Policing Katrina: Managing Law Enforcement in New Orleans

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID
Suzanne Sutphin

This is a copy of an article in the journal Policing, 3(1), pp. 41-49, 2009.
https://doi.org/10.1093/police/pan071. Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu and Suzanne Sutphin. 2009. “Policing Katrina: Managing Law Enforcement in New Orleans.” Policing 3(1):41-49.


Hurricane Katrina impacted the Gulf Coast of the United States on a scale and intensity that was unprecedented for the region. Special problems of policing were posed before, during, and after the hurricane. Focusing on the law enforcement dimensions of the effects of Hurricane Katrina in the city of New Orleans, this paper reviews the organizational and functional adaptations of the New Orleans Police Department in view of the storm. Revealing the social implications of natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina presented a variety of police concerns, ranging from shifting duties involving crime control and emergency relief to the destruction of essential elements of the police infrastructure, the breakdown of police communication and transportation systems, and the need for coordination between police and other first responders. The police experiences of Katrina in New Orleans can serve as a guide for the management of law enforcement organizations to be prepared for similar disasters.

Hurricane Katrina formed as a tropical depression over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005. After causing only minimal damage in parts of Florida, the hurricane made its second landfall on August 29, when the South-Eastern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia were hit. An estimated 1,836 people lost their lives as a result of the hurricane. Many people had been unable to evacuate their homes, and various aspects of preparedness and response proved to be catastrophic. Among the places most devastated by Hurricane Katrina was New Orleans, the capitol of Louisiana. The city became particularly vulnerable once its levees had broken and about 80% of the city was flooded. Rescue efforts were slow and, following the hurricane, looting and other outbursts of violence had become a major problem, while police were accused of not doing enough, if anything, to stop the mayhem and offer aid to those in need.

In this paper, we focus on the police experience in the city of New Orleans in the days before, during, and following Hurricane Katrina. Our study is particularly focused on the Katrina-related activities of the New Orleans Police Department as they are pertinent from the viewpoint of an efficient management of police organizations. While Hurricane Katrina represents a specific event in history, the lessons that can be learned from the viewpoint of law enforcement will also apply to other disasters affecting the organization and function of policing.

As our discussion will show, police management is not only a matter internal to a police organization, relating to such factors as adequate training and effective leadership, but also relates to the shifting external context, be it of a social and/or natural order, with which organizations are in constant interplay. Modern police governance is essentially about mediating between these internal and external components of policing. Unraveling the interaction between organization and environment in the management of law enforcement, this account chronologically unravels the situational and structural components of the critical issues police faced during the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history.

Policing before the storm

Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region, the reports on the intensity of the storm were inconsistent and, consequently, the general state of preparedness was ambivalent. Mixed signals were given, not only to the public at large, but to emergency and security responders as well. Under these circumstances, the police response was not clearly planned right from the moment when the storm was anticipated. Among emergency responders, there were no well-defined roles of what needed to be done and who would have to do it, and there were no prespecified plans for evacuation and rescue (Hicks 2007).

Structural problems in the New Orleans police situation as it existed since well before Katrina would prove particularly consequential. As Sims (2007) argues, disasters like Hurricane Katrina demonstrate the role of infrastructure in institutions that are designed to help protect the public, especially in the event of special circumstances. The general state of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) before Katrina was far from ideal (Baum 2006; Potter 2007). The force had a reputation for harboring corrupt and uneducated officers, who were also among some of the most poorly paid in the U.S. Even though since the mid-1990s there had been a significant increase in the number of African-American officers, many of the NOPD officers were white, whereas no less than two-thirds of the citizens of the city of New Orleans were black. Distrust towards the police was high among many residents in New Orleans, especially among African Americans living in the poorest sections of the city (Adya et al. 2007).

Police performance in the NOPD also left much to be desired (Pereira 2006). With a force of about 1,700 officers (for a city of half a million people pre-Katrina), the NOPD was responsible for about 90,000 arrests a year, a relatively high number due to the force’s commitment to principles of zero-tolerance policing. Yet, the number of cases that were prosecuted was only 10% of all arrests made. Further, there was a disconnect between formal and actual police procedures as important discrepancies existed in the types of crimes that receive most police attention. Typically, crimes committed by tourists were investigated aggressively because they affected the economics of the city, while violent crimes in the poor neighborhoods received much less attention. Morale among the NOPD officers was notoriously low. Not only were officers subject to the usual rigid hierarchy in the force, they were also required to live within the city limits, a requirement not popular among many officers. The turnover rate in the NOPD was high, and recruitment remained a constant challenge.

The relatively shaky state of the NOPD before Katrina was part of a larger condition that affected the criminal justice system as a whole (Garrett and Tetlow 2006; Roman et al. 2007). The New Orleans criminal justice system was poorly funded, beset with (charges of) corruption, and badly managed. To make matters worse, New Orleans was traditionally known to be one of the most violent cities in the U.S. (Frailing and Harper 2007; Pereira 2006). The city’s high crime numbers went along with many socio-economic inequalities. The unemployment rate was high and disproportionately affected the city’s black residents. Moreover, police and prosecutorial conduct was reported to be more fierce in the traditionally poor areas of New Orleans as compared to the city’s more affluent sections. In the wake of the raging storm of Hurricane Katrina that hit landfall in the city in the early morning of August 29, 2005, the vulnerability of the impoverished and predominantly black sections of the city of New Orleans, geographically situated close to the levees, would be exposed in a tragic manner.

Policing the hurricane

When Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, the extent was shown to which the effects of natural disasters are mediated by social conditions. The conditions of the city’s residents who were unable to evacuate and were left stranded were compared to people living in a third world country (Garrett 2005; Hicks 2007). Unable to rely on adequate transportation and social networks, those who were caught in the storm especially included the city’s most vulnerable groups, including the poor and the elderly. Most infamous are the reports of the people who were left stranded in their private homes, cut off from rescuer workers, and those who had assembled in the Louisiana Superdome. Designated a ‘shelter of last resort’, the sports arena was not prepared to deal with the estimated 20,000 people who had gathered by the time the city was flooded the day after Katrina had hit landfall. The facility lacked enough food and water and medical supplies, and sanitary conditions were grossly insufficient. Especially the many African Americans who were trapped in the facility felt they were treated as criminals or unworthy victims (Adya et al. 2007; Garfield 2007; Potter 2007). As recent polls show, many African Americans feel that the government response was lacking because many of the victims were black.

Among the most critical problems in the NOPD response to Hurricane Katrina were a lack of communication capacities and a lack of adequate transportation (Baum 2006; Falk 2007; Garrett and Tetlow 2006; Hicks 2007; Roman et al. 2007; Sims 2007). With the usual technological communication facilities no longer operative during the hurricane, NOPD officers were forced to communicate with each other mainly in person. The chain of command in the NOPD also suffered as Police Chief Eddie Compass did not provide effective leadership, and many officers were left to fend for themselves. Although Compass, in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, boasted that the “New Orleans police department is the best police department in the world,” he resigned less than a month after the storm.

Communication problems are amplified because the most central role of the police during disasters is to help people who are in need of assistance. Rather than maintaining security and controlling crime, disaster policing is functionally oriented at providing safety and aid. This functional reorientation of policing was during Hurricane Katrina further hampered by the fact that the NOPD did not have adequate means of transportation to deal with the disaster. Within less than half an hour after the hurricane hit, the NOPD received over 600 emergency calls, but police were unable to assist, and thousands of emergency calls were left unanswered. The infrastructure of the NOPD was directly hit as eight police stations were flooded, police were left without sufficient supplies, and temporary headquarters had to be improvised. In response to the lack of effective policing, citizens became themselves involved in rescue efforts, using boats to help people who were trapped on their roofs and providing medical attention. The long-standing distrust towards the New Orleans police additionally contributed to the law enforcement breakdown during Katrina as deficiencies in police legitimacy hindered cooperation with residents.

Officers of the NOPD not only lacked adequate technical tools of communication, transportation, and shelter, they also experienced great sacrifices to remain at work during a storm that affected them and their family members on a personal level (Baum 2006; Castellano and Plionis 2006). As a result of the storm, officers did not have the basic comforts of showers, beds, or personal space, and did not always respond well to the extreme stress they had to endure. Such personal situations can in turn affect structural conditions as officers may relinquish their tasks altogether. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, some 250 officers of the NOPD were reported to have deserted the city during the storm. At least two NOPD officers committed suicide.

Given the exceptional nature of Hurricane Katrina, the practical inadequacies of the NOPD with respect to communication and transportation would not be surprising were it not for the fact that the New Orleans area has a long history in dealing with hurricanes. In recent times, Hurricanes Juan (1985), Andrew (1992), Georges (1998), Isidore (2002), and Ivan (2004) all brought about (smaller or larger) evacuations of city residents. Yet, despite various emergency plans suggested by multiple agencies, no clear plan was in place among criminal justice agencies to adequately deal with the impact of Hurricane Katrina (Baum 2006; Garrett and Tetlow 2006). The NOPD’s emergency preparedness plan was never practiced and was unfamiliar to many officers, some of who later admitted that they did not even know such a plan existed.

The improper coordination of Katrina response activities among the various levels of U.S. government structurally translated in cooperation problems at the level of policing. Besides the NOPD, other law enforcement agencies that provided assistance during Katrina included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Marshals Service. These agencies provided personnel, equipment, and assistance in security, but their actions were not well coordinated. Additional inter-agency cooperation during Katrina was multi-functional, crossing the boundaries of law enforcement and emergency response. For example, rescue workers, volunteers, and local businesses worked in conjunction with the NOPD to provide aid to residents. Methods of cooperation were pragmatic rather than pre-coordinated.

Besides the NOPD, other components of the New Orleans criminal justice system were likewise insufficiently prepared for the storm (Garrett and Tetlow 2006; Roman et al. 2007). The New Orleans prison system lacked an evacuation plan. When the storm hit, prison buildings lost lights and air conditioning, and water quickly flooded the facilities. Inmates of the Orleans Parish Prison were not evacuated until one week after the storm had struck, when they were moved to Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility, where prisoners were forced to sleep on the ground, did not have access to bathrooms, and were not adequately patrolled by guards. Many prisoners were unable to seek legal counsel and ended up serving extended sentences. Persons on probation or parole were unable to be monitored as probation officers were aiding in search and rescue missions. The New Orleans court system was likewise not prepared to fulfill its duties.

Post-disaster policing

Arguably the most conspicuous impact of Hurricane Katrina in matters of policing and criminal justice was the period of unrest and violence that set in soon after the storm had dissipated. While the police attention shifted from law enforcement to safety and rescue efforts during the storm, soon the focus would again have to turn to a drastically altered security situation (Frailing and Harper 2007; Garrett and Tetlow 2006). Looting, in particular, became a major problem during the post-Katrina days, primarily because of a general breakdown of social institutions. NOPD police officers were reported to idly stand by when looting occurred and even to have broken into stores to get food and supplies (Hicks 2007).

Looting may have been facilitated by the relatively dire economic conditions in some New Orleans neighborhoods. Yet, although situational factors will also have worked towards increased opportunities for unrest and violence, it soon became clear in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that looting and incidents of interpersonal violence had become rampant (Garrett and Tetlow 2006; Hicks 2007). Some citizens had begun carrying guns to protect themselves, and some had hired guards to protect their homes. Moreover, with the attention focused heavily on rescue efforts, crimes of a more organized nature could become more prevalent. For example, as local gang members knew that the police would be preoccupied assisting those in need, their opportunities for criminal activities increased.

Reports on the violence and unrest that plagued New Orleans in the days after Katrina were occasionally overstated. Initial reports about the atrocious conditions in the Superdome told of scores of sexual assaults and violent crimes, but many of these allegations were later found to be unsubstantiated. Activities that were once seen as looting, especially before the enormity of the catastrophe was more clearly exposed, would later be redefined as strategies of survival (Potter 2007). While some looting concerned luxury items, other acts of looting involved food items necessary to survive. ‘I don’t consider them looters,’ a New Orleans resident justified, ‘I call it borrowing or helping in a time of need. If the police were stealin’ how they gonna say we’re looters?’ (quoted in Potter 2007: 59). The reference to police as thieves refers to the permission NOPD officers received from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to take private property if they judged it necessary to support the rescue efforts. Besides reports that police abused this special right and were engaged in the looting of televisions and jewelry, there were also reports that police actions oriented at quelling the unrest affected peaceful residents who were ordered to leave certain areas of the city. Doing so, police officers in some cases unnecessarily resorted to force, including harassment and shootings.

The dire state of the police infrastructure further exacerbated law enforcement conditions (Potter 2007; Sims 2007). Makeshift police stations were set up in rundown trailers with no bathrooms or other facilities. Police were left short-handed and met with negative reactions from the community. Although representatives from government agencies at all levels were criticized for not having responded properly, police officers faced a peculiar brunt of criticisms because of their relative proximity to the community. Yet, from their own personal viewpoint, New Orleans police officers not only faced a loss of work-related facilities, but also had to deal with their own personal losses, including the destruction of their homes and the suffering of family members. Thus, not only are first responders typically more susceptible to post-traumatic stress syndrome, they may, as was the case with the NOPD during Katrina, additionally lack the advantages that come from having family support, a reliable job, and a stable home in order to deal with their emotional needs (Fischetti 2005).

Poor conditions in other aspects of the criminal justice system also hampered an adequate response to the post-Katrina unrests. Without jails, there was little point in police officers making arrests. The court system had to rely on make-shift facilities, and only six public defenders were left in New Orleans. Once a make-shift court was established, it could take several months for defendants to be matched to their charges, leaving many inmates “doing Katrina time” for minor offenses such as failure to pay traffic tickets and the unlicensed reading of tarot cards (Garrett and Tetlow 2006: 128). Many prosecutors worked from home, some even from a nightclub. And because there was no revenue coming in from traffic tickets, there was no money to pay public defenders. As long as a year after Katrina, many inmates had not seen lawyers.

Looking at the broader structural conditions of the NOPD operations post-Katrina, it is to be noted that a state of emergency was declared in the wake of the hurricane (Gregg 2006). Under conditions of a state of emergency, federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency can enter the situation and military forces are allowed to assume police powers. As many as 15,000 federal troops, National Guardsmen, and private contractors from Blackwater USA patrolled New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Apart from concerns posed by a militarized governance model in matters of crime control (Kraska 2007), the Posse Comitatus Act, passed by U.S. Congress in 1878, legally limits the use of the military in domestic affairs (Craw 2007). Military involvement can be deemed necessary when a disaster is of such proportions that more drastic methods of relief are needed. During Katrina, an Oklahoma Guardsman left no doubt on the situation, saying ‘It’s not up to the police. We’re in charge now. The city’s under martial law’ (quoted in Baum 2006: 10).

Among the long-term police implications of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the NOPD has been facing difficulties of recruitment (Falk 2007; Rostker et al. 2007). With especially junior officers having resigned from the force and others having been fired, the total number of officers currently stands at about 1,400. New officers are actively being recruited through advertising and are offered increased pay. There have been renewed complaints of mistreatment of civilians by police officers, and the relocation into new police headquarters out of temporary trailers has been slow. However, other developments show that the NOPD has learned lessons from the Katrina experience. Specifically, a new radio communication system has been established that can rely on back-up generators. Moreover, a new hurricane plan is in place, which also incorporates coordination mechanisms with military forces. More broadly, the U.S. Department of Justice has allocated a considerable amount of funds to rebuild the New Orleans criminal justice system. Because of the sharp decline in the population of New Orleans, at an estimated 220,000 in 2006 and 270,000 in 2007, crime in New Orleans generally decreased after the Hurricane. Some criminal activities, however, merely shifted to other cities. The most recent figures for New Orleans again show an upswing in criminal activity, especially in drugs crimes.

Lessons and conclusion

Having reviewed the policing experience in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, a variety of issues emerge from which lessons can be learned for law enforcement situations involving major disasters. In New Orleans, the coming of Hurricane Katrina was not adequately anticipated, with mixed reports on the storm’s intensity and potential impact. The NOPD did not adopt a clear plan, and no well-defined roles were established for the officers dealing with various elements of the disaster. Structurally, the police and other major components of the local criminal justice system had a relatively unstable infrastructure and historically performed poorly in the face of considerable crime concerns, problems the consequences of which would show themselves tragically during the hurricane.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the differential impact of the storm across the city could not be adequately handled by the New Orleans police because of problems with communication and transportation. These technological factors, as well as the added stress of police officers, contributed to difficulties in securing a necessary functional shift in police duties from law enforcement to rescue and relief. A special problem is posed during natural disasters by the fact that emergency responders, whose primary duty is to assist others, also face personal challenges as a result of the disaster. How to cope on an emotional level, during and in the immediate and long-term aftermath of a disaster, becomes a central concern for police and other rescue workers (Person 2006).

Additional problems in the Katrina response stemmed from poor coordination among local and various federal police and emergency units. Following the storm, looting and other violence erupted, necessitating police to return back to traditional crime control duties at a time when the necessary infrastructure was sorely lacking and officers themselves were victimized by the storm. With the entire criminal justice system in New Orleans in disarray, military troops had to be called in to deal with unrests as well as recovery operations.

Although the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina are no doubt exceptional, police institutions and other criminal justice agencies should be prepared to the best of their abilities to deal with natural disasters and other momentous disruptions in the normal state of affairs. From the viewpoint of an efficient management of modern police organizations, lessons can be learned from the Katrina experience in New Orleans in at least four critical areas.

First, in view of the potential of a major disaster, it is most imperative that police organizations have a clearly thought out plan to anticipate all necessary organizational and functional adaptations to adequately deal with an emergency situation (Falk 2007; Hicks 2007; Rojek and Smith 2007; Roman et al. 2007). Such a plan ought to minimally include strategies for evacuation, the coordination of communications, and the organization of transportation. Since Katrina, the NOPD has developed such a plan, which proved valuable when Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast on September 1, 2008. Though Gustav was not as powerful a storm as Katrina, the residents and authorities of New Orleans were also much better prepared, with a considerably more effective response from NOPD officers and members of the Louisiana National Guard.

Second, in terms of the functional orientation of police activities, it is most critical that police officers can adapt to changes in operational matters, specifically shifts back and forth between emergency and crime control situations, involving such varied tasks as rescuing stranded citizens and controlling violence (Rojek and Smith 2007). Additionally important is to recognize that social conditions will again normalize after the disaster has subsided, thus also causing traditional law enforcement concerns to return to a degree similar to pre-disaster conditions.

Third, during the most intense moments when a disaster unfolds, police organizations need to be equipped in technical and other relevant respects to deal with a variety of needs (Garrett 2005; Rojek and Smith 2007; Sims 2007). Attention must go to maintain and establish adequate communication systems (among police, between police and other first responders, and between police and citizens), means of transportation and other equipment (to enforce the law, maintain order, and to rescue citizens and provide them with food, clothing, and other necessities), and a proper police command infrastructure (makeshift police stations and temporary jails). From the viewpoint of police personnel, also, special physical and metal health needs of officers have to be anticipated.

Fourth and finally, the coordination among police and other agencies needs to be standardized in clear procedures (Rojek and Smith 2007; Roman et al. 2007). Agreements are needed as to how to deploy resources in case of a disaster in a manner that is well-coordinated between local, state, and federal organizations with multiple functions, including police and other components of the criminal justice system, emergency agencies, and military forces. Importantly, as the events of Hurricane Katrina showed, police organizations do not stand alone in doing what is necessary to deal with major disasters. Instead, police agencies must be integrated within a (well-functioning) criminal justice system and be able to cooperate with other police and emergency agencies. A view of police organizations conceived in isolation from the wider context in which they operate cannot be helpful.

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