12/19/2005

District struggles to come to terms with officer's suicide

By Trymaine Lee, Staff writer
 
Copyright 2005 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company

It's not the way a cop is supposed to die. Not by his own gun. Not when those who look up to him need him most. But with a pistol pressed to his head, 7th District officer Lawrence Celestine squeezed the trigger, as another officer, a relative, stood by helplessly.

Celestine had soldiered through Hurricane Katrina's immediate aftermath, but never made it to see the weekend.

What pushed Celestine over the edge, his captain suggested, was not the loss of homes or even lives, but the betrayal of their oath by the officers who deserted or quit during the crisis.

Of the eight police districts in the New Orleans Police Department, the 7th and 5th had the second-most desertions and resignations, tied just behind the 2nd. Twenty-one men and women tossed aside their badges. Celestine chose to say goodbye in another way.

"After 31 years on the job, I never thought I'd have to go and put a police officer in a body bag," said Capt. Bob Bardy, the 7th District commander. Bardy said he didn't want his officers -- "the kids," as he calls them -- to see the much-admired Celestine brought so low.

"You kind of feel like these young officers are your children," said Bardy, who cleared the floor at a nursing home being used as a barracks and assisted two ranking officers and an EMS worker in loading Celestine's body into a narcotics surveillance van. "Those who let him down, they'll have to live with this for the rest of their lives. They know who they are."

A district comprising 140 square miles in eastern New Orleans, the 7th was 90 percent flooded, much of it deeply.

Many officers had to be plucked from their homes in harrowing rooftop rescues, Bardy said. Early in the morning of the hurricane, the district's Dwyer Road station began taking on water.

About 80 officers were in place, two-thirds of the district's force. The other officers were expected to report Aug. 29 at 4 p.m., but most were unable to make it, trapped in their homes or on flooded thoroughfares.

"Every safeguard failed," Bardy said.

The telephone lines went down not long after, and the 7th was stranded out in the farthest stretches of the city. The officers evacuated the building and trudged down Read Boulevard to Methodist Hospital, where they holed up for days. Patients died before their eyes, and officers' fingers went numb from squeezing breathing bags into the lungs of patients whose respirators had failed along with the hospital's electrical service.

The 7th District officers eventually made their way to an evacuated banquet hall at Chef Menteur Highway and Read Boulevard that became both a headquarters and, temporarily, a men's barracks

Most of the district's female officers joined a lieutenant who agreed to house them at her unflooded home in Algiers.

"You can't compare us to any other group," Bardy said. "Our whole district is a fish bowl; the only dry part was Chef Highway. We weren't out there playing musical hotels.

"We didn't have Wal-Marts or Winn-Dixie we could commandeer."

With their patrol cars stranded in a multiple-story garage surrounded by water, officers kept an eye out for people driving obviously stolen vehicles: buses, lumberyard trucks, cabs. They commandeered the vehicles and sent the suspected thieves on their way, for lack of a place to detain them. Boats were commandeered as well and used in rescue missions.

In the following days, which blended seamlessly into weeks, the officers of the 7th District faced unparalleled challenges in a depopulated area that some city planners believe should stay that way. Widespread looting of flooded houses continues, despite efforts by federal agents and National Guard soldiers who have joined with Bardy's officers in a campaign to contain it.

Some of Bardy's officers have come under the microscope after fatally shooting two flood evacuees in a Sept. 4 incident on the Danziger Bridge. Police said they had received reports that snipers in a crowd on the bridge had opened fire on a passing convoy of contract workers. Arriving at the scene, police said, they engaged the gunmen and returned fire. A 19-year-old man was killed, as was a mentally disabled man whose brother was arrested. Four others in the crowd were shot.

Details remain murky as the investigation continues, but Bardy said his officers did nothing wrong and that the cloud over his district's performance will be dispelled.

He also is confident that the tribunals being held to discipline AWOL officers and those who abandoned their posts will weed out many of the bad apples in the department. He envisions a leaner, more dedicated Police Department of about 1,100 officers, 500 fewer than before, but a tougher and more skillful force as a result of Katrina.

"The experience we gained and the education on humanity, you could never duplicate it," Bardy said.

. . . . . . .

Trymaine Lee can be reached at mperlstein@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3301. 
 
December 18, 2005

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