Officers throw a lifeline to fellow cops
By Trymaine Lee, Staff writer
Copyright 2005 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
Capt. David Kirsch, commander of the 4th District, watched helplessly as one of his officers lay bleeding on a bed of shattered glass, fighting for his life.
The veteran patrolman had confronted looters at a gas station in Algiers, when one of them whipped out a gun and blasted him once in the head.
A day before, just hours after Katrina passed, it was a civilian who took a bullet, perhaps from a New Orleans Police Department gun, as officers struggled to quell a crowd of hundreds threatening to take over an Algiers Wal-Mart. Those were the nadirs for Kirsch, in other respects one of the luckier NOPD commanders. His district station on Richland Street survived the hurricane in one piece.
Soon the 4th District would rally to become a Police Department lifeline, providing shelter to homeless officers from throughout the city and supervising a resupply network that tapped into inventories at the same Wal-Mart where Kirsch's officers had confronted looters.
While the city's east bank was sinking, the 4th District was dry, though virtually paralyzed by thousands of hurricane-tossed trees that blocked almost every major road in Algiers. Officers in the district commandeered chain saws and cleared roads by hand, making way for patrol units and other first responders.
"Katrina showed us who could do what in the Police Department," Kirsch said. "This was definitely a big test for all of us."
Kirsch and 45 of his officers rode out the storm at Crescent City Connection Police headquarters, and another 40 hunkered down where they could, awaiting orders.
Within hours of the storm's passage, lawlessness was spreading. Gas stations and convenience stores were being hit by looters, and then it seemed as if the whole commercial sector was under siege.
"If you have a tub full of hot water, first they'll stick a toe in and then they're going to stick their whole foot in," Kirsch said. "We might have had 50 to 60 percent of our looting Monday evening," he said, referring to Aug. 29.
About 4 p.m., officers faced their first major test. A crowd of a few hundred had gathered around the Wal-Mart on Behrman Highway.
A handful of 4th District police officers -- five in the front, five in the back -- blocked store entrances as a hostile tension mounted. What happened next remains a blur, still under investigation by the department. One of Kirsch's men said a group of looters rushed an entrance, an officer fired a shot, and the man fell to the ground. Two men scooped him up and disappeared into the crowd, the officer reported, but a body never surfaced. Police are not sure whether it was the officer's bullet that cut the man down or that of an adjacent business owner, who had threatened to kill anyone setting foot on his property.
"It was just a battle, a battle getting them out of there," Kirsch said.
And for a day or two it seemed like a losing battle, he said.
On Aug. 30, officer Kevin Thomas confronted three men who had allegedly broken into a Chevron gas station at Shirley and Gen. de Gaulle drives. First there was an exchange of words, then gunshots. Thomas was shot in the head. "If you were on the scene, you'd swear he was dead," Kirsch said of the officer who has since fully recovered. "We don't know how he made it."
Thomas' partner returned fire, hitting one of the men in the arm. Police arrested four men at the scene.
"And that was only Tuesday," Kirsch said.
Meanwhile, at least some of the reinforcements Kirsch might have counted on were stranded in flooded homes in some of the city's hardest-hit sections.
Rookie officer Tommy Guidry, 53, made a frantic call to the station late in the afternoon of Aug. 29. He was trapped in his home in eastern New Orleans. The water was at his neck and rising quickly. "He was screaming and hollering," Kirsch said.
Guidry eventually swam from a window onto his roof, where he spent three days before being rescued by helicopter and bused to Texas. A couple of weeks later, Guidry made it back to his district station.
In the days to come, 4th District officers and the department's SWAT team responded to several reports of gunfire at the Fischer public housing development. Telephone workers trying to reconnect urgently needed phone lines said they were afraid to climb utility poles for fear of being shot.
"It was kind of like the Civil War," Lt. Robert Italiano said. "We didn't have any electricity, no lights, nothing."
Police eventually had gained control of the Wal-Mart and commandeered its remaining inventory to supply the entire Police Department with dry clothing, food and supplies. District commanders would send a representative to the West Bank to sign out goods for their officers.
Kirsch said the department owes a debt of gratitude to the company. Even after two of its local stores were looted, the giant retailer continued to ship tons of goods into the city, for hurricane victims, police and other emergency workers, Kirsch said.
Fourth District officers slept in cars or in the station, or bunked with fellow cops who had habitable West Bank homes. Kirsch's Lakeview home was lost to the flood. His wife and children -- 10 and 8 -- were taken in by a church community in Magnolia, Ark., freeing Kirsch to work around the clock.
Groups of officers from across New Orleans also found refuge in Kirsch's district. They stayed in nursing homes, set up camp at schools and churches or pitched tents where they could.
By Sept. 1 and 2, things were looking better, Kirsch said. Supplies were streaming into the city, through the West Bank, and the military had arrived to help lock down the streets.
With a rubber hose and a generator, four police officers were able to siphon about 20,000 gallons of gas a day from a retailer to support mechanized NOPD operations. Receipts were written, and the gas station owner was promised repayment.
The district also tapped into the stream of volunteers arriving at the police station and offering to help. One man became the cook, using an outdoor pit the officers had dug.
Five of Kirsch's 90 officers resigned or went AWOL during the hurricane. Three or four others left during the height of the crisis but returned days later. The defections were a blow to morale that continues to rankle.
It's too early to be trying to envision the district's future, Italiano said. "There's too much that we have to deal with right now."
But Kirsch has no doubt that Katrina marks a watershed in the Police Department's annals. "Life will never be the same for any of us," he said. "Life before Aug. 29 no longer exists."
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Trymaine D. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3301.
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