‘The bravest person I’ve ever met’
While many New Orleans police officers were fleeing the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Detective Robert Williams, who was in the midst of a battle with cancer that would eventually take his life, refused to evacuate, despite the urging of co-workers that he seek treatment somewhere else.
Williams’ steadfast commitment to the New Orleans Police Department was highlighted by friends, family members and local leaders on Saturday afternoon during the christening of a new 8th Police District substation, which was named for the New Orleans native in honor of his police work and his advocacy for better health care coverage for all city employees.
The substation, which is on the ground floor of the New Orleans Healing Center in the 2300 block of St. Claude Avenue, will be manned by officers from the 8th District, where Williams worked for almost 10 years.
The district includes primarily the Central Business District, the French Quarter and part of Faubourg Marigny. It was while he was working in the French Quarter that Williams met his wife, Debbie, in 1999.
The two were married in 2002, and, months later, after breaking his collarbone, Robert Williams was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer that doctors told him had already spread to 80 percent of his body. From then until his death in 2007, he underwent treatment, including chemotherapy and a bone graft from an older sibling, while continuing to do his job.
Saturday would have been his 47th birthday.
Debbie Williams said her husband rarely missed a day of work and was still arresting armed robbers when he was in the later stages of his illness.
“He was the bravest person I’ve ever met,” she said.
She said Robert Williams was an animal lover who would occasionally pull over carriage drivers in the French Quarter if they were overloading their mules and would stop traffic for ducks crossing the road near their Lake Catherine home.
But Debbie Williams said it was her husband’s commitment to his police work that was unparalleled.
“He died with his (police) radio on,” she said.
She said the bills for her husband’s illness topped $1 million, and, in 2007, the couple successfully petitioned the city to double its catastrophic care maximum to $2 million for all city employees.
“There was a hole in the system, and he fixed it,” said Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who attended Saturday’s event.
In order to continue her husband’s advocacy, Debbie Williams established the Robert Williams Memorial Fund, which supports officers and their families who have catastrophic health care needs.
On Saturday, she presented checks to Officer John Passaro, who is still in a wheelchair after being shot multiple times in February during an armed robbery in Bywater, and the widow of Officer Rodney Thomas, who was killed after being hit by a car in July.
According to Jeffrey Walls, commander of the 8th District, the new substation — one of two in the district — will be primarily manned by the six members of the district’s task force. That unit, he said, works overnight and aggressively fights crime before it happens.
Walls said such a substation is a fitting tribute to Robert Williams, who was known for his proactive approach to police work.
The building’s bottom floor has been home to the NOPD before.
After Hurricane Katrina, Pres Kabacoff, the building’s owner, allowed the department’s 5th District, whose station had been destroyed by the storm, to move in for 2½ years.
When police districts were redrawn in 2011, the building was included within the 8th District.
Kabacoff said he was happy to have the police force in the building and applauded the efforts of Robert Williams to boost health care coverage. “All city employees get the benefit of his work,” he said.
City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents District C, issued the official proclamation naming the station after Robert Williams and also unveiled a plaque with his likeness.
“He didn’t just look from within,” she said. “What he did was he looked at the system, identified what was wrong with the system and used his life experience to continue public service.”