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What It Means to Miss New Orleans

The accuracy of Fox’s new police drama K-Ville can only be known by the cops working in post-Katrina New Orleans. An interview with Police Lieutenant Bryant Wininger, who explains where the real drama still is, free of storylines and plot twists.

Three Mondays ago, Fox debuted K-Ville, an hour-long drama about New Orleans cops created by Jonathan Lisco, one of the writers of NYPD Blue. New York magazine loved the show. The Los Angeles Times hated it. But I wanted to know what New Orleans cops thought about it. As it turns out, I know a couple.

The public information office of the NOPD offered a terse “No comment” regarding K-Ville. But that didn’t deter Lieutenant Bryant Wininger from talking to me. “Yeah, I’ll tell you what I think, but I probably won’t like it,” he told me when I called. “The only cop shows that are any good are The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets.” Later, he admitted to liking The Shield. “Before it got ridiculous.” He wanted to make clear that he was speaking to me not as a representative of NOPD, but as the first vice-president of PANO (Police Association of New Orleans). “Other PANO officers have their own thoughts on K-Ville,” he emailed me at one point. “If the city is lucky, the series will last a long time.”

A few words about Lieutenant Wininger: During Katrina, when cops shaved their heads because they couldn’t bathe, Wininger got a mohawk. He’d always wanted one. “I went looking for blue dye in the stores, too, but I couldn’t find any.” He has spent more than three decades in the New Orleans Police Department, and nothing made him sadder during our conversations than discussing his city’s demise. “New Orleans got real problems,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re gonna make it.”

K-Ville, at least, could bring some attention to that struggle. But those hoping for an eloquent human drama may have to settle for a traditional, shaky-cam cop show with occasional gumbo. The chaos of Katrina is boiled down to three minutes, a cowardly side-step; after all, FOX isn’t exactly known for its criticism of this administration. (The show is also saddled with a downright asinine plot twist—the white cop, played by Cole Hauser, is a criminal whose records washed away during Katrina, thus allowing him to remake himself as NOPD.) As Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose wrote in an open letter to the show’s producers: “What you’ve got here are two different TV shows. And one of them really sucks.” (Viewers seem to agree. Ratings for the show dropped 30 percent after the first episode.)

I spoke to Wininger on the phone three times, for a total of five hours. “I run my mouth, you might have noticed,” he told me (more than once). But there’s something exhilarating about a person so uncensored, whose answers have not been tweezed by PR departments and choked by self-consciousness, like so many of the celebrities I interview (and, for that matter, so many of the cops interviewed on TV). Eventually the New Orleans Police Department did issue a statement about K-Ville. They said the show demonstrated the “good work that the men and the women of the Police Department performed [after Katrina], which was not portrayed by much of the media.” I guess a lot of cops feel like journalists don’t listen to them. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but in my conversations with Lieutenant Wininger, I did.


* * *

You watched the first episode, right?

Yeah, I watched it. It’s terrible. What do you want me to say?

Ha. Can you be a little more specific with your gripes?

It’s all chopped-up. The plot’s terrible. People are running around Bourbon Street shooting. Come on. And somebody’s buying up property in the Ninth Ward? Believe me, nobody’s buying property in the Ninth Ward. But it’s TV, they have to sell the show, no matter how unrealistic it is. They’re only using the Ninth Ward because that’s what made all the news. The Ninth Ward was a very small part of the total destruction.

Is there anything you liked about it?

That part about his wife not wanting to come back to New Orleans was kind of real. There’s a lot of that going around. A lot of guys around here, their wives haven’t even come back yet. We got a lot of our people in Atlanta, which is where she wanted to go. The part about him planting a tree was good. It shows how, in the last two years, a little thing like that makes you feel great.

So I want you to watch the second episode before we talk again.

It’s gonna be painful. I’ll do it, but it’ll be painful.

I’ll buy you something nice.

Yeah, you better.

[one week later]

So what did you think of the second episode?

[sigh] Everything’s just so implausible.

Did this change your mind at all?

No. In fact, last night, they didn’t talk about the policeman’s home life at all. The police stuff they show is just so far-out. Shooting all over the place. It’s like, we’ve got an hour to solve this massive crime. It’s like an ‘80s cop drama.

There was a storyline about New Orleans corruption.

Oh, yeah, the sheriff’s dumping barrels into the water. [laughs] We get a lot of that, and we’ve had a lot more since the storm. People dump stuff in the river, sure. But the sheriff? Please. Come on.

New Orleans has this legacy as a corrupt town—

Oh yeah, we’re corrupt as hell. Jim Bernazzani, he’s the special agent in charge of the FBI in New Orleans, now he’s a guy who just speaks the truth. And he said “Look, we got corruption in Boston. The difference between Boston and New Orleans is, in Boston, they skim a little off the top and give the rest to the people. In New Orleans, they take the milk, they steal the container, then they go looking for the cow.” [laughs]

But does it bother you to see your town portrayed as so corrupt that even the sheriff is crooked?

No, it’s a silly show. I really didn’t deal with them [when they were working on the show]. They wanted information on stuff. But I’m not into those shows. I know a very good friend who worked with them. Hey, they have to sell the show. There is corruption everywhere.

I heard they went on a couple ride-alongs.

Ride-alongs are fairy tales. Sometimes police will give you a ride-along with a guy you know is safe, so nothing’ll happen. I remember when [the production] came down here, my understanding of the show was that it was going to be about the policemen during the storm. But then again, they need to sell the show.

OK, so what else bothers you?

Those big, thick Southern accents. We don’t sound like that. You know what people always tell me? They tell me we sound like we’re from the Bronx. I don’t know why. Somebody told me if you go to any port city from the 1700s-1800s, they all got that accent. The captain tries to do a New Orleans accent on the show, but he don’t get it. They did that in The Big Easy, too, which was really funny. Dennis Quaid tried to do the French accent, and it was terrible. I don’t know why they do that. So people in San Francisco who’ve never been here before, they think we talk like that. And they think we’re crazy with the corruption. [laughs]

Let me ask you something. Do you think the script is right?

Do I think it’s well written? No. I think it’s well shot, but it’s kind of corny. I also thought last night’s episode was confusing.

Yeah! If you miss one thing, you’re lost. There’s no central theme. If I woulda wrote it, I would have done it like The Wire, one case over a whole season.

I love The Wire.

It’s the closest to reality that I have ever seen. They have very good writers. And they also have some good technical advisors. And it’s hard to write for television. Because people want instant gratification. People want fingerprints. Where are the fingerprints? Fingerprints are hard to get. Now when we go on a burglary, they’re waiting for CSI to arrive. We don’t even send out CSI on a murder! We don’t have that. You know, people only look at our murder rate—

Well, you do have the highest murder rate in the country.

A lieutenant jumped into the water to save someone, who started panicking and dragging him underwater. But his brother jumped in and saved them. There are too many true stories like that to have to make up stories that make no sense. Yes. But I’m gonna give you some figures that might shock you. [shuffling of papers] From August 27 to now—that’s roughly 25 days—there have been 14 murders, 41 shootings, and 10 stabbings. See, everybody worries about the murders. But 41 shootings! Newark, N.J., has—what—59 murders so far this year, and they’re going through the roof. Philadelphia got up to 100, but they got close to 1 million people. We got maybe 250,000 people, and we’re now at 160 murders. And if we didn’t have Charity Hospital, that would be a much higher number. We got one of the best trauma units in the country.

Jack Maple was a deputy police commissioner in New York, and he came down here as an advisor once, and I’ll never forget, he said, “The New Orleans police must be the bravest cops around. Because when they pull someone over, the question is not, ‘Do they have a gun on them?’ but ‘How many guns do they have?’” Down here everybody has a gun.

Speaking about how hard it is to be a New Orleans cop, do you see any of that on the show?

No. Remember that part where the cop threw a reporter out of the crime scene? He would have been fired for that.

What would you like to see more of?

Stuff like they’re driving through what looks like Dresden in Germany, because they don’t show that so much. Most of New Orleans is still screwed up. [To be fair, some of this was featured in the third episode, which aired a week later.]

But I think it would be too slow if they showed how it really is. How you gotta work in a trailer with mold in it. How, after two years, stations aren’t even done yet. Half the time the toilets don’t work. Men are paying to have port-o-lets cleaned out.

I think you just described a good show.

I don’t think that show would make it. I think that’s what hurt Homicide. It showed the tedium of police work. The Wire, they do such a fantastic job on the personal end and the police end. Like what’s his name? McNulty. He’s a great cop, but he’s got problems on the side. I got three kids. Any good unit, especially narcotics, that’s not 9 to 5. That’s 9 to 9. When I was in general assignment, we kept two sets of clothes in our trunk, cause we’d never know where we’d end up. And it does hurt your personal life. I got lucky. I got a good wife, without her I don’t know where my three kids would be today, I was always at work. But lots of men turn to alcohol. Four or five of my friends killed themselves. It’s part of the job, and if you love the job, you live the job. That’s the good cops. And there’s not too many of them left. I told you the difference between a policeman and a cop, right?

You have, but remind me.

Policeman are basically lazy. Anybody can be a policeman. That’s a secretarial job. But a cop is different. A cop is the one who makes the arrests and actually goes looking for criminal behavior.

But that last episode, they didn’t get into any of this personal stuff with the cop. Oh, except for that one guy, the criminal who turned into a cop. That is so unbelievable. Criminal records didn’t wash away during the storm. It’s not the 1970s. We got computers. That’s crazy!

I hate that plot twist. Why do they even need a plot twist? Why can’t it just be two New Orleans cops? There’s enough drama there. Like the cop whose partner deserted him during the storm.

Oh, I’ll tell you a story about that. I’m in the first district. During the storm, we took over the VD clinic, basically. And one day there are reports that another storm is coming and I got this lieutenant, Lieutenant Waller, running around telling 15 patrolmen we gotta get outta here, because we got floods coming. He’s running up and down, shouting.

He’s panicking.

Yeah. Well, I start MF’ing him, and cursing him up and down, and I bring him downstairs, and I say, sit your MF’ing ass right here. I leave for a minute, and what does this guy do? He takes the police car. He ends up in Baton Rouge.

For the next three or four days, we had to massage these patrolmen, had to tell them it ain’t gonna be that bad, because they just saw their lieutenant run. They got scared. And that lieutenant, he went on national TV, saying we weren’t doing this, weren’t doing that. Oh, bullshit. We were doing everything.

Look, we’re a poor city. But the outlying cities, there are poor whites. The poor, whatever color, they always get screwed. And when they see something happen, they’re scared to come tell us. I was in the office a few days later, and a reporter from CNN comes in—I’m sorry, I forget his name—and he sees on the blackboard, someone had written, “Waller is a coward.” And he comes over and he says, “What do you think of that?” And I said, “I don’t wanna talk about it. You don’t want to hear it.” And Chief Compass is there, and he tells me to go ahead. And I say, “He’s a fucking coward, and I don’t care if he dies.” The reporter looked shocked, asked the question again, and I told him the same thing.

A lot of [cops] ran. And I would have turned in my brother if he’d done it.

A lieutenant friend of mine jumped into the water from a boat to save someone. The person he was trying to save started panicking and dragging him underwater, but his brother jumped in and saved them. There are too many true stories like that to have to make up stories that make no sense. As they say, truth is always stranger than fiction.

So you have no sympathy? I mean, even with these guys worried about their families?

Absolutely not. When I was packing my bags, when I was getting my wife ready to leave, she said, “You’ve done 30 years. Why are you going?” The storm was the size of the Gulf. I told her: I ain’t doing it for the mayor, I ain’t doing it for the people of New Orleans, I’m not doing it for the chiefs, I’m doing it for the guy next to me, because I might be able to save him. The guy next to me does care about me. I have no pity for the deserters. There are a lot of stories about officers who left who were probably taken care of, and if I could prove it, I would be in front of the senate committee.

People always say the federal government failed. But the local government failed worse. When you look at the size of that storm. That was stupid. I gotta say, if we would have been hit like Biloxi, there would be 30,000 dead. The Superdome should have been full of water and MREs [meals ready to eat]. We wouldn’t have had people standing in front of the Convention Center, poor people hungry and thirsty. And because of the city going on the cheap like they always do… it’s like Joe Giarrusso said. He was a former chief of police and city councilman. He said, “New Orleans is a city with champagne taste on a beer budget.”

All the news showed was rampant looting. First off, we had no jail. Secondly, we never knew if officers in the next district were alive. What we had was controlled chaos, the biggest national disaster to ever hit a city in this country and there weren’t many people shot or stabbed. Looters weren’t fighting among themselves. We were more concerned with saving people. Life first, property second, always. The city leaders and chiefs should be praising the men and women who stayed to this day because we did it on our own. No help from above. I think the city gave us about 96 bottles of water. If it hadn’t been for small groups of police, fire, National Guard, and citizens there would have been 5,000 people dead. A lot of New York City cops told me 9/11 was easy compared to what we went through.

These stations, I could have had them done by now. I could have gone to Lowe’s and picked up a bunch of Spanish-speaking guys and had them sheetrock the place. It’s been two years. How come nobody’s screaming?

Did you see Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke?

Oh yeah. It’s good. But he only focuses on the poor blacks mostly. Katrina had no color. If you look at the statistics of who died, how many houses got destroyed—it’s almost 50-50 in all categories. All of them poor whites in St. Bernard, they got hit, too. I think if somebody did it with an eye of “we don’t care whether they were white or black,” I think it would have been a documentary and a half. Rita destroyed a lot of poor fishermen’s villages, but that gets hardly any play. Look at 9/11, Katrina, the Atlanta bombing, the Rodney King riots, and you’ll see a lot of both colors helping each other. People are people, both good and bad. But that doesn’t sell on TV. They have to sensationalize.

Look, we’re a poor city. But the outlying cities, there are poor whites. The poor, whatever color, they always get screwed. And when they see something happen, they’re scared to come tell us.

I assume there’s a distrust of the police in those neighborhoods.

I don’t believe that. Say we go and make an arrest, and you got to fight a guy. You got three people yelling, “Police brutality!” But I think the other 50 people behind closed doors are glad we stopped things. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. These people can’t say, “I saw what happened, and the officer is right.” They know these thugs will come back. That’s why they don’t show up in court. We can’t protect them. You have to get to a point where you say, “I understand.”

One thing they got right: that planting of the tree. After two years it’s the little things that bring out the best. When I finished gutting my house I thought I had won the lottery. When we put a shooter in jail, his brother, his mom, his friends are gonna go look for the one who told on him. What are we gonna do, put the people in a hotel on Tulane Avenue until the trial is over? It’s a systemic problem.

There was a shooting, years ago, in one of the schools, and every mom and dad shows up. And the principal says, “This is the first time I’ve seen these people.” No matter how much money you dump into the school, if you have parents that don’t care, what do you think the kid’s gonna do? Take the easiest route. Me, I got beaten by the teachers. I got beaten by my parents. I don’t have a problem with that. My grandma used to make me get those hickory switches. We’d have to strip the leaves. And I always say, I didn’t turn out too bad. It’s scary, scary, and I feel for poor people. A seven-year-old kid’s mother’s a dope fiend, shacking up with all these men, coming in and out, kid doesn’t have a chance. What do you want me to say? He’s gonna be a Yale graduate?

But if you really want to be a policeman, you come to New Orleans, because you see it all. I remember why I came on the police department. I was watching Police Story, those Joseph Wambaugh books. You read his books?

No, I’ve never even heard of them.

You read those, you’re gonna know what it’s like to be a policeman. He was a sergeant in the LAPD. When I get a recruit, I say, go read this book, son. And start with the first one. He nails police like nobody. He was doing a weekly show called Police Story, which was fantastic, and I said, “Man, that wouldn’t be so bad.” I was 21, my cousin was a cop, and I was like, “Ricky, I wanna ride with you.” First thing we went on was a shooting. I was hooked. I tell people you gotta be stupid to be a cop. Everybody’s running away, and you’re running toward it. But a good cop wants to be there. That’s built-in.

There’s a line in the first episode of K-Ville like, “You gotta be half a nutjob to be a cop in New Orleans.”

Yeah, this would have been a helluva good movie by a good director. Katrina was something that was surreal. When you’re driving down Tulane Avenue in a boat? It’s surreal. It’s like when you’re looking at the pictures of the Trade Center come down. It’s surreal.

And there still hasn’t been a great film about New York during 9/11. Sorry, I didn’t care for World Trade Center.

I didn’t see it. But with this, I think they should have started from the beginning, when the storm hit, and stayed with it. I’ll tell you one thing they got right: that planting of the tree, that it means so much to him. After two years it’s the little things that bring out the best. When I finished gutting my house I thought I had won the lottery.

Cameron Parish, they got hit bad, and it’s mostly poor fishermen and shrimpers there. There was a newspaper article about a guy walking through the woods where they had planted 100 cyprus trees and Katrina had killed them, and he was just trying to find one alive. Otherwise, to me this show is just a shoot-’em-up and they’re driving police cars all over the place. I don’t know what premise they pitched, but my hope was that it was about how police are coping with Katrina. And it wouldn’t show barrels being thrown in the water, it would show overworked homicide units going from one murder to the next. I mean, we’re working 12-hour shifts.

OK, let’s say you’re writing this show. What would you do?

I would have given them more range to complain about the system, if you really want a reality show. These guys still gotta go to the bathroom in port-o-lets. People, no matter what business you in, people want direction. Even a writer gets stuck. Am I right?

It’s true.

You go to somebody, and they give you a direction. Everybody wants a direction. Even the president of the United States needs direction. How long until we have a station with a bathroom? When are all the vests coming in? I could go on and on, but basically there is no direction from up above. Any good leader will surround himself with people smarter than him, even if he disagrees with them.