New Orleans Police Seek to Keep Up Morale

New Orleans' high murder rate was underlined in January when a female police officer was killed in a struggle with a rape suspect. But some positive signs are emerging as an embattled city and its police force try to keep hope alive.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host

We're only into the second month of the year, but we've already seen enough to tell you that the city of New Orleans has a murder rate as bad as last year's. January's death toll included the shooting of a female police officer. Her death rocked the city's police force just as the department finally moved into a new headquarters and out of the trailers they've been working in since Hurricane Katrina.

As the city celebrates Mardi Gras today, NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on keeping spirits high in the New Orleans police department. It's a struggle.

Unidentified Man #1: Percy Reed(ph), 15 years old, shot.

Unidentified Woman: Paul Burt(ph), 24, shot.

Unidentified Man #1: Donald Gullet(ph).

Unidentified Woman: Leon Williams(ph)...

CARRIE KAHN: A small group of people gathered at City Hall recently to remember those murdered those year.

Unidentified Man #2: Lauren Marginy(ph), 18, shot.

KAHN: Two-hundred and nine were killed. That's a per capita murder rate higher than almost every large city in America. This year didn't start any better. Especially shocking, the murder last week of a 24-year-old female cop. The line to get into Nicola Cotton's funeral last Friday spilled out of the New Hope Baptist Church, snaked around the parking lot, and stretched down the street. Inside, a visibly shaken New Orleans police chief, Warren Riley, rose to praise his fallen officer.

Chief WARREN RILEY (New Orleans Police): There is so much that can be said about Nicola. She was beautiful, courageous, warm, energetic, and very, very feisty.

KAHN: Feisty she was. Nicola Cotton patrolled the rough Central City district. The day of her murder, she was out alone when she approached a rape suspect. The man, twice her size, who family members described as mentally disturbed, turned on her. The two wrestled for seven minutes at a busy intersection in broad daylight. No one called 911. Ultimately, according to police, the suspect grabbed Cotton's gun. He fired all of its bullets, then waited by her body until police arrived. At Cotton's funeral, the heartache mixed with the healing.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Can't nobody do me like Jesus. Can't - can't nobody...

KAHN: Reverend John Rafael said he saw a thread of peace in the tapestry of pain that was uniting New Orleanians in this church, especially between cops and community.

Reverend JOHN RAFAEL: Today because of the life of Nicola, tears trace their way in parallel paths down faces of every hue representing individuals from every educational, economic, political and social segment of our community. God is at work.

KAHN: The groundwork for that unity had been building in recent weeks.

Sergeant JOE NARCISSE (New Orleans Police Department): Let me show you around the headquarters. Move into this first area over here.

KAHN: Sergeant Joe Narcisse shows off the lobby in the newly refurbished police headquarters. You can still smell the fresh paint.

How high was the water in here?

Sgt. NARCISSE: We got water up to about six feet here inside the building. The day we walked out of police headquarters, there was fish in the lobby.

KAHN: Live fish?

Sgt. NARCISSE: Live fish.

KAHN: With headquarters now up and running, many of the force's 1,200 officers finally moved out of poorly equipped trailers. That's definitely been a morale boost. The department's crime lab has also reopened and rented space at the University of New Orleans. And relations with the district attorney's office are better now that a new DA took over and launched a violent offenders unit. But David Benelli, a retired NOPD cop who now runs a support program for first responders, says it's troubling to see so many veteran officers leaving the force. About 100 retired last year, replaced by brand-new recruits.

Mr. DAVID BENELLI: The morale is extremely low. But considering what these officers have been through, it's amazingly high.

KAHN: Benelli says many divisions still work out of trailers. Many officers still live in trailers and are separated from their families living in Atlanta or Houston waiting out the slow pace of recovery.

Mr. BENELLI: These officers have been working so long and so hard in conditions that no other police department ever had to work with. It's amazing that there is any morale at all.

KAHN: In his central city neighborhood, Reverend John Rafael says morale is low, too. People don't get involved in the fight against crime, because, he says, they feel it's hopeless.

Mr. RAFAEL: I've gone to so many of these crime scenes where I see that mother or that sibling out of control, screaming, saying, I know that somebody knows what happened, somebody saw it and nobody's saying anything. And then that moves on. Two or three days later, it's another mother who was in the crowd just a couple of days ago, silent, and now they're screaming for somebody.

KAHN: He says his community his squandering an opportunity to rebuild a better city. Rafael says he hopes the murder of Officer Cotton and the united front that came out to mourn her death will somehow remain united to build that better New Orleans.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Can't nobody do me like Jesus...

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, can't do me like Jesus...

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