By Brendan McCarthy and Laura Maggi
NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Police Department patrol car sat parked on the neutral ground draped in black cloth. On its hood were dozens of roses and a framed photograph of a smiling police officer, around its perimeter a grieving group of uniformed colleagues.
Wednesday at noon, on a well-worn patch of grass outside the NOPD's 6th District station, officers mourned the loss of Nicola Cotton, a fresh-faced, ambitious officer fatally shot days earlier in a struggle with a reportedly schizophrenic man.
The tragedy of Cotton's slaying was further underscored as news she was pregnant spread.
An autopsy performed on Cotton revealed she was eight weeks pregnant, said Cedric Pollard, 25, who said he was her boyfriend. Pollard said in a telephone interview that he'd had some inkling Cotton might be expecting. He said he found out for sure only after her death.
Coroner's office spokesman John Gagliano declined to confirm that the autopsy discovered a pregnancy.
Pollard said Cotton was devoted to family and called her a happy-go-lucky young woman.
"She loved life," he said.
With the wind whipping the police station's American flag, flown at half-staff, several dozen people, including officers, a City Council member and civic leaders, took a short stroll from the building to the neutral ground on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Central City.
They crowded around the empty patrol car. Someone turned on the vehicle's flashing blue overhead lights.
"We gather here this morning as a community in mourning," said Barbara Lacen-Keller, a member of the Central City Comeback Committee, a group of residents that works closely with police.
Cotton, 24, was shot several times Monday morning with her own gun. Police said she approached Bernel Johnson, 44, of Kenner as he was sitting in a miniature strip mall parking lot in the 2100 block of Earhart Boulevard. At some point, Johnson allegedly attacked her, wrestled away her gun, and beat and shot her. She was pronounced dead a short while later.
The shooting shook the NOPD to its core. Cotton graduated from the first recruit class after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Warren Easton High School and lived in eastern New Orleans.
Late last year, the department buried longtime officer Thelonious Dukes, who police said was shot when robbers invaded his home. He died several weeks later.
Maj. Robert Bardy, Cotton's commanding officer, placed a yellow rose on the memorial vehicle Wednesday afternoon. He spoke softly of how his officers gather, live and eat within the community, of how officers and residents are intertwined.
"Losing Officer Cotton is like losing one of our kids," he said.
He remembered Cotton as a dedicated officer with a near-permanent grin.
"No matter what you told her, it ended with a smile," he said.
Bardy asked that the media and community respect the privacy of Cotton's family and the Police Department.
"They are hurting, they need their distance, they need their space," he said.
Several Central City pastors gave brief sermons, crediting officers, including Cotton, who work to protect and serve the community. A group of officers hugged. One wiped backed tears.
After a final prayer in which a priest asked for intervention in preventing law enforcement members "from the dark elements of the city," the group disbanded.
Bardy walked back to his police station alone, his head hanging low.
Copyright 2008 The Times-Picayune
Slain NOPD officer was pregnant