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.



Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Obama Outtakes

Tulane University
February 7, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

There were the early risers who stood outside in darkness and the late risers who stood outside during Barack Obama's speech.

And then there was me, somewhere in between.

From my days as a sports information intern at the University of Oregon, I know how easy it can be to get into an event by pretending to be with the media. My fellow late risers were already being shuffled to a veranda where Obama's audio would be played.

"Where's the press entrance?" I ask a 20-something volunteer.

"Over there," he says, pointing towards a door into Tulane's gymnasium.

This is the point that I start to get nervous. I know where I need to be, I know I'll have to fib a little to get in. Few bloggers are recognized as actual journalists. I wait and tell myself,

"Act like you've been there before."

Around the corner, I couldn't be happier to see two student volunteers handling the press credentials. The last people you want to see as gatekeepers are middle-aged women on a power trip. But two young college girls?

I had the props. Camera. Writer's notepad. Pen behind my left ear.

"I need a credential," I say. "But, I didn't request one, sorry."

"Do have a media id?" she says.

The moment of fiction.

"Yeah." So I confidently pulled out my id, which says nothing about being media, and put it down on table.

"Ok, sign in here." she says.

At 9:30 I was in. My friend Pavel had called at 6:55 am saying they were getting ready to go.

They had seats in the 20th row.

Now that Obama is filling stadiums and not high-school gymnasiums, security has gotten tight. They called the Transportation Security Administration in from Louis Armstrong Airport to do the security screening. I count 10 of them near the door. They frisk everyone with their magic wands.

Men with microphones whose cords sneak down their necks and into their jacket all stand over six feet. I go outside to try to find Obama and his crew of writers, publicists, campaign managers and other staffers. Most of the ways around Tulane's Fogelman arena are blocked off.

I take a scenic route around the Union, hoping to get to the backside of the arena, which is adjacent to the Union. It is the only place that wasn't blocked. I keep walking and see his SUVs and more guys in suits.

A cop stops. "You can't be back here," he says.

"But, I'm with the press."

He laughs. "I'm gonna let you go now, if those guys see you," he says. "You'll end up somewhere you don't want to be."

I take his cue, turn around and join everyone else.



Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Obama in New Orleans

Tulane University
February 7th, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Credit Barack Obama's advance team.

When mental illness and a six-foot-four frame met Nicola Cotton two weeks ago, the City stood still. She was a police officer shot by her own gun. The culprit was a homeless man given up on by his family and released from a mental institution three weeks earlier.

When the news came, the women in the office began praying.

I leaned back and grabbed my head--Nicola Cotton was 24.

It's supposed to be the age where life begins. We've glimpsed the struggles and rewards of responsibility, the fears of growing up gain traction with every year. But still at 24, we're more babies than breadwinners.

And it's just above the median age in the full gym at Tulane University today where people lined up before dawn to see him speak two hours after sunrise. Over 3,000 people came.

Nestled about 15 minutes into the speech full of crescendos ending with standing ovations, Obama prepped for another that ended with a reference to Cotton and New Orleans' crime.

"And instead of unsafe streets and shocking crimes, we will help New Orleans rebuild its criminal justice system. We'll start a new COPS for Katrina program to put more resources into community policing, so that heroic officers - men and women like Nicola Cotton, who gave her life serving the city she loved - have more support."

The text doesn't reflect the emotion of a room tired of being America's crime punching bag, although, in many ways, the bruises are deserved. I'm so glad that his research and speech writing team noticed that Nicola Cotton's death is still fresh here in New Orleans.

He referenced education, the broken levees and said President Bush's fly-over of New Orleans' Katrina damage was a metaphor for Bush's presidency. At times he was specific and others he was cautiously ambiguous.

The 100-year flood protection is already in the plans, Category 5 levees are not. So Obama said,

"When I am President, we will finish building a system of levees that can withstand a 100-year storm by 2011, with the goal of expanding that protection to defend against a Category 5 storm."

Goals aren't promises.

Overall, the people I spoke with and Facebook status messages I read used words like "trance" and "high" to describe how they felt during and immediately after the speech.

Obama is a superstar in game that rarely produces them. His youth movement is taking hold, like older generations say, they did in the Kennedy era.

I read that Obama's go-to-speech writer is 26. Obama and his wordsmiths are giving all of us young people an inspiring political fairy tale (a good kind) that we're talking about as Kennedy-like.

Funny right? We're not even old enough to remember him.