Friday, February 22, 2008

Riding with the NOPD Crisis Unit

Riding with the Crisis Unit
February 21, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The night began and ended like many others. Two friends continued a bond that began in kindergarten. Life in the new New Orleans for David Mitchell and Kenny Martin contains a fiancĂ©e and a stepson for Mitchell, a young wife for Martin and new business together. These days, there are speckled moments of the previous New Orleans, where normal actually meant normal—before Mitchell spent three weeks first-responding in the Superdome and Ninth Ward. Before Martin went to Baghdad.

Tonight, they’re together, like they always are on Thursdays, patrolling New Orleans streets.


The two are members of the Crisis Intervention Unit of the New Orleans Police Department, an all-volunteer force tasked with transporting the mentally ill to local hospitals after a 911 call comes through. They are unarmed.

“Just our mouths and our fists,” Mitchell says emphasizing that they’re called to calm situations, not irritate them. On the books, they’re called “Peacemakers” he says.

Why would anyone help patrol New Orleans for free?

“It’s our way of giving back,” Mitchell, 23, says.

The story goes a bit further. Mitchell is a third generation emergency man. His grandfather was a New Orleans firefighter. His father was too. He’s a paramedic that also works for the New Orleans Emergency Services department.

Martin, 22, joined the Louisiana National Guard before he finished high school. By 19, he’d gone to Iraq. Thinks he'll be called up again. "Afghanistan," he says. The two would text-message while Martin was away.

Mitchell joined the Crisis team right after the storm. Martin joined him a few months ago.

Their first and only call tonight came at 7:42 pm.

The call came from a New Orleans thoroughfare familiar with police on a street where I once saw two toddlers each wearing a roller skate, one on the little girl’s left foot, the other on the little boy’s right.

Two men who’d been in scuffles before were screaming at each other. Curtis* is a paranoid schizophrenic. He tells a nurse at the hospital that he’d kill the guy if he’d ever saw him again.

“How?” the nurse asks.

“With a gun.”

“Do you have a gun?”


I can’t help but not take him seriously about the gun part. He didn’t sound malicious. Didn’t look it either.

Curtis carries his medicine in his pockets and has a plastic bag with a bunch of clothes. He’s not quite sure where he lives, but his mom is going to buy a place he says. He agrees to an AIDS test. A condom falls out of his pocket.

I smile. Not a "ha-ha that's embarrassing" smile.

Martin asks him his name. “I’m in my 40s,” he says, I’m getting too old to remember exactly.”

“Do you do drugs?” Martin asks.

“I used to smoke crack and drink whiskey,” Curtis says. “Not anymore.”

Mitchell tells me that everyone they transport says he or she isn’t on drugs anymore.

Since Nicola Cotton, a 24-year-old police officer was killed by her own gun by a homeless schizophrenic last month, the police department says the mentally ill they drop off at hospitals are supposed to be “fast tracked” and kept for observation. Bernel Johnson, the 44-year-old who killed Cotton, had been picked up on a night like this three months ago.

“Nobody even knew that name then,” Mitchell says.

They talk about how the hospitals don't like to see the Crisis van coming. Mostly, they say, because there aren't the beds to treat the people. Charity hospital, closed since the storm, used to handle the lion's share of the police's mental health drop-offs.

Now, it's a struggle to spread it out evenly. Mitchell says that the calls from uptown homes and white-collar families for emergency assistance after the storm have gone up. They are called whenever a suicide is attempted. But, most often, he says the unit deals with the chronically homeless.

I ask what the mission of the Crisis unit is. Mitchell says that it's a way for a police situation to be resolved for people who don't need to be taken away by officers with guns. The Crisis team is a more humane option, he says.

Mitchell and Martin are part of an often unrecognized community in the new New Orleans.
People who have lives and jobs but are also neighborhood association presidents and community organizers, food donors and youth mentors.

They are a tribute to the resolve of America's City on the mend.

When Mitchell walked to the end of the St. Claude Avenue bridge during the aftermath of the Storm and saw a lake that used to be a neighborhood, "my world just dropped."

He pulled people off their roofs on a 16-foot-boat. For two days, Walter Boasso, a state Senator from nearby Chalmette, La. helped along side him. During much of the three-week rescue mission, Washington slept on the boat.

"When we were in Iraq," Martin says. "We had a bed and a warm meal to go home to. Katrina was nothing like that."

They drive the van through all parts of the City listing the hot spots and shadowy corners as well as prospective job sites for their heating and air conditioning business. When midnight comes, Martin pulls into an NOPD driveway, saying he'll be the early person into work the following morning. Mitchell says that he'll stay later then.

True friends.



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