She died alone, murdered in broad daylight.
Now the body of 24-year-old New Orleans Police Officer Nicola Diane Cotton rests in a stone vault at the corner of Greenwood Cemetery, near City Park at Canal Boulevard. A two-year veteran of the NOPD, earlier this year Cotton became the second female officer slain on-duty and allegedly the second consecutive officer murdered by a mental patient since 2004. Cotton also was the 108th officer killed in the line of duty since 1856, according to The Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org).
“She’s interred in the Police [Mutual] Benevolent Association Tomb – Tomb No. 7,” a cemetery spokesperson tells a visitor. Her name has not yet been engraved, he adds. Cotton’s legacy is also unfinished. As the case of her accused killer proceeds through the criminal justice system, the promise of her life should not be overshadowed by the horrors of her death.
It happened on a Monday.
On Jan. 28, Cotton, 24, was on patrol alone in Central City – the gritty, impoverished neighborhood where she grew up. Sometime after 9:30 a.m., she was dispatched to the 2000 block of Earhart Boulevard. She rolled up to a bleak strip mall that she had frequented as a young girl. She found a vagrant sitting on the curb: Bernel P. Johnson, 44, of Kenner. His own family later identified him as a mental patient with a history of violence. At the time, however, Cotton was informed (erroneously) that Johnson was a rape suspect. Cotton, who was 5-foot-5 and slender, then attempted to handcuff Johnson, who stood 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds. A seven-minute struggle ensued, reportedly captured on a store surveillance camera. Cops say Johnson choked Cotton and struck her in the head with her expandable baton. She apparently managed to radio for help, before Johnson removed her .40 caliber Glock service weapon from her holster. He then allegedly stood over her and fired 15 fatal shots.
When other officers arrived, Johnson allegedly handed over Cotton’s empty weapon. He was arrested and booked with first-degree murder. Defense attorney Kerry Cuccia filed motions for access to 9-1-1 calls, police radio transmissions and any videotapes of Cotton’s murder. Meanwhile, the coroner’s office disclosed that on Jan. 4, Johnson was diagnosed as mentally ill and dangerous, then forcibly committed to the state’s mental health care system – three weeks before his encounter with Cotton. For reasons that remain unclear, he was released from state custody. The public was stunned to learn a woman was patrolling a high-crime area alone. Somber NOPD officials replied that Cotton was doing her job. Jill Hayes, a local forensic psychologist who has counseled cops, says, “Sometimes you can do everything right and the worst thing still happens.”
One-person patrol cars have been a feature of NOPD for 40 years. Yet, the FBI reported that 64 percent of the cops injured in 57,746 assaults were working in one-person cars, according to a 10-year study through 2005. Only 17 percent of the injured cops were in two-officer cars. The rest were otherwise assigned. Out of 575 officers “feloniously killed” during that period, 307 victim-cops were alone or assisting one-officer units; only 76 slain cops were in two-person cars, the rest were assigned elsewhere.
If Nicola Cotton feared danger she had plenty of chances to quit the NOPD. On June 7, 2005, then 21, she filled out a city application for police officer. Two days later, veteran NOPD officers David Carter and Jon Steele, both 47, were seriously wounded in a shootout with a distraught Texas man who they tried to search inside of the Fifth District Police station, located at 3900 N. Claiborne Ave. The gunman was killed. The officers survived.
Meanwhile, Cotton forged ahead. She was appointed to the academy 10 days later. Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29. Cotton relocated with her family to Memphis. Despite the storm’s chaotic aftermath, she returned to New Orleans and finished the police academy. “Her legacy is that she brought a spirit to the Police Department – with a smile,” says Assistant Police Superintendent Marlon Defillo. “This giving person smiled every single day. I would joke with her and say, ‘Nicola, do you ever frown?’ And she’d said, ‘No, Chief.’”
She even lifted the spirits of homeowners at her off-duty security detail where she worked at a state office of the Road Home grant program, Defillo says. She reportedly carried extra one-dollar bills to pass out to the homeless while on patrol.
And Cotton clearly represented a new generation of cops. She posted her photo (in civilian dress) on MySpace.com, an Internet site for social networking. She listed NOPD as her employer and her annual income at $45,000 to $60,000. In the space marked “children,” Cotton wrote: “some day.”
Born six months before the 1984 World’s Fair opened in New Orleans, Cotton grew up in crime-ridden Central City as a quiet, clean-cut youth who attended church regularly. She graduated from Warren Easton High School in 2001. She then moved to Texas, spending two years at a Job Corps training program.
At some point she decided to join the NOPD. Returning home in 2004, Cotton worked as an overnight stocker at Wal-Mart, earning $1,560 monthly while taking classes towards a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Delgado Community College. Cotton was already on the force last summer when she first met Miya Martin, an academic advisor at Delgado. “She was very shy, very reserved.” Martin recalls. But, “I could tell she was a very serious student and would do whatever it took to get that degree. She was organized and ahead of the game.” Cotton also carried herself differently than other cops at Delgado. She never appeared in uniform. She was confident but without bravado. “She always had a really humble spirit about her,” Martin says. “[Policing] definitely wasn’t about the accolades for her. She was truly a servant.”
Significantly, Cotton’s fellow officers captured her accused killer alive. In the recent past, NOPD’s handling of an accused cop-killer might have resulted in death by “street justice” and a polarized community.
The Cotton case marks a welcome change of hearts – and minds. Activist Brad Ott has called for an investigation of how Cotton’s accused killer was released from state custody. He and other mental health advocates also have applauded the cops’ handling of psychiatric patients post-Katrina. Public interest has been directed toward the state’s broken mental health care system and Cotton’s legacy. “Because of her death, maybe now the system dealing with mental health patients will have more restraint,” says August “Gus” Krinke, a retired 32-year veteran of the NOPD. Meanwhile, tributes to Cotton have flourished citywide. Flags were lowered to half-staff. The Police & Justice Foundation reported increases in police recruit inquiries. Black-ribbon salutes to her memory graced Carnival floats.
William Roth, president of the Police Mutual Benevolent Association, says he saw the marching band from Warren Easton High, Cotton’s alma mater, carry a photograph of the fallen officer in her blue police uniform during four Carnival parades.
After her death, the retired cops of the PMBA offered her family a burial place for their child in the handcrafted police tomb, which was completed in 1917. Today, Nicola Cotton rests with more than 50 other members of the NOPD.
“She’ll never be alone again,” Roth says.