Interview David Benelli
A 34-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, now retired, Benelli commanded the department's sex crimes unit at the time of Hurricane Katrina and helped police the Superdome. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on May 5, 2010.
At the time of Katrina, what did you end up doing?
In August 2005, I was commander of the New Orleans Police Department sex crimes unit. That's the rape squad and child abuse units with the detective bureau. Every hurricane that we've had for the past eight years, the detective bureau was the unit that was sent to the Superdome, because the Superdome has always been used for survivors of the different hurricanes, as kind of a last resort for the people who couldn't get out of town. The previous hurricanes we had [were] very simple: We get there, we house the survivors overnight, and the next morning they go back home.
Aug. 29, 2005, was just a little bit different, because we thought we'd just go there and as soon as the hurricane passed that Monday morning we'd be able to leave. Around 1:00 in the morning, Monday, when the hurricane full force hit the city, a portion of the Superdome roof basically peeled off.
Now, at that time we had about 30,000 refugees sitting in the stands. If you think of the Superdome, you think the bottom bowl, the most expensive seats in the Dome. Well, that's where everybody was sitting, relatively comfortable, just riding out the storm. But when a large portion of the roof peeled off, all the electricity went off, water started gushing into the Dome itself, and everybody basically had to flee the seating area and just take refuge into the corridor area. But the whole time the wind was blowing 100-something miles an hour, wind, rain was pouring into the Dome; the electricity was out. Of course the auxiliary electricity came on, but there was very little lighting, and it was just a harrowing experience for everyone there.
The police officers, the National Guard people, all the 20,000 to 25,000 refugees that were there, everybody was basically scared to death. We thought that the Dome was just indestructible, and when that portion of that roof came off, it made your life flash before your eyes. But it withstood, and the next morning, after the wind came down, we were able to see the destruction of the city.
I was able to go out the Dome, leave the Dome, drive to police headquarters, which is about 15 blocks away, check on police headquarters, [and] then drive back. We figured that the next morning everybody would be able to go. Unbeknownst to us at the time -- because there was no communications -- the levees broke, and then water started rising. So by the next morning, when we were getting ready to [get] everybody to go back home, that's when the flooding really started. Before we knew it, the Dome was surrounded by 6 feet of water, and everybody was trapped there -- the refugees, the National Guard and the police. So for the next week, everybody that was at the Dome had to endure stifling temperature, no running water.
There's some misconceptions that at the Dome there was no food and water. We had plenty food and drinking water. The National Guard would drop just tons of drinking water and MREs -- Meals, Ready to Eat, military food -- which tastes great if you're starving. So we had plenty of food and water.
What we didn't have is running water. So if you think about no running water, no electricity, that means that the air conditioners weren't running; that means that no bathroom facilities were working in the Dome. You've got 30,000 people there. After a couple days there without the running water, it got pretty gamey in there. Everything at the Dome was just completely drenched, and it was in the upper 90s. Inside the Dome was probably 100 degrees.
Compared to a normal week in the life of a New Orleans police officer, can you give us a sense of just how extreme conditions were?
It was the difference between heaven and hell. The week I spent at the Superdome was worse than the year I spent in Vietnam. It was just that bad. The heat, the smell, it just got to you. The constant threat -- because you think if these 20,000, 25,000 survivors at any time decided that they had enough and wanted to start rioting and fighting and taking lives and taking matters into their own hands, that could have been devastating. ...We could have lost a lot of people.
But you've got to give it to those survivors. They survived. They endured some of the most excruciating things you ever want to see.
[Tell me about the communications problems.]
I had a good radio; it just wasn't charged. The system itself went down. The cell phone systems within the city went down. We had one police officer who had a cell phone that would only work after 9:00 at night. So we were able to call, but we couldn't call anybody in the city because their cell phones were down.
On Sept. 1 things changed. Mayor Ray Nagin said, "Hey, we're going to move from rescue to stopping thievery and crimes." Do you remember what that shift was like?
Well, you don't understand. On Sept. 1, I was still at the Dome. We had no communications with the mayor's office. We had a deputy chief that would come to the Dome and check and make sure everybody was still there. As far as any news about what was going on within the city, we heard nothing. There was nothing on the radio because most of the local stations had to disband and move to Baton Rouge or whatever.
All we could see at night, because there was no electricity, you could see glows of fires [from] different areas. You could see helicopters flying over. You could hear gunshots going from down toward the helicopter. So these helicopters that were trying to rescue people were actually receiving fire. I remember being on the top level of the parking garage and looking at the glows and hearing the gun rounds in the foreground and thinking, man, this is like DaNang. This is what it was like. It was like being back in Vietnam.
I've looked at some of the officer-involved shootings from that time period, and one thing that I get with some of them is a sense of fear. These are high-stress, high-tension situations. Did you pick up on any of that?
The police officers in the first week of the storm and of the aftermath, they were basically working 24/7. There was a lot of looting going on. Firefighters that were trying to put out fires were being fired upon. Helicopters that were trying to rescue people off the roofs of the houses were being fired upon. Boats that were trying to rescue people that were still in flooded houses were being shot at. There was basically a martial law, and no one was supposed to be on the street. Those individuals who were drug addicts who didn't have any access to drugs, they went crazy.
So it was tantamount to being in a war zone. That's the feeling that many police officers had, because you take the fact that they were working around the clock; communications were extremely lacking; every place they went, there was always the potential that they're going to be fired upon. You didn't know who the good guys or the bad guys were. Rules of engagement were so difficult at the time because just about everyone a police officer would encounter, especially in areas where no one was supposed to be, immediately the first thought that a lot of police officers told me [was] that their life was in danger. So it was just being in a constant, unwavering sense of survival. It took a toll. It was rough, the roughest thing I've ever seen.
Lots of people have Monday-morning-quarterbacked the NOPD's response to Katrina. What do you think of that?
A police officer has a split second to make a life-or-death decision, a split second. The time it takes you to snap your fingers, the police officer has to determine, "Is my life in danger?," or, "[Is] somebody else's life in danger?," and, "What can I do to prevent me or someone else being killed?" So a lot of times they see a particular action that's an aggressive action, and for that split second they think that there's a life-threatening situation and has to take immediate action and then uses deadly force.
Now, at that point, everyone else can take the pause button in life and review that particular action from every angle, sit down and stop it from frame to frame and basically, as you said, second-guess every move that that officer made. They'll say, "Well, if I was in a situation I would do this." But you're not in that situation. No one's in that situation unless you're presented with that unknown fact and you have a second, less than a second to make up your mind what's right or wrong. And that's the dilemma that all police officers face. All police officers and all military folk have to face that scrutiny every time deadly force is used.
Now, Katrina comes along, and five years later people want to look at what an officer did based on normal times. In the real world, that's what you're supposed to do. Believe me, during the Katrina days, we weren't living in the real world; we were living in a holocaust. We were living in a situation that no other police department ever had to endure.
Eighty percent of the police officers of the city of New Orleans had no home to go to, didn't have any families to go to because their family was now in Houston or in Atlanta or Memphis, [Tenn.,] or Jackson, Miss. ... They had to live on a boat. Going on a cruise is nice, but try to spend six months on one of them boats, it'll drive you crazy.
Unfortunately, what happens is that you have some police officers who dishonor that oath of office. In tragedies and times of stress, sometimes that happens -- no different than the military, no different from any other type of profession. But what happens is that the focus is always on the bad. The focus is on the few that dishonor that oath of office and not the hundreds and thousands of police officers, firefighters, EMTs who put their life on the line every day, who just endure the worst possible conditions you can possibly imagine for such a long time. It's five years after the storm, and we still have police units working out of temporary facilities, still have firefighters working out of temporary fire stations. This is five years after. So it's still going. This has been 1,000 percent improvement since the storm, but the remnants of the storm are still out there as far as working conditions.
There's an iconic photo of your friend, Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, piloting a boat through the waters flooding the city during that time. Can you tell me about what he did during that time?
Dwayne probably stayed up for a week. I don't think -- no matter what time of night or day, he was out there. He was relentless. He never stopped. He was able to get boats. His brother, [who] was not a New Orleans police officer, helped him, and Dwayne Scheuermann was probably responsible for saving hundreds of lives. And that's just one police officer, one story. But he was one of these guys that just never, ever stopped. And that's just the way he was. He was nonstop before the storm, nonstop after the storm.
How would you describe that iconic photo of Dwayne Scheuermann on the front of the boat?
I haven't seen the picture in years, but [what] I remember about the picture was Lt. Scheuermann doing his job. At the time he was on the boat in this goop that we called water, rescuing people, pointing out people to be rescued, putting his life on the line for this community, and just going about doing his job of rescuing people around the clock. And what I remember about the picture is if you look at his face, his eyes, you see the sheer determination, but you can also see the fatigue that's taking place, because they didn't stop until there was no one left to rescue. That was basically what they were doing, and it was around the clock.
The federal government is looking at him at this moment. What do you think of that?
Well, I'm not familiar with all the nuances of the case. I know there are several cases that the federal government is looking at, and I'm fine with that. You can investigate any case you want as long as you put in the parameters of the circumstances of what the officers were met with and given what's going on. I haven't talked to Lt. Scheuermann about the particular case because it is a federal case, and they have been instructed by their attorneys not to talk about anything that could be construed with that particular incident. All I know is that Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann is probably responsible for many, many lives being saved. He's put his life on the line many times for strangers, and I have every confidence that Dwayne Scheuermann is innocent.
He and Capt. Jeff Winn were SWAT team figures at that time. Jeff Winn was leading the SWAT team, Dwayne Scheuermann was also on the SWAT team. Can you tell me a little bit about the mentality of that operation, those kinds of officers?
Jeff Winn is a very unique individual. He's a Marine; he's a gunnery sergeant in the Marines. He's one of the most knowledgeable persons I know dealing with tactical responses. He's a true leader of men.
Special operations is just that. They're the SWAT team. They're the ones sent out if there's an emergency in normal times. During Hurricane Katrina, they were providing boats; they were rescuing people. Wherever they were needed, they were there. They were in the meat of the catastrophe as far as being out rescuing people.
What does it take as an officer to be part of that group? What kind of skills do you need?
They are the ones that are highly trained men and women who will get the assignment of the worst case scenarios, the barricaded subjects, the hostage situations. These are the type of responses that they train for, so they're probably the most trained, physically alert unit within the police department.
One thing that people will say about Lt. Scheuermann is: "Hey, this is a guy who's been involved in 15 officer-involved shootings. He's a guy who has a long internal affairs, Public Integrity Bureau file. He seems to be a guy who gets into trouble." What do you think of that critique?
Well, if you're sitting behind a desk at headquarters, chances are you're not going to have a long history; you're not going to have any complaints. If you're in a unit that puts a lot of drug dealers in jail, in high-crime areas -- they're sent out to specific targeted areas that have a lot of homicides and a lot of robberies or whatever, so they're constantly in the line of fire as far as the real bad areas in the city. So when you have that much contact with the public, you're going to get complaints.
And believe me, each complaint is investigated, and if you look at the history of the New Orleans Police Department, they don't have any problems with firing anybody. Now, a lot of times it comes down to a word of this person against the police officer with no other evidence whatsoever. So you have a lot of times where complaints would be, say, non-sustained because they can't prove it one way or the other.
But the bottom line is that if you have these officers that are placed in these tough situations constantly and dealing with individuals [who knew] that [if] you made a complaint against someone, they could be taken off the streets for a while, especially if they're putting heat on a certain drug operation. That's a tactic that many of these drug dealers and drug users use. So you've got to look at each individual complaint and then look at what the officers were doing at the time those complaints were made.
One thing that we've heard about from attorneys representing some of the officers being investigated by the federal government is that they think that the rules of engagement were changed during the post-Katrina time period. We're hearing: "Look, these officers were told the city is being plundered; the city is awash in criminals. You need to go take the city back, and the normal rules don't apply." Have you heard anything like that?
I was the president of the police union at the time. The Police Association of New Orleans represented 1,000 police officers, and anytime a police officer was accused of wrongdoing, we had to provide representation for those police officers.
Now, I was a lieutenant with the police department. I taught at the police academy. The rules of engagement never, ever change. No one ever changed the rules of engagement. The use of deadly force is very simple. You can only use deadly force when you reasonably believe that your life or someone else's life is in danger -- reasonably believe.
Now, you can take the totality of the circumstances and all this stuff, but bottom line, it comes to a very simple, very simple fact: At the time any police officer uses deadly force, if they think that their life was in danger or someone else's life was in danger at the time that they pulled that trigger -- reasonably believe that their life was in danger or someone else's life was in danger -- that's a good shoot.
Now, you may investigate it over and find, "Oh, well, this person didn't have this." It doesn't matter. It matters what a reasonable person in the same situation would have done. And remember, police officers have that long -- (snaps fingers) -- to make the decision. And if they take longer than that, they may be killed, or someone else may be killed. And if they allowed someone else to be killed, then they would get sued by the family of the victim, saying that the police officer did nothing. That's one of the pitfalls.
But it doesn't matter if it's Katrina, it's 9/11 or last Thursday. It's all the same. The use of deadly force can only be used if you think your life is in danger or someone else's life is in danger. That's it.
So from your knowledge, there was no change.
There was no chance because there couldn't be a change. You can't change that. You can't go willy-nilly and say, "Shoot people on the street." That order never came. I know the ranking officers with the New Orleans Police Department. No one would ever give an order like that. That's urban myth. It's like the 200 people that died in the Dome or the 125 people that were killed at the Convention Center. We're still waiting for the body bags to come in for that. It just didn't happen. Now, I'm not saying that a police officer thought that, but as far as any orders, there's just no way, just no way.
[What is it like to police in New Orleans on a day-to-day basis?]
New Orleans is a very unique city. We have a crime problem. [If] we didn't have a crime problem, we wouldn't need a new police chief to come in, and we wouldn't need the federal government to come in and partner with the police department and the mayor's office. The police department needs a do-over. The police department needs some assistance so that the good men and women in the New Orleans Police Department get on with the business of policing the city.
Right now we have a problem, and it's cyclical. I remember back in '94, we had 470 people murdered in the city of New Orleans, and then we made some changes, and then the murder rate basically dropped, cut in half. We've really had a high murder rate, and it's unfortunate. Of course, it has a lot to do not just with the police department [but] lack of education, lack of employment opportunities. It's just a quandary of reasons.
And it is a violent city in areas. Every now and then you'll have a shooting on Bourbon Street, and that will get a lot of publicity and recognition. But it's few and far between if you look at all the shootings. Most of the shootings that we have in the city are based in areas where there's drugs. The correlation between drugs and the murders that we have in the city are just hand in hand. A lot of murders that we have is one drug dealer or person gets murdered, then their people retaliate against the people who committed the murder. If you eliminate those murders, New Orleans would be in the same ballpark as most other cities.
If the federal government gets a consent decree to restructure the department, what do you think they should do?
First of all, I think they should give Chief [Ronal] Serpas a chance. I think they should come in and do a partnership. I remember when Richard Pennington came in 1994. We had a good partnership with the federal government. Right now, we have a great partnership with the federal government. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and the New Orleans Police Department have always worked well together. Now we have a district attorney's office who really, really wants to work with the police department and has a new work ethic with prosecuting crime. ...
But the bottom line is that what's not broke is the heart and soul of the majority of the men and women in the New Orleans Police Department. So if the federal government comes in as a partner and adds expertise and equipment -- right now the New Orleans Police Department doesn't even have a DNA lab. They have to basically send everything out to get DNA evidence. They either go out to private industry or they'll go to Jefferson Parish or the state police. But anytime you have to go out and get it, it takes extra time. ...
When you see these four former officers who have been linked to the Danziger Bridge matter plead guilty in court, how do you feel about that?
Well, it tears your heart up. These were good men put in bad situations. And evidently they realized that they did wrong, and they pled guilty. They pled guilty to what I see, and [there] may be more to it than what I see. They pled guilty basically to a coverup, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the original incident was a bad shooting. I wasn't there, and like I said before, at the time the shots were fired, if those officers reasonably thought that their lives [were] in danger, given the circumstances at that particular time, then they may have been justified, but this is an ongoing investigation, and we'll see what happens. If any officer violated that oath of office and took a life without good reason, without the ability to use deadly force, then that officer should be held accountable like anyone who breaks the law.
When you see in the court documents officers saying, "I conspired to create fake witnesses," that a gun was planted at the scene of the crime, "We made our stories fit all together, and we conspired to put these fake stories out there," what do you think of that?
I think it's crazy, because if the shooting was legit, you don't have to show that the other people had a gun. All you have to show is that you reasonably believed they had a gun based on what was going on… So you can't throw a blanket over all the officers at one time. You've got to look at each individual officer's mind-set at the time that they pulled that trigger, and that's what the U.S. attorney is trying to do.
What happened to Officer Kevin Thomas?
Kevin responds to a looting situation. The next thing, Kevin pulls up, and a guy pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head, leaves him for dead. The story of Kevin is not the shooting itself. The story of Kevin is the aftermath of the shooting, because he's still suffering from seizures, and he's still having a difficult time of it. He wants to be a police officer, but a bullet to the head prevented him from doing that. But Kevin is one of the ones who at that particular time was working around the clock in the Algiers area, trying to protect someone else's property and winds up getting shot in the head because of that.
When those kind of things were happening at that time, when officers are hearing about a colleague being shot in the head, how do you think that affected officers?
It affects officers the same way it would affect them if that happened today. There's a brotherhood within law enforcement, a brotherhood and a sisterhood. Anytime when you have a police officer shot, murdered, injured, it affects everyone, because it's basically as if a family member was injured. So it does affect you.
Do you think that that was something that was going through people's heads at that time? The thing I've heard from many officers who served then is: "We just had our colleague get shot, and we were freaked out. We were scared; we were angry. It was just crazy."
Well, you wouldn't be a human being if you didn't think that, given this happened like, the fifth day after the storm hit. But I would venture to say that many of the police officers working didn't hear about Kevin Thomas as being shot until days after the incident because of communications.
You talked about the perception versus reality of what was going on, and you described the urban mythologies of the time. What kind of rumors and urban myths and stories were out there that were affecting citizens and police officers?
[There are] two stories that actually just got to me. One, that there's 200 dead bodies in the Superdome and rapes just taking place. Now, at the time I'm assigned to the Superdome. I'm the commander of the rape unit and child abuse unit. So I had all my detectives, the rape unit and child abuse units, plus all the homicide detectives, we're all assigned to the Dome. We had two complaints of sexual assaults, and in both cases we actually identified the perpetrator, and it wasn't a rape; it was more of a sexual battery, but still a sexual assault. And we conducted an investigation, and we apprehended him. So the myth that women were being raped constantly in the Dome, that just aggravated me to all get-go, because that just wasn't true.
And the [story that] there was 200 bodies -- I remember when we finally got the last people out of the Dome, the National Guard was coming in, and they were actually bringing and stacking up body bags, because now they were going to do a sweep of the Dome, I guess to go find 200 people that are dead. I guess they still are looking for them, because the body bags are still empty.
They had two people that died at the Dome. One either fell or jumped off of one of the higher sections. Another person was elderly and I think probably died of natural causes, because for a week, if you're a diabetic, you didn't have the insulin. If you needed medication, you didn't take it with you, you didn't have it.
Another one that aggravated me more than that was a story that a 7-year-old girl was raped and murdered at the Convention Center. I think even Oprah Winfrey talked about the story that she heard about a 7-year-old girl being raped and murdered. Think about it: Where are the girl's parents? Where are her grieving parents? How come there's no story about the grieving parents or grandparents, saying, "My little girl, my little girl"? Where's the body? Where did they have the funeral? This is another urban myth that, because it becomes sensationalized through national media, it happens, because I had people, friends of mine calling me from all over the United States saying, "This is horrible." I said: "It's not horrible. It didn't happen."
I talked about the breakdown in communication, how bad it was. A lot of times, all you had was word of mouth. And during that time there was a press conference every 15 minutes, so a lot of time people will say things based on what they heard or what they thought, or information they got that was wrong.
But like I said, the murders at the Dome, the savagery that they talked about at the Dome not only didn't happen, it couldn't be farther from the truth, because what these people had to endure, anybody else, you would have had a riot.
[What was the mental state of the officers you came across afterleaving the Superdome?]
The number one thing I saw in just about every police officer I dealt with right after the storm and several weeks after the storm was the fatigue factor, because most of the officers were working 12 to 14 to 18 hours a day. So you had police officers and firefighters and EMTs working around the clock. Many of them didn't have homes to go to, and then when they'd get to wherever they were going, there was either no electricity or no water so that he couldn't lie in a nice cool bed, get a good night's rest. So if you think [about] the mind-set and just the long duration, it took its toll. It took its toll.
The fatigue factor, all these crazy stories and the "take our city back" kind of talk that people were throwing out, did it have some kind of culminating effect at a certain point?
Well, the fatigue factor took over a period of time. People were tired, but the first week of the storm you were operating on adrenalin. The second week of the storm, you were working on guts. The third week of the storm, you were just operating.
Do you think the fatigue and the rumors played into the incidents that are now being investigated by the federal government, the shooting incidents?
... It would be ridiculous to think that the fatigue factor didn't affect the working ability of people, because when you are fatigued, your reactions are a little bit slower. And people were tired. But most of the instances that everybody is looking at right now, most of those incidents happened within the first week to 10 days of the storm.
We've spoken to several attorneys, several officers, who said that they think that there was a discussion with then-Superintendent Warren Riley, perhaps other people, saying, "We've got to take the city back"; that there was a discussion at Harrah's Casino, and the rules for use of force were changed, and that that may have led to officers thinking that they could do things they couldn't do. You don't think that happened?
No, no, I do not think that happened. Now, as far as taking the city back, NOPD talks about that every week. If you've got a bad area of the city that has a lot of homicides, a lot of robberies, a lot of citizens in danger, you put your task force in an area and you take back that area. So that could be just regular police terminology, and again were urban myths. Some of them might have been misconstrued. But I guarantee that no one said, "Go out there and just start shooting people willy-nilly." That didn't happen.