How Katrina Sparked Reform in a Troubled Police Department

© REUTERS/Lee Celano A New Orleans police vehicle at a crime scene.
© REUTERS/Lee Celano A New Orleans police vehicle at a crime scene.

The New Orleans Police Department had a reputation for corruption long before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the summer of 2005. For decades, the department was infected by a culture of discrimination, abuse, and lawlessness. That culture spilled out into the open in the week after the storm. During that brief period, police officers shot and killed three unarmed civilians.

As Katrina’s flood water receded, the department’s dysfunction was laid bare for all to see. A Justice Department investigation found that the police department was loosely held together by an even looser code of conduct. Soon after, the city was forced into an agreement to reform its police department. It seemed a uniquely awful situation.

In the years since Katrina, though, the Justice Department has launched investigations into numerous other police departments. The dysfunction of the New Orleans police began to look less like an exception, and more like an example of widespread issues that happened to be noticed and addressed earlier in New Orleans than elsewhere. Ironically, the depth of the department’s dysfunction has set it up to be a model for reform. As it continues to improve almost every area of its operation, it is becoming an example for other troubled police forces seeking to clean up their own acts.

The New Orleans Police Department’s Long, Troubled History

“New Orleans was a city where the general population had a fair degree of skepticism coupled with outright fear of the police department. It was quite justified,” says Pam Metzger, a New Orleans resident and a professor of criminal law at Tulane University Law School. “That made this a place where one’s view of the police depended largely on one’s race and socioeconomic background.”

The department earned that reputation through a series of high-profile incidents of police violence against black suspects and the city’s black community at large. In 1980, officers went on a rampage through the largely black Algiers section of the city that ended in the deaths of four civilians and left nearly 50 others injured. The 90s were full of shocking news stories about the NOPD’s abuse, misconduct, and criminal activity . Perhaps the most outrageous example came in 1994 when a woman was killed at the behest of an NOPD police officer after she reported that he’d beaten up a teenager in her neighborhood. The hit was recorded in the process of a federal investigation into a cocaine ring involving that officer.

In 1996, The New York Times described the New Orleans police as “a loose confederation of gangsters terrorizing sections of the city.”

Katrina Blew the Lid off the NOPD

When Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, the department found itself understaffed and overwhelmed. Many of its officers evacuated the city before the storm hit and couldn’t come back to help secure the city. Police were without power, vehicles were under water, stations were flooded along with 80 percent of the city, and the police radio system had completely shut down.

Despite the force’s reputation and the tremendous odds officer faced, many rose to the occasion. Michael Harrison, the current superintendent of the NOPD, says officers coordinated and performed search-and-rescue operations for days, many working around the clock. During this time, however, rumors of widespread violence and looting spread throughout the force. While officers scrambled to save stranded residents, there was a growing sentiment that the city was being overrun by its criminal element.

“I heard stories and I heard rumors but I didn’t see it and I never talked to anybody else who saw it,” says Harrison, who was a commander in the department during Katrina.

“Yes, we saw people looting stores that didn’t flood for supplies and clothes. We saw people taking it upon themselves to get whatever necessities they needed; people were in survival mode,” he says.

Somewhere in all of the chaos, ProPublica later reported , officers were told they had the authority to shoot looters.

“It’s not clear how broadly the order was communicated. Some officers who heard it say they refused to carry it out. Others say they understood it as a fundamental change in the standards on deadly force, which allow police to fire only to protect themselves or others from what appears to be an imminent physical threat,” reported A.C. Thompson.

In the week after Katrina hit New Orleans, police officers shot at least 10 civilians, killing three.

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Source: The Atlantic | Donovan X. Ramsey