New Orleans police Sgt. Becky Benelli hugs a fellow officer during a Catholic mass held in an entryway of a Wal-Mart store in New Orleans on Sunday.
Stress, homelessness afflict many on New Orleans force
NEW ORLEANS - They sleep on the concrete sidewalk or in their cars. They scavenge for food from abandoned stores and cook by fire. They wash the laundry by hand and leave it to dry on lines hung from lampposts.
This is what life has been like for New Orleans police officers since Hurricane Katrina tore apart their city nearly two weeks ago.
The Wal-Mart Supercenter on the riverfront, looted in the storm's aftermath, is the new headquarters -- and for many, the new home -- for the 103 officers of the 6th District, which includes the city's historic Garden District. Their station house, as well as those of the 3rd, 5th and 7th districts, was flooded.
In the days before the hurricane, the police force numbered 1,750. After Katrina, officials could account for only a few more than 1,200. No one knows whether the missing are dead, injured or just could not face the horror of the work.
During the worst of it, when people were drowning in their homes and dying because of a lack of basic necessities, two officers put guns to their heads and killed themselves. Two hundred quit. An estimated 70 percent of the force is now homeless.
For some, worse than Iraq
Officer Dave Lapene, 25, a former Marine who served in Iraq during the invasion, is among them.
"The feeling is similar to being in Iraq," said Lapene, whose house was destroyed. "But when you realize that this is your home, you know it's not right. It's worse. When you're overseas the motivation is to get back to something. Here, we don't have anything to go back to."
Local officers have been criticized for not doing more to evacuate people before the waters rushed in. From their point of view, however, they struggled desperately to do all they could. But it was not enough.
Until Thursday, when the first batch of officers was allowed to take a five-day vacation, the force had been working nonstop for 11 days. They watched people urinate on themselves because no bathrooms were available, they saw babies die of starvation, and they pulled dead bodies from the Superdome and convention center.
Knowing the victims
To other rescue workers, the victims were nameless strangers. To New Orleans officers, they were neighbors, friends, family members.
Police Superintendent P. Edwin Compass III had been begging for relief for his officers, almost all of whom have been on duty 24 hours a day since Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29. "Not one of the 40 commanders has left his post," the chief said proudly.
He said in an interview that he has asked the federal government for a cruise ship or some sort of temporary housing for the force and their families, and has told everyone to get physical and psychological evaluations.
The commander of the 6th District, Capt. Anthony Cannatella, said he wants everyone to know "the New Orleans police did not run out and abandon the city."
A makeshift home
Over the past two weeks, police officers have made this shopping center their home. Someone fetched the street sign for the old headquarters: "S. Rampart and Martin Luther King Blvd." They grabbed an American flag from the Wal-Mart and hoisted it in the middle of the parking lot.
Cannatella has tried to keep some semblance of normalcy in the place. In the car where he sleeps, he has hung three starched, white uniform shirts wrapped in plastic. He's been wearing a ratty, gray T-shirt for several days.
"I'm not going to wear those starched shirts in this filth," he explained. "I'm saving them." But he's not sure when things will calm down enough for him to want to put one on.
One evening last week, about 17 officers of the 6th District gathered around some candles, a makeshift campfire of sorts, in one of their first breaks since the ordeal began.
The conversation was light at first with everyone laughing and joking, especially about their rescues.
"And he was wearing kneepads for some reason!"
"So the guy pulls flares out of his pocket and aims at the helicopter above us, and I said, 'Don't shoot the police!' I was like, 'Sit down, eat a ham sandwich.' "
But as the night continued, the tone shifted.
There was discussion about four officers who quit in recent days. One left after breaking his leg. Another, a rookie, just took off. Two, a man and woman who had been on the force for many years, handed the captain their badges at the end of last week and said they couldn't take any more.
Since then, one has returned to the force and two others have asked to come back. Many around the candles called them "cowards," and said they would never be accepted back.
"If you leave the fight and then come back afterwards, you may as well not have come back. At this point, you are no longer a policeman," said Officer Dumas Carter, 30.
There's a mixture of pride, guilt and anger in their talk. "This is our psychotherapy session," said Sgt. Kenneth Miestchovich, 42, one of two platoon leaders.
Most of the officers have incidents that haunt them.
For David Holtzclaw, 42, a tough-talking, macho police officer who has been on the force for nearly 25 years and has seen many dead bodies, it's about a baby. He was helping at the convention center one night when a man came up to him carrying his baby in a filthy blanket.
"The baby's lips were blue," he remembered. He hadn't eaten in days, and the mother was unable to breast-feed because she was ill.
Holtzclaw didn't know what to do. There was no hospital, no paramedics to call. He rushed the father and baby into his car, and began speeding west, away from the water. He stopped in St. Charles Parish and called an emergency medical service crew, which picked up the child. He found out later that the baby did not survive.
"I never thought in my wildest fears that this could happen -- that a baby could starve like that in America. I have to think God has a reason," he said.
A few days later, after the National Guard arrived, Holtzclaw saw a huge pallet of baby formula at the police headquarters and he was in agony all over again.
It was after 1 a.m. before the officers of the 6th scattered to try to get some rest. Few were able to sleep through the night, and soon the parking lot was filled with half a dozen officers wandering around silently in the darkness.
It's a shame that to many
It will never be they officer who came home after dealing with this whole mess for 48 straight to find his own house underwater...
It will never be the officer who was told about the little old lady whose house was underwater by the time rescue crews got there...
It will never be the NOLO born 'n' bred "home boy" officer seeing the streets, homes, and memories of his childhood under 18 feet of water... on his way to another part of town to try and keep the mob from, well, being a mob.
I have not made any comments on this board related to the resent events in NO. I still don't know what to say. I can't imagine doing my job in the conditions that they are working in every day.
About 4-5 times a year the Campus I work at is swarmed by hundreds of thousands on game days, it's crazy from 5am to 5am, but at last, the crowds leave and we go home too. We have cruisers with gas, radios, a game plan and a PD to return to. While mostly drunk the people we serve are not in any type of dire straits. As overwhelming as things my some times feel during this, It can not in any way be near as damaging, exhausting and difficult as what our brothers in the effected areas have been facing for nearly a month.
We have all faced riots and general crazy nights, but at the end we went home, to both our stations and our houses. We get to have that great feeling, returning to station ripping off your vest and having a smoke in the parking lot with your pals. Talking about what so and so did and what you wished you could have done, all the while starting to chill as your sweat soaked tee shirt cools in the wind. It's a felling of tremendous relief that they will not see in a long long time. Thats what bothers me the most , that there relief is so far away and for some it may never come.
God Bless our brothers in all the effected areas and the people they serve
I'm not going to comment any further wit those who just want a reason to criticize us. It wastes their time and annoys THIS pig.
None of us who weren't there can ever understand what has happened. I still don't get why there were so many depts and officers told to stand down by FEMA. It sounds like they have more than just a need for more help. I was told by my Chief that he had called FEMA and had been told that they had enough LEO in the area. They were probably counting the military and the Guard in their numbers. Not that I have anything against them but unless they're an MP unit they aren't cops.
I have a question I'm hoping someone can help my dept. with, our FOP received the letter from FOP National president Chuck Canterbury requesting help. As the letter requested we contacted national vice-president Pat Yoes who stated that he didn't need anyone and to call him back in a week.
Well upon contacting him today we were told that St. Charles Parrish needs no more help.
So my question is, according to the article posted above NOPD still wants help, how can we contact them directly to offer our assistance? Any ideas?
I would also like to know this info. several of us who are on SWAT volunteered to go down to assist in any way we could. Our team commander said FEMA does not want any more help. I know the NOPD would LOVE the help.
Unimagineable. Unfortunately, I think Tango7 summed it up as far as how the dept will be viewed in the coming months.
I was chomping at the bit to go for relief, and have good qualifications...but my dept is very strict on our mutual aid protocols. If I went on my own, I would come back jobless. I am still waiting for some official word.
I tend to feel impotent sitting here when LEOs/FFs/Rescue personnel could desparately use more help. For now, donations and money are the only option.
Cowards is an understatement.
I take it no one has a contact on the ground?