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DAILY TERRORISM BRIEF
U.S.: Hurricane Katrina and the Breakdown in NOPD
As conditions in southern Louisiana deteriorated in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) ceased to function as an effective security force. It can be argued that any police force faced with such devastation and chaos eventually would find itself overwhelmed by the job at hand. NOPD, however, disintegrated faster than a well-organized, well-trained and disciplined force should have. As a result, officers were unable to contain the mass looting that occurred or prevent violence at refugee shelters.
On Sept. 2, just three days after Hurricane Katrina hit, witnesses reported seeing NOPD personnel involved in the looting of the Wal-Mart retail store on Tchoupitoulas Street. According to reports, the officers lost control of the situation at the store, which had been turned into a distribution center for food and essential supplies. Mass desertions and resignations from the force also were reported.
Plagued by repeated scandal, the NOPD is not considered, shall we say, one of the country's least-corrupt police departments. Although steps have been taken in recent years to clean up the department, its near-immediate breakdown after the hurricane certainly raises questions -- at least in the area of discipline within the ranks. A poorly disciplined military or police organization faced with significant obstacles or challenges often disintegrates faster and more completely than would a well-disciplined organization. In fact, the security situation in New Orleans following Katrina is similar in many ways to the breakdown in authority that plagues countries in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia during major natural disasters.
During the 1980s and 1990s, NOPD held the top positions among U.S. police forces in the categories of police brutality, corruption and incompetence, according to Temple University police abuse expert James Fyfe. Between 1993 and 1998, 50 NOPD officers were arrested for felonies, including homicide, rape, and armed robbery, Fyfe reported. During this period, the FBI assigned agents to the force to reform its internal affairs division, and the Department of Justice opened an investigation into allegations of civil rights abuses by the department. While this was going on, the crime rate in New Orleans was one of the highest in the country, earning the city the nickname, "Murder Capital of the U.S.A," during the mid-1990s.
Perhaps the most serious incident occurred in October 1994, when an NOPD officer was arrested and charged with killing New Orleans resident Kim Groves, a 32-year-old mother of three who had filed a police brutality complaint against the officer. The officer was convicted and sentenced to death for ordering Grove's death "under color of law."
Richard Pennington took over as NOPD superintendent in 1994 and began a crackdown on police corruption. In addition, partially as a result of federal scrutiny, New Orleans began a series of police reforms in early 1997. Crime rates and corruption dropped as a result, but many observers believe serious problems with discipline and corruption persisted.
Several cases of officer corruption that have come to light in the recent past, in fact, suggest that the NOPD still has some internal cleansing to do. In May 2004, an NOPD officer was arrested for allegedly plotting to rob the city's Hibernia National Bank, where he worked part-time as a security guard. Two months later, another officer was sentenced to 18 months in jail for extorting money from people in the French Quarter by threatening to arrest them if they did not withdraw money from their ATM accounts. In August, right before Hurricane Katrina hit, a NOPD officer was arrested and charged with the rape of a woman he had detained. Also in August, according to The Associated Press, allegations surfaced that two officers had beaten a man before dropping him off at a hospital. The department said little about the case, but Police Superintendent Edwin Compass ordered an investigation and called in the FBI to help.
Furthermore, the homicide rate has been inching up again. By mid-August, 192 killings had been reported for 2005, compared with 169 at the same time in 2004. Adjusted for the city's size, those numbers dwarf murder rates in Washington, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, according to AP figures.
Following the claims of officer-involved looting, Compass rose to the defense of his beleaguered department Sept. 5, angrily refuting allegations of cowardice and incompetence on the part of his officers. Responding to reports that about 400 officers from his 1,700-strong force were unaccounted for, Compass countered that some of his officers had worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. Compass also reported that two of his officers committed suicide as the situation around them descended into anarchy.
During the days following the hurricane, NOPD suffered a serious breakdown in command and control, as many units -- cut off from department headquarters due to communication failures caused by the hurricane and flooding -- lacked a way to receive information and orders from higher up. This fact certainly made it extremely difficult to maintain discipline and a functioning organizational structure -- but not impossible. There is no way of determining at this point how many of the 400 missing officers deserted their post.
Although many NOPD officers undoubtedly performed their duties with bravery, dignity and valor, the breakdown in law and order indicates serious shortcomings on the part of police force as a whole. Levees, homes and business must be rebuilt if New Orleans is to recover from the devastation. The police force, it appears, also will need rebuilding.