NEW ORLEANS – A vagrant wanted for questioning in a rape overpowered a 24-year-old police officer who was trying to handcuff him, then shot her to death with her own weapon Monday, police said.
The officer's death was a blow to this city's psyche, where hopes are high that a new year would yield results in holding back a wave of crime that has been a dark backdrop to the rebuilding effort since Hurricane Katrina.
"When it hits home like this, it hits you tremendously," said Warren Riley, the police superintendent charged with energizing a demoralized police force in the storm's wake.
Nicola Cotton was shot around 10 a.m. in a parking lot near a busy intersection in the crime-plagued Central City neighborhood and a few streets away from the district police station.
The suspect was identified as Bernell Johnson, 44. He was arrested and booked with first-degree murder. Riley said Johnson had been arrested several times before on alleged sex offenses.
Cotton was responding to a call about a rape suspect when she saw Johnson sitting in front of a store with luggage, police said.
Riley said the officer approached the man in her police cruiser and began questioning him. When she tried to handcuff him, the suspect attacked her and a seven-minute fight ensued, he said.
The officer managed to use her radio during the struggle to call for backup, but the man grabbed her weapon and shot her repeatedly, Riley said.
"I can tell you this officer fought with a man twice her size, and she fought very courageously," Riley said. "She followed procedure as far as we're concerned."
Passers-by may not have seen the drawn-out struggle because the pair was on the ground and shielded by the officer's vehicle, Riley said. Police said security videotape captured the lethal assault.
Johnson stayed on the scene until other officers arrived and was arrested, police spokesman Sgt. Joe Narcisse said.
Riley said police have several witnesses to the shooting, which occurred near a convenience store and other businesses.
The crime scene brought into focus the city's multifaceted strategy to fight crime: Plainclothes police detectives consulted with Federal Bureau of Investigation agents while national guard troops directed traffic.
In the summer of 2006, as shootings got out of hand and turned New Orleans into a murder capital, national guard troops were ordered to patrol the city and federal authorities beefed up their street-level involvement in fighting drug dealers and gangs.
National guard troops continue to patrol trouble spots and areas largely vacant since Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city on Aug. 29, 2005.
Cotton was among the first graduates of the police academy after Katrina. At the time, the Police Department was hemorrhaging officers and was aggressively recruiting.
Riley called Cotton a "clean-cut" woman who "carried herself well."
"This is a very difficult and sad day for the New Orleans Police Department," Riley said. "I just left a group of officers who are crying, upset."
Central City, where the murder took place, has been an intractable crime problem for years, but neighborhood leaders say the police are working with the community to curtail the bloodshed.
"The police in this district, they have the opinion, or philosophy, that it's not just about arresting your way out of a situation," said Barbara Keller, a Central City neighborhood leader. "These officers are like our family members. They matter."
Yet, she said, so much still needs to come together. "We can't just leave it to the law enforcement to solve all the problems," she said. "It takes the churches, the schools, the family, it takes everybody."