Hundreds of family members, friends and police officers gathered Wednesday night to pay tribute to a New Orleans officer who died as a result of injuries from a crash involving a suspected drunk driver early Sunday on Interstate 10 — an event that once again has sent waves of grief rippling through the Police Department.
Some wore black shirts of mourning. Others wore their department blues. But many in the crowd wore pink, Officer Natasha Hunter’s favorite color, as they hugged one another and gave thanks for her 31 years on Earth.
Hunter, an 11-year veteran of the force with three sisters in local law enforcement agencies and a 5-year-old daughter, was described as a sparkling presence and a dedicated officer.
“From day 1, she was rambunctious and full of life, and the last time I saw her alive — the night before she died — full of life,” Hunter’s father, 63-year-old Nathaniel Sherman, said.
Sherman said Hunter did not grow up wanting to be a police officer but eventually decided to follow her sisters into law enforcement. She failed to pass her department test the first time but tried again and succeeded.
Hunter joined the force in December 2004, and from that point on, Sherman said, “it went from being a job to a passion.” Hunter spent time in the 5th District but most recently was assigned to the 1st District, which covers Mid-City and Treme.
As Mayor Mitch Landrieu and City Councilwoman Susan Guidry listened, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison revealed during the memorial that Hunter recently had passed the test to become a DWI investigator. She was in line to be the next officer trained for the job, he said.
“How ironic that her sacrifice would be in this way,” Harrison said. “She will never be forgotten; she will always be remembered.”
Sherman said in an interview that his family wrestled with the decision to disconnect Hunter — who suffered massive brain injuries in the Sunday morning crash — from life support. But after they did so on Tuesday, he said, they received what he called a “sign.”
As Hunter’s family stood around her bed, her arms came up from under her sheets, Sherman said, and raised up “toward the heavens.”
Sherman also offered a direct message to the man police accused of killing his daughter and to a city that he said all too often tolerates drunk driving.
New Orleans is a place, Sherman said, where gas stations sell liquor and daiquiri shops operate as drive-thrus. Harrah’s Casino — where Chau Thai Nguyen reportedly had been drinking before his car crashed into Hunter’s stopped police vehicle on I-10 eastbound near Esplanade Avenue about 2:30 a.m. Sunday — serves drinks to gamblers, he said.
Tonight, we light the Dome blue to honor the life and service of fallen NOPD Officer Natasha Hunter. pic.twitter.com/plw6UewlpE— MBSuperdome (@MBSuperdome) June 9, 2016
Nguyen has been booked on vehicular homicide but not on drunken driving. Police said they are awaiting the results of toxicology tests but said they believe he was intoxicated at the time of the crash.
“I bear no animosity toward him,” Sherman said. “He’s a victim in this situation, too, because we as a society decided that we’re going to tolerate and, in some cases, even promote people drinking and driving.”
Sherman noted that Hunter’s mother, Linda, had to bury her brother under the same circumstances when he was a senior in high school.
“We gotta stop. We gotta wake up. At some point, we gotta wake up and say, ‘No more,’ ” Sherman said.
The Police Department released details Wednesday on memorial plans for Hunter.
A public visitation will occur from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at Rhodes Funeral Home, 3933 Washington Ave. A public viewing and memorial service will take place Monday at St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, 5600 Read Blvd. The viewing will be from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; the memorial will begin at 11 a.m.
Burial will take place immediately afterward at Providence Memorial Park, 8200 Airline Drive, Metairie.