IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Police keep public trust, private pain

New Orleans officers face homelessness and private pain even as they try to keep the public trust while working from their parking lot headquarters.
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.Ann Heisenfelt / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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.

Haunting incidents
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.