As the flood waters receded from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so too did many of the horror stories of rapes, murders and a general disintegration of civil society into lawlessness. But like the still-visible mark of a flood’s crest, the image of looters and armed responders still permeates our collective conversation of the tragedy.
Surely to complicate efforts at recasting the Katrina narrative is a feature by ProPublica, Frontline, and The New Orleans Times-Picayune that uncovers that during the chaotic first few days following the hurricane New Orleans police officers had an order circulate instructing them to shoot looters and “take back the city”. The report details several disturbing facets to the Katrina story, not least of which is that in a time of total chaos the force appeared to revert to a lawlessness of culture which made enforcing any order in the city all but impossible.
The accounts of this “martial law” report show conflicting messages coming from top leadership about just what was to be done to keep the citizens of New Orleans safe while aid arrived. Despite the conflicting messages there is a uniformity that emerges–a uniformity of confusion. It is not entirely clear just how broadly this order to “take the city back” and to “shoot looters” was communicated nor what exactly it meant. According to ProPublica, some officers who heard it refused to carry it out while others say it meant a fundamental change in deadly force protocol.
The accounts and the concurrent investigation is part of a broader examination of the use of police force following Katrina with the goals of both bringing any rogue officers to justice and creating procedures designed to prevent another such breakdown of order. There is no doubt that the New Orleans police force came under unprecedented pressures after the hurricane. Stations were submerged in water and the entire computerized communications system failed. Some officers went for days without sleep as they rescued trapped residents from rooftops. In short it was a nightmare scenario that, in the first several days, seemed to have no end.
Now, five years later, many are still looking for answers, not just from the New Orleans police force, but from a federal and local recovery effort that has sputtered and stalled. It’s almost too cliche to say that it is the moment of crisis that tests the strength of our democratic structures and principles, but for the post-op of Katrina, the cliche holds. The New Orleans police department had been plagued with corruption and abuse problems long before its command center collapsed. Lax federal spending and oversight meant there was no way the levees would hold. Entrenched racial and class bias almost pre-determined who would be victimized most by this disaster and who would recover first.
Five years later I think it’s time to ask have we really changed at all?
photo courtesy of potato potato via Flickr