The murder happened in 1964. He killed the guy in Texas but kept his car.” The car was found near Flint-Goodridge Hospital in New Orleans.

Other incidents require no cues.

In 1973, Trepagnier was in the second patrol car to respond to the so-called “Howard Johnson’s” hotel sniper attacks. Begging New Year’s Eve ’72, a gunman’s bloody rampage and ensuing police siege left nine people dead, including five police officers. Trepagnier helped rescue a firefighter who was shot and seriously wounded by sniper fire, while scaling a ladder leading to the burning hotel. Trepagnier today insists he exchanged gunfire with two snipers. The official police report listed only self-styled militant Mark Essex, who was killed by police on the roof of the hotel.

In November 1972, Trepagnier rode in the third patrol car responding to the Rault Center fire, which left five people dead including four women who jumped to their deaths.

Fighting crime wasn’t his only duty. He once arrived ahead of fire trucks called to an apartment fire in the Magnolia housing project. “A woman said there’s a baby in there. I got on my hands and knees and crawled inside. I could hear the baby crying.” He carried the child outside to safety. A crowd applauded.

The department didn’t have a life-saving award at the time, he said, expressing surprise at a reporter’s question. “That was normal occurrence. That’s what you were expected to do. I’d help anybody.”

But why did he stay so long? “I loved it,” he says. “It was an honor to serve.”

A citizen asks how he’s adjusting to retirement. “It’s hard,” he says. “I’ve been doing the same thing since I was a teenager.”

 Several weeks later, “Trap” celebrated his 70th birthday.