NEW ORLEANS – A vagrant wanted for questioning in a rape overpowered a 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, where hopes were high that a new year could hold 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 Police Superintendent Warren Riley, who was charged with energizing a demoralized police force in the 2005 storm's wake.
Officer Nicola Cotton, 24, approached the suspect in her police cruiser and began questioning him. When she tried to handcuff him he attacked her, and a seven-minute fight ensued, Riley 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."
Riley said police have several witnesses to the shooting 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.
But passers-by may not have seen the drawn-out struggle because the pair were on the ground and shielded by the officer's vehicle, Riley said. Police said security videotape captured the lethal assault.
The suspect, Bernell Johnson, 44, stayed on the scene until other officers arrived and was arrested, police spokesman Sgt. Joe Narcisse said.
He was booked on a charge of first-degree murder, and it wasn't known Monday night whether he had been assigned a lawyer. Riley said Johnson had been arrested several times before on suspected sex offenses.
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."