Their homes are gone, their families scattered, their reputations sliding by the day.
Home for most New Orleans police officers is a cramped cruise ship, and work is 12- to 14-hour days in a wrecked city. When time off does come along, there is nowhere to go and no one to spend it with.
Experts say the personal and professional upheaval is catching up with the New Orleans police force in the form of desertions, suicides, corruption and perhaps even the videotaped beating over the weekend of an allegedly drunken man on Bourbon Street, to which police pleaded not guilty on Monday.
“This is unprecedented in our country,” said Dr. Howard Osofsky, chairman of psychiatry at the LSU Medical School Health Sciences Department. “There is no disaster that has had the amount of trauma for a department that this has, where so many police officers have lost homes, been separated from their families, had loved ones living in other places with no idea when they’ll return.”
Not even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have matched the strain produced by the hurricane and its ensuing rescues, evacuations and searches for the living and dead, said Osofsky, who is working with New Orleans officers and their families.
“The 9/11 attacks were very different,” he said. “Following 9/11 there was a known enemy, a known situation. And even though the two buildings were destroyed and lives lost, the people who survived could go to their homes. The city of New York was not destroyed, the country around it was not destroyed.”
80 percent of NOPD without homes
Like about 80 percent of the New Orleans force, 46-year-old Ronald Gillard, a 15-year veteran, lost his house to the storm. But when the winds died down, he was back at work.
“We went to the flooded areas and just started rescuing people,” he said. “We worked as long as we could, then I slept on the floor in a hotel lobby. We were eating cold food out of cans we found.”
Gillard called the cruise ship housing a lifesaver, even though police are usually two to a room. “If it wasn’t for that, being able to eat a hot meal, having a place to stay, I think I would have lost my mind,” he said.
The ship also allows his wife and 10-year-old son, now living in Houston, to visit on weekends. But the scattering of families is another stress factor.
Officer Melody Young, whose husband and son are also New Orleans officers, said she cries a lot these days. Her daughter is spending her senior year with Young’s sister in Mississippi. Her father is in intensive care in a Mississippi hospital.
“I pray a lot,” she said.
When Katrina passed, the department found itself without communications, with officers cut off from each other and headquarters. Lawlessness spread through the city. Rescue workers reported being shot at. Police Superintendent Eddie Compass publicly repeated allegations — later debunked — that people were being beaten and babies raped at the convention center.
Suicides, a resignation, accusations
At least two officers took their own lives in Katrina’s aftermath. Compass resigned last month. At the same time, the 1,450-member department said it was investigating nearly 250 officers accused of leaving their posts and 12 suspected of looting or condoning looting. Authorities are also looking into allegations officers took nearly 200 cars from a Cadillac dealership during the storm.
On Saturday night, a 64-year-old man was repeatedly punched by officers as four men dragged him to the ground. Another officer then attacked an Associated Press Television News producer who helped capture the arrest on tape.
“I’ve been here for six weeks trying to keep ... alive. ... Go home!” shouted the officer, who identified himself as S.M. Smith.
Three officers were suspended without pay, charged with battery and pleaded not guilty Monday. The U.S. Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Monday.
“I’m sick of it,” Young said. “It turns my stomach. There is so much more going on with our department.”
A bad reputation before Katrina
Well before Katrina, New Orleans’ police department had a reputation for corruption and brutality.
Former Police Superintendent Richard Pennington, now Atlanta’s chief, is widely credited with cleaning up the department, purging it of scores of bad cops during the 1990s — a decade when police were arrested for crimes ranging from shoplifting and bribery to bank robbery, drug dealing and rape.
Perhaps the worst came in the mid-1990s, when two cops were convicted of murder. Both are on death row. One was found guilty of arranging the 1994 murder of a woman who had filed a complaint against him. Another was convicted of triple murder in a restaurant holdup she orchestrated in 1995.
Brutality complaints surfaced again earlier this year. In March, black revelers at a St. Joseph’s Day celebration were allegedly roughed up by police. City officials said the group had grown too large and lacked proper permits for the event.
At least one police watchdog seems willing to give exhausted and stressed-out officers the benefit of the doubt.
‘Most notorious police department’
“We’re 10 years removed from being the most notorious police department in the United States,” said Rafael Goyeneche, executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of Greater New Orleans. “So people will assume this is just a continuation of that. But I don’t think it is.”
Saturday’s beating may be linked to “the seven weeks of hell they’ve been through,” Goyeneche said. “It doesn’t condone it, but it may explain it.”
“Here are officers crossing the line and quickly being jerked back,” he said. “That sends a very clear message. That’s very good.”
Most New Orleans officers have worked hard, ignored their personal problems, and lived up to their oaths to protect and serve, said police spokesman Marlon Defillo.
“We have approximately 1,450 commissioned persons who are working under some very adverse conditions,” Defillo said. “It’s a tribute to those officers who are working very hard to do the right thing.”