Photos and artwork courtesy of Charles Hoffacker
Charles Hoffacker is a compassionate cop who joined the eternally troubled New Orleans police department in 2004 because he wanted to make a positive difference. He is also an accomplished conceptual painter. Many of his fellow officers consider him a pussy—even as civilian locals who know 33-year-old homicide detective Hoffacker wish the rest of NOLA’s cops were a little more like him.
His most famous piece, "The Ghost of Telly Hankton," renders the famous drug lord and killer using 14,000 rounds of spent 40-caliber bullets. He buys the cardboard signs from homeless panhandlers and paints their portraits on them. His more traditional oil and acrylic paintings depict things like AK-47s draped in Mardi Gras beads.
Recently, Detective Hoffacker came under investigation after being accused of letting his artistic side interfere with his professionalism. On a particularly violent night last March, Hoffacker visited 19 different bloody shooting scenes. According to a story by NOLA.com crime reporter Naomi Martin, as the site of one murder scene was about to be hosed down and cleaned up, “Hoffacker was looking for bullet fragments in the victim's coagulated blood, which had pooled on the street. Hoffacker wiped his bloody hands off on the sidewalk, the source said, and then he appeared to start writing the word 'Help.' A nearby officer scolded him and Hoffacker stopped.”
"While compassion is certainly a noble quality in a normal human being, for a homicide detective, that can be something that is detrimental to you," Eric Hessler of the Police Association of New Orleans told Martin. "You can only see so much blood and so much violence, and that was a particularly disturbing weekend for New Orleans. It was a particularly disturbing weekend for Charlie."
Hoffacker was reassigned to a desk job while awaiting his investigation’s outcome—which has given him more time to work on his art. I spoke to Hoffacker about how his intense day job influences his art, his struggle to be a good cop in a city not famous for good cops, and what it’s been like living through America’s recent Ferguson-inspired love affair with hating the police.
VICE: Hi, Charles! Is it safe to say when you're at work, you feel like nobody gets you?
Charles Hoffacker: Yes. It’s very frustrating for me. I’ll go to work at the department and everybody’s like, “That’s the weird guy.” But I think everybody else is weird. So I don’t really fit in at work. They take potshots, and they make jokes about me doing art. They’re very type-A personalities. Like, these guys were the jocks. But then I don’t fit into the art world either because of my day job.
Artists aren’t more accepting?
No. Less, I think. There is a lot of anti-police sentiment. I’ve literally lost friends because they were like, “You chose this path, and I don’t want to have anything to do with that anymore.”
Do you know any conservative artists?
Yeah, sure. But not many are conceptual artists. There are like conservative landscape artists, like, "This is a riverboat. And this is the South, and it will rise again!" But with conceptualism you have to think outside the box.
Then what part of you is drawn to police work?
Helping people, man! My first night on my own as a policeman, the first thing I did was go and find a bunch of homeless people and give them some money. There is a problem with people getting too drunk in the French Quarter, where I was working at first, and you have to go and wake them up, or if they’re so drunk they’re not safe you have to bring them to the drunk tank. And if it’s cold, I’m like, “Hey, man, you need a ride to the shelter or some money?”
Has any of that empathy worn off over time?
Oh, yeah, I definitely became jaded for a while. I went from like Democrat, very liberal, to conservative Republican, like, "You need to work hard," and "Obey the state." But now I’ve gone back to even more liberal than I ever was—just more open-minded. I don’t know why.
How many cops are like you?
I think there are a few [who are] more in the direction of helping. There’s people that I work with who are extremely friendly. I have a friend in the department who comes to all my art shows and makes a point to put his arm around me and say, “I support you.”
The NOPD is famously having a hard time recruiting police and is supposedly hemorrhaging employees. Is that why you haven’t been fired from the police department yet?
Actually, I don’t think it’s hard to get fired. I think the department is not going to hesitate to clean it up. If someone messes up they’re not going to keep them around. They are trying to rebuild it the right way. It's scary, though, because there are so many allegations every day; you pull someone over and then later they say, “He mistreated me.” It might not be true; they’re just mad they went to jail—and that will get you off of a charge. So it’s very common.
Have you been working during all of the problems in Ferguson?
Right now, I’ve been reassigned. I sit in the homicide office, and I don’t even carry a gun. I am not allowed to wear anything that says NOPD. I don’t have a badge, a radio, handcuffs—everything was taken from me.
But has Ferguson had an effect on you as a cop?
It definitely made me rethink my career. I am very nervous about it; it makes our job that much more difficult. I would consider myself very nice and sweet. I don’t like the feeling of arresting people; it’s a terrible feeling taking someone’s freedom away—even when it’s deserved.
Do you feel like you understand what they're upset about?
I will never know what it’s like to be a young black man in America. The way I hear people talk about [the police], I would say it’s gotta be somewhat close to being a white police officer. I walk into a coffee shop in uniform and it’s like I have leprosy. It’s not the same—you can’t take your skin off—but it’s the same look of disgust. And I’m like, What did I do to deserve this? I would gladly take a bullet for you. It kinda makes me wanna embrace my art career 100 percent.
Did the hate noticeably intensify recently?
I don’t think it did in New Orleans. We have this laissez-faire attitude about everything—I’m talking as a citizen now. People have a hard time staying angry here, it seems like. In New Orleans we have young babies, toddlers, shot here—that’s the worst thing ever to see. It’ll make the local paper for like a day, and then the Saints will play and everyone will forget about it. Whereas, if a toddler gets shot in Chicago or New York, it’s national news. If I quit [the NOPD], I am never going back, because I have seen some shit, man.
What's the worst thing you've experienced?
A seven-month-old's autopsy? You don’t get that out of your head. Other cops are very in tune with it and don’t let it effect their job at all. You never cry on a crime scene. When you have to knock on the door and tell someone, “I’m here to investigate your son’s murder.” Or when you don’t have any answers, that’s hard. You’re like, Shit, I’m a horrible person. Why can’t I solve this? I deal with a lot of self-loathing. I take some medicine for depression, whatever. And I never feel good about myself, except when I’m making art. But I can’t just make art about anything—like a portrait of someone—it just doesn’t do it for me.
What will you make art about if you’re no longer with the police department?
I’d like to work on an international scale. There is so much conflict everywhere. I am always gonna be a homicide investigator, somehow. Though I will say that since I was reassigned, in the past three months my stress level and my anxiety level have diminished. My art is getting better, tighter. My social life is in a better place. It’s really nice to step away from everything for a while. If nothing else I am retiring in a year and a half, that has already been decided. I will be vested. That means you can retire with 40 percent of your pension after 12 years. You can get a retired status.
How much money do you make as a homicide detective?
I make about $35,000.
Jesus! That’s not much for having to look at dead kids? That’s less than a public schoolteacher. How much did you make when you started ten years ago?
Maybe $28K or $30K. Public school teachers deal with worse stuff than we do sometimes. But that’s the problem: Most cops are leaving because it’s not paying anything. Austin is starting at $72K, and then after five years you’re up to $90k.
There’s an aura around your crime-themed art that it is controversial. Is it because it’s sort of racially tinged?
My art just reflects what I see at work. I don’t go to work and see an old white female dead on the street; it’s always young black males. Some people see racism where there is none. I don’t paint anybody in a bad light, so I think I can get away with it. For instance, my “Virgin Mary” piece is about a black female. This chick is moving weight but she has nothing to show for it; she has a shitty apartment, drives a shitty car, wears shitty clothes. So we find out she’s saving money for her son’s college tuition. We never did arrest her.
Note: The title of this piece has been changed from a title written by the editor. The writer, Michael Patrick Welch, had no involvement in titling the piece to state that Detective Hoffacker intentionally fingerpaints with blood, and requested that the previous title be changed. The editor regrets the error.