Shortly after noon on July 16, several dozen New Orleans police officers gathered in front of the Second District station on Magazine Street near Napoleon Avenue in Uptown. They were waiting to give a final salute to Second District Officer Alva Ray Simmons, who died recently -- 19 years after he slipped into a coma from a gunshot wound he suffered in the line of duty.
Simmons was the first of three NOPD officers to die in one week this month under separate, unrelated circumstances. Whenever the department buries its own, the public helps the officers' surviving families -- in ways that somehow fail to emerge from news accounts of the tragedies.
On the day Alva Simmons was laid to rest, black mourning ribbons crossed the star-and-crescent badges worn by every officer of the NOPD. A large black sash was draped across the gold-colored replica of the badge that hangs over the Magazine Street entrance to "The Second." The American flag in front of the station was at half-staff, drooping in the heat. White-and-blue police cruisers lined the block, angle-parked with headlights facing the street. Their sirens were silent but their lights were flashing. In the station parking lot, a middle-aged jail trusty stood quietly.
News photographers set up their camera tripods near the middle of Magazine Street, angling for the best shot of the procession. A police commander appeared accommodating to the photographers, whose images will help shape the public memory of the moment. A few passing motorists stopped to ask questions.
Word soon came that the cavalcade carrying Simmons' body had not yet left the church in eastern New Orleans. The cops relaxed. The solemnity of the occasion yielded to the camaraderie of the moment. Drawn together from throughout the city, they renewed old acquaintances under the shade of an oak tree. Somewhere in the crowd, a police radio squawked. A huge uniformed officer teased a plainclothes detective, pointing to his brown "Pa-Pa" shoes. It's the inevitable ribbing of cops, part of the fraternal atmosphere one can count on at a police station.
Simmons would have known such fellowship as a patrolman in the Second District in 1985 -- before a suspect shot him in the face during a residential burglary call in the Uptown area. He was 34 then, a tall man known for his starched uniform shirts, pressed pants and polished black shoes. After the shooting, Simmons slipped into a coma. He recovered briefly. He began working out to get his strength back and even paid a visit to police headquarters. But three months later, after a second surgery, he lapsed into another coma that lasted until his death July 10. He was 53.
Simmons' family requested that he be buried in his Second District uniform and that his old car number, 215, appear in the funeral procession. NOPD changed its enumerating system several years ago. But Police Superintendent Eddie Compass allowed Lt. Melvin Howard, a friend of the family, to temporarily paint "215" on the side of his own car for the funeral.
At 12:30 p.m. a lone police lieutenant leaned against the oak tree in front of the Second District station and looked up the street. The funeral procession was not yet in sight.
SIMMONS WAS THE FIRST OF THREE NOPD officers to die in one week. On July 14, Officer George Tessier was killed in the line of duty, officials say. Tessier, 37, was a 10-year veteran assigned to the Traffic Division when he was struck by an 18-wheel truck. He was buried the day after Simmons' funeral. On July 17, the same day Tessier was buried, a 35-year-old police recruit, Tess Smith, died at home, following surgery for a knee injury she suffered during police academy training, investigators say. The coroner's office is waiting on medical records, but the case is expected to be classified as death by natural causes.
Media coverage of police deaths generally emphasizes the individual tragedies of promising lives of officers cut short during service to the city, the solemn police funerals, and the families left behind to grieve. Police officials dutifully remind the public of the dangers that officers face daily. And the death of a fellow officer ripples throughout the "brotherhood and sisterhood" of law enforcement, says Bob Stellingworth, executive director of the private New Orleans Police Foundation.
"We feel a sense of loss, but at the same time, we rededicate ourselves," says Stellingworth, who as field director for the local Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, grieved the loss of three agents from his office who were killed in the hostage standoff at Waco, Texas.
But how does the public support the spouses, families and loved ones of cops killed in the line of duty? A Gambit Weekly review shows that the public, through federal, state and local tax dollars, provides substantial compensation for police survivors on a case-by-case basis.
"The citizenry puts a financial safety net underneath these employees in appreciation for the risks they take," recently retired city personnel director J. Michael Doyle says. "It's one of those things that gets little publicity."
Not all death benefits get to the grieving police families quickly, though. Federal and state benefits can take up to one year to reach the surviving families, pending detailed reviews of each case. And the impressive sums provided to survivors of officers killed in the line of duty offer a sharp contrast to those who suffer disabling job-related injuries, cops say.
"Your families are better off with you dead than you getting injured," says Lt. Jimmy Keen, commander of the NOPD Homicide Division and co-chair of the Thomas M. Phillips Memorial Fund, named for a fellow officer killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1987. Other law enforcement officers agree.
Among the benefits available to survivors of NOPD officers killed in the line of duty:
• The U.S. Department of Justice provides up to $267,500 in benefits to survivors of officers killed in the line of duty -- half for the widow(er) and half for the children.
• The Louisiana Department of Justice provides up to $100,000 for the officer's survivors.
• State workers compensation provides an additional "one-time lump sum funeral benefit" of $7,500, according to figures provided by the NOPD personnel office.
• The city's life insurance program provides an officer's survivors $15,000 in the event of a natural death and $30,000 for an accidental death or a homicide.
• The officer's spouse or survivor also may receive a monthly benefit from the state police pension fund, depending on a formula based on the number of years the officer had participated in the pension program when he or she died.
• The survivor of any city employee who dies from a work-related incident may receive 100 percent cash benefits from any unused sick leave accumulated over his or her career, city regulations show. Survivors of city workers may also receive up to 90 days of unused annual leave accumulated by the deceased.
Linda Fornerette, a 25-year city employee assigned to NOPD's personnel office, serves as the department's liaison to the deceased officer's family. "The day the incident occurs, I go to the hospital and secure a waiting room for the family," Fornerette says. "Then, the staff psychologist is already notified for counseling co-workers. Then I will sit and provide comfort however I can. I will stay as long as I need to, until the body has been transferred to the coroner's office."
After death, she helps the deceased officer's family process all the paperwork required for receipt of police death benefits. The officer's survivors must cope with mounting expenses from the funeral and any hospitals bills. But Justice Department benefits take up to one year to reach the families because of the research required to document each case, Fornerette says. State compensation usually tracks the feds. Workmen's compensation benefits get to police survivors more quickly because a certified copy of the death certificate is the main requirement.
CIVIL SERVICE OFFICIALS SAY the city's safety net extends to police personnel who are injured or disabled on the job. But some cops say the extra sick leave benefits that the city awards to injured officers can quickly be consumed by medical bills and daily living expenses.
Officers injured on the job get 180 days of sick leave with pay per incident, including training accidents, according to civil service officials. A panel of the NOPD and the Civil Service Commission, which oversees compensation for all city employees, reviews each injury claim.
"Special monetary compensation" for a limited period of time may be authorized by the Civil Service Commission for police personnel "who sustain any disabling injury while attempting to [stop a crime]," regulations show. The program is designed to help a police employee whose injuries will keep him or her off the job for more than six months. Such awards are rare and are reviewed month-to-month by city and police officials.
"The Police Department has been judicious [with the special sick leave award]," says Doyle. "The bottom line is there is a safety net for people who are called upon to accept what is known under the law as an assumption of risk' for the work they do for the city. They know their family will be taken care of while they are waiting to go back to work." Lynne Schackai, acting director of civil service, says she concurs with Doyle.
Once police and city officials determine an officer can no longer work, he or she will be placed on disability pension. But some cops say too many of their fellow officers and their families fall through government safety nets. For the past several years, proceeds from the annual Tommy Phillips Golf Open have been directed to officers who have been injured or disabled in the line of duty, Keen says. The Phillips fund also has extended financial help to families of officers who might be excluded from traditional insurance policies or police death benefits, such as police retirees and officers who commit suicide. The fund recently helped pay the school tuition of a retired policeman's daughter whose father was killed in a shoot-out with would-be robbers in front of their Metairie home.
The fund's annual golf tournament in October usually raises between $8,000 to $10,000. In a separate effort, the private New Orleans Police Foundation recently established its Tragedy Fund to provide immediate help for the families of police personnel who die or who are seriously injured while employed by the NOPD. Families of deceased officers may receive up to $5,000. "The key is to get the money to the family within 48 hours," says foundation director Stellingworth.
All 2,000 cops and full-time civilian employees of the NOPD are eligible to join but must contribute an annual $26 fee to receive Tragedy Fund benefits. All claims are reviewed by a seven-member board chaired by city homeland security chief Terry Ebbert, who as a past director of the Police Foundation developed the fund concept. More than half of all NOPD employees have since joined the fund. Three members have received benefits to date.
Unfortunately, officers Simmons and Tessier were not members. Therefore the fund cannot provide benefits to their survivors, Stellingworth says.
SHORTLY BEFORE 1 P.M ON JULY 16, the cops in front of the Second gathered around Capt. Jeffrey Winn. A retired U.S. Marine, Winn demonstrated the proper salute for a fallen officer. It is a slow, solemn motion. "Everybody got it?" Winn shouted. The officers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and rehearsed.
At 1:03 p.m., the funeral procession appeared in the distance. Pairs of officers on motorcycles rumbled up the street in low gear, their lights flashing. Winn barked out an order. The three-dozen NOPD officers executed the slow, final salute. The black hearse passed slowly, without stopping. Simmons' flag-draped coffin was visible through the rear window. The wind suddenly picked up and the flag in front of the Second unfurled. The procession continued to the cemetery.
By 1:20 p.m., Magazine Street had almost returned to normal. A cop rolled up yellow crime scene tape used to cordon off police parking spots. The inmate trusty removed the temporary "No Parking" signs posted for the procession.
In 1973, Second District Capt. Edwin Hosli Jr.'s father, NOPD K-9 Officer Ed Hosli Sr., died from gunshot wounds he suffered three months after a New Year's Eve 1972 search for a cop killer. What consolation could he offer to the Simmons family and other loved ones of police officers killed in the line of duty?
"It's difficult," Hosli said. "I feel sorry for the family 'cause I know what my family went through. It's just one day at a time. That's all you can do. Don't harbor your feelings. Let it all out."
He then hurried to join two other police captains for a late lunch.
- Alva Ray Simmons
- George Tessier