As is often the case, I woke up Tuesday morning and turned on The Laura Ingraham Show. As is also often the case, it wasn’t long before my blood was boiling. The topic under discussion was a segment from the previous evening’s edition of CNN’s Newsnight, in which a lieutenant from the New Orleans Police Department explained his decision to stay home with his wife rather than report for duty as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city.
”I left [my fellow officers] in a bad situation,” Lieutenant Henry Waller told Anderson Cooper, “but I would have been leaving my wife in a worse situation.”
It’s galling enough that this man dishonored himself and his badge by shirking his duty, but it’s almost beyond belief that he would try to justify his decision on national television. “We listened to the radio,” Waller said, “we’re hearing the things, the water’s still rising, the water’s still rising, the water’s still rising. The looting is this, the looting is that. I started thinking, I said, well, you know, we’ve been hearing this story about the levees breaching all day. What if they’re right and I get stuck in this car? I’m no good dead.”
Well, maybe not. But as far as his fellow officers and the citizens of New Orleans were concerned, he was no good alive, either. So said one of Waller’s colleagues who made the opposite choice. “Everybody had a wife,” said Lieutenant Troy Savage, “everybody’s got families, everybody needed to see them. But we didn’t. We didn’t all flee. We all didn’t run in a time of crisis. And, you know, [Waller] did that.”
Yes, Waller did that, as did hundreds of others, apparently, and if their excuses for doing so are as sorry as Waller’s, they’re likely to face a tough reception from Lieutenant Savage and all the others who found it in themselves to get to work and do their duty. There may have been some New Orleans cops with legitimate reasons for staying home, but based what I heard on the radio, Waller wasn’t one of them.
I’ve previously referred to Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. As it applies to law enforcement, it means simply that 20 percent of the cops do 80 percent of the work. I didn’t see the segment on CNN, and all I know about Lieutenants Henry Waller and Troy Savage is what I gleaned from the sound clips played on Ingraham’s show, but I feel safe in saying that Waller represents the 80 percent while Savage is part of the 20. The difference between the two groups was perfectly distilled in quotes from each them. “In a time of ultimate crisis,” said Waller, “who needs me more, the police department or my wife? And it was a no-brainer for me.”
Savage saw things differently. “If I had [not gone to work],” he said, “how do you face your children and try to make them do the right thing ever again?”
Consider also that both these men are lieutenants, presumably with subordinates who were waiting for guidance when all around them was in watery chaos. I’m inclined to doubt that Waller enjoyed much respect from those under him even before Katrina struck, but what little he may have had was surely washed away with everything else in New Orleans. If he’s not fired (as he should be), he may as well quit, for he’ll never be able to stand in front of a roomful of cops again without their knowing he’s a coward.
Like most of the cops I know, I have an understanding with my wife. Mrs. Dunphy knows that if I happen to be at home the next time disaster strikes in Los Angeles (the next earthquake or riot could come tomorrow), I’ll first check on her, then I’ll look in on some of our elderly neighbors. If everyone is safe I’ll be out the door and off to the police station, whether or not it happens to be standing. And if I’m at work when it happens, my wife knows she may not see me for days. She married a cop and she knew what she was getting into.
It’s unfortunate that Katrina overshadowed the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but perhaps now is a good time to remember that day’s heroes, the cops and firemen at the Twin Towers, the servicemen at the Pentagon, and all the countless others whose valor is today known only to God. When the unthinkable came to pass they put thoughts of their own safety aside and did what needed to be done, for many at the cost of their lives. If Henry Waller had been in Lower Manhattan that day, he would have been the first guy across the Brooklyn Bridge. Shame on him.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.