Stress takes deadly toll on police officers

Two from New Orleans commit suicide amid devastation, chaos

Katrina's Wake

September 08, 2005|By Paul Salopek | Paul Salopek,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW ORLEANS - After spending his career reassuring the people of New Orleans that the forces of law and order always prevail, police Sgt. Paul Accardo wasn't supposed to die this way.

Not sitting in numbed despair in his patrol car. Not parked alone outside a shuttered restaurant about 40 miles from his hurricane-devastated city. Not with his service pistol in his hand.

Accardo, a well-known New Orleans Police Department media affairs officer, shot himself in the head Saturday.

Patrolman Lawrence Celestine had killed himself in the same manner the day before, and news of the two men's deaths quickly emerged as a symbol of the toll that Hurricane Katrina has inflicted on New Orleans' overwhelmed emergency response personnel, particularly the city's often troubled police force.

`Perfect policeman'

"Paul always came across as the perfect policeman," said Capt. Marlon Defillo, Accardo's supervisor. "He was a spit-and-polish officer. He never complained about any duty. Never. But what we've been through this past week wasn't duty. It was hell."

Accardo, 36, who was buried yesterday in Baton Rouge, La., had seemed a perfect choice to be public spokesman for the revamped New Orleans Police Department.

The once impoverished force, which had a reputation for brutality and corruption through much of the 1990s, had cleared its last U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation in March lat year, and Accardo showed up frequently on local television as the face of the reformed police force.

Then came Katrina.

"Look, some men have left our ranks because they couldn't deal with this catastrophe," said Deputy Chief Warren Riley, who estimated that of the 1,641 officers on the payroll in New Orleans before the storm, about 1,000 have returned to active duty.

"Like other citizens, we lost our homes. Some of us lost our loved ones. We had no ammo, no communications. We were without food and water," Riley said. "As to what exact circumstances led up to Paul's death, we simply don't know and maybe never will."

Accardo, a soft-spoken New Orleans native who was a stickler for protocol and neatness, was hit hard by the scale of the hurricane's chaos and destruction, fellow officers said.

By the time Katrina breached New Orleans' levees early last week, sending floodwaters gushing through the city and forcing thousands to scramble for their lives, Accardo began acting strangely, they said.

"He just couldn't believe what was happening," Defillo said. "It took him three or four seconds to answer simple questions. His clothes were all disheveled. It wasn't like him."

Accardo's home was wiped out by floodwaters. Worse, Defillo said, was his inability to ease the human suffering engulfing his city.

"We were going out in big military trucks, passing up desperate people because we were already too full - old people, poor people," Defillo said. "Paul took it hard. He didn't want to leave them behind."

Supervisors alarmed

After spending nine nightmarish hours helping to evacuate about 30,000 people from the Superdome, Accardo stopped talking. His alarmed supervisors ordered him to take a day off.

Accardo drove aimlessly to the nearby town of Luling. There, in his patrol car, he took his life.

Even then, he was considerate, leaving a note with a police phone number so that passers-by could call and report his death.

"He fell on his sword," said Thomas Accardo, Paul's brother. "I think he decided he was dishonored. He couldn't protect the people of New Orleans as he was sworn to do. He couldn't save those who wanted to be saved."

Standing on the stoop of an uncle's house in Baton Rouge, Thomas Accardo described a police-obsessed little brother while Paul's wife, Anne Accardo, stood by, covering her mouth with her hands to stifle sobs.

Paul Accardo had always wanted to be a New Orleans police officer, his brother recalled. When Paul was 6, their mother made him a birthday cake with "NOPD" across the top.

As a young applicant, the skinny youth had flattened fishing sinkers into sheets of lead and hidden the metal in his shoes so that he could meet the weight requirements for academy recruits.

Less is known about the department's other suicide.

Patrolman Celestine, a former narcotics officer and street cop, shot himself Friday in front of a colleague after being ordered to take a day off because of stress, police officials said.

"He was a big, athletic, stand-up guy," said Capt. Bob Bardy, the exhausted and red-eyed commander of the city's 7th District, where Celestine worked. "I put him in a body bag myself. No officer should have to do that. Bagging your own man, that's not in the contract."

Bardy said another officer lost his toenails from standing in putrid water for days on end. Bardy spent five miserable nights sleeping in the rusty cab of a truck in a junkyard.

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