Report: After Katrina, New Orleans police authorized to shoot looters

From an extensive Pro Publica report released today:

In the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, an order circulated among New Orleans police authorizing officers to shoot looters, according to present and former members of the department. 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.

The accounts of orders to "shoot looters," "take back the city," or "do what you have to do" are fragmentary.

After Katrina, New Orleans Cops Were Told They Could Shoot Looters
(a ProPublica story reported by Sabrina Shankman and Tom Jennings of Frontline, Brendan McCarthy and Laura Maggi of The New Orleans Times-Picayune and A.C. Thompson of ProPublica)

Image: This was taken by freelance photographer Marko Georgiev. "There is no police report describing what happened in this photo."


  1. Remember all those scary black people looting grocery stores? That must have really been intimidating to the good white folks who were trying to gather food at the time.

    1. “That must have really been intimidating to the good white folks who were trying to gather food at the time.”

      I remember the people taking shots at USCG Helicopters trying to help them and get them to safety.

      Katrina was a giant cluster fcuk, the actions of the federal government and local government was insane – the actions of a large part of the community was equally reprehensible.

      1. Those reports are still unverified and even if true the helicopter shooter(s) don’t represent “a large part of the community.”

        Even if true, a person shooting at a helicopter is not the same thing as a looter. Using deadly force against someone who is in the process of discharging a weapon against rescue workers doesn’t require changing the rules.

        1. Whatever the web says, I have friends in the Coast Guard who were there. It happened, of course it wasn’t the majority of the population, nor were the looters.

          I think ‘MythicalMe’ post #5 said it best. The police showed that they weren’t mindless drones and exercised their judgement. So what if they had the authority to shoot looters? The better story is that the police there used their training and common sense and didn’t just run around blasting away.

          1. JavaMoose, read the link. It’s not “the web” saying it, it’s the Coast Guard and Air Force.

            ‘The Air Force, to which the Air National Guard reports, also has zero record of helicopter sniping. “We investigated one incident and it turned out to have been shooting on the ground, not at the helicopter,” Air Force Maj. Mike Young told The New York Times on September 29.

            Aside from the local National Guard, the other government agency with scores of helicopters over New Orleans was the U.S. Coast Guard, which rescued more than 33,000 people. “Coast Guard helicopters,” says spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet, “were not fired on during Hurricane Katrina rescue operations.”‘

            So, no. I don’t buy it. All the evidence points to the fact that such stories were mere fabrications and minor incidents were vastly overblown in the hours and days after the event occurred.

          2. So it’s more important to you that cops heroically choose to not murder people for petty theft, than the fact the they were (reportedly) given the all-clear to do just that?

            This just in! Upstanding civil servants decide not to kill people whose homes have been destroyed!

            I hope all of our Medals of Honor weren’t ruined by the floodwaters, because these guys sure were professionals in the line of duty!

      2. “I remember the people taking shots at USCG Helicopters trying to help them and get them to safety.

        Katrina was a giant cluster fcuk…”

        Part of the cluster fcuk was the media – so unless you were there what you ‘remember’ doesn’t count.

        1. Again, just going by what I was told by Guardsman that WERE there. If they were lying, I have no way of knowing…

      3. the actions of a large part of the community was equally reprehensible

        “Large” huh? And you can just sense what you really mean by “community”.

  2. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Just as that applies to civilians, so should it be applied to the police.

    There is no honor in blindly following orders without question, despite what police and military training might try to instill.

  3. People gathering food from a grocery store to sustain themselves is survival. However, you don’t sustain yourself with flat screen televisions and some of the other stuff being looted.

    It’s difficult to know what is right, but in emergency situations law enforcement officials have always been given special authorization to protect property. Frankly, I have heard that crime gangs descended upon New Orleans just to steal whatever valuables were left behind.

    The New Orleans Police department had a huge task in restoring and maintaining order. I would like to see an officer exhaust non-violent measures, but if they had to use deadly force, it’s what they’re paid to do and I’m certainly not going to fault them.

    1. So, for you it’s okay to shoot people dead for stealing television sets ? Really ? So, I guess traffic violations should result in the car being blown up on the spot with explosives ?

      Why would property crime all of a sudden become more important in such an emergency ? Only a sociopath would make such an argument. The police should have worried about protecting the lives of citizens. If whole stores got cleaned out, then who gives a flying fuck ? That’s what insurance is for. It’s no different than if the entire store had been wiped out by the floods themselves.

      1. To snag a definition from wikipedia: “The police are persons empowered to enforce the law, protect property and reduce civil disorder”…protecting lives is something of a secondary goal, evidently.

        Basically, the police are there to prevent disorder and anarchy. The more likely or larger the disorder, the more force they’re allowed to use to defend against it. The enemy isn’t death, it’s chaos.

        1. Yes, the police exist to serve and protect private property and the privilege of the ruling class.

          I think it’s important to make a distinction between Anarchy and Chaos.

          Anarchy is a highly ordered social system without coercive hierarchy. Think Barcelona in 1936 with the people, through the CNT union, democratically self-managing work and the bosses, priests, and politicians evicted.

          Chaos is disorder, entropy, the statistically even distribution of data-points within a given range.

          Police are opposed to anarchy, but not to chaos. Anyone who has seen the cops turn a peaceful protest into a police riot knows this.

        2. Uh-huh.. So the police should shoot suspected looters so that we don’t get chaos. Because if things got chaotic, people might be killed.

          More logic from the country that brought us “War on terror”.

    2. I would like to see an officer exhaust non-violent measures, but if they had to use deadly force, it’s what they’re paid to do and I’m certainly not going to fault them.

      Seriously? Deadly force for theft?

      This, ladies and gentlemen, is Capitalism gone awry. Money is not more important than lives.


  4. Katrina shows how people respond in a serious disaster situation. Police and private citizens alike are all susceptible to operating outside the normal rules.

    What can you do as an individual if caught up in a Katrina-like SHTF* scenario? Be prepared. Avoid confrontation. Don’t be a victim.

    * when the poop hits the fan, so to speak

  5. As a “refugee” myself (why we were called that when we were still in New Orleans, I’ll never understand) who was stranded for a week post-Katrina in a variety of locales over the city, this story is of great interest to me. As someone who witnessed the actions of the police and military there in the aftermath, I have no doubt that they were sanctioned to use force which under normal circumstances would have been deemed unnecessary.
    The photo that heads the ProPublica story to me sums up one of the main issues I had with the way it was handled by local and national law enforcement alike. It depicts an officer standing over several people who line the side of the highway, who have in my estimation probably been there for several days, probably waiting for the promised buses to arrive which never did (while I was waiting there, which was 2 days). This picture defines how the priority was unnecessarily placed on enforcing law over aid and assistance to the victims of this catastrophe.
    My experience of Katrina is something that I’ve pretty much tried to block out these past several years, but I’m glad that it’s still being discussed. I’m glad that the truth about it is still coming out despite efforts to silence those of us who lived through it.
    The disorganization with which the evacuation efforts were handled led to even more problems…probably even more deaths. When myself and my companions were “rescued” by the Coast Guard after about 4 days, we were dropped off in the middle of I-5 across from the Superdome and told that the buses would be arriving within a couple hours. There were hundreds of people lining the highway and all were kind. Within minutes of our arriving folks had brought us food and water. I never felt danger EXCEPT from law enforcement. As we sat there and waited, dirty, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, overheated, military and police vehicles drove by with their guns pointed out of the windows at our faces while no help arrived. It was demoralizing. We waited and no buses. During one day, there was gunfire which we perceived to be coming FROM the helicopters overhead, from which we sought cover but there was none to be had. After this experience we decided to get the hell off the highway.
    We were all young and able-bodied, so decided to walk ourselves out of town. We attempted to cross the bridge into what I think is Gretna and were turned back at gunpoint by the National Guard (but there were vehicles consistently crossing it including non-emergency vehicles). We talked to reporters in hopes that they would be able to offer help (like a 5 minute ride across the dang bridge) or information but once they got their quotes they were done with us.
    The media was offering misinformation and misquoting. I am quoted in an article on wherein they claim that as we were standing there “help finally arrived — military helicopters. Families hurried to push wheelchairs and the sick to the front of the line. Evacuees were frisked before boarding the helicopters.” This plain and simple never happened on my watch.
    Sorry if this is long-winded, y’all…I just get so angry about it all still. I could go on and on but you get the picture, I hope.

    1. Thank you for your post. We merely read about it, but you were there… in real time.

      What strikes a cord in me most deeply is the “bridge” response from neighboring towns. The frightening image of armed forces pointing guns at their fellow countrymen and countrywomen refusing them shelter and refuge in a time of need is haunting.

      That to me is the real story of the American Character, in all of it’s shame.

  6. Two major issues. One, New Orleans was corrupt before Katrina and corrupt afterwards. Which leads to point two, the fact that this “martial law” confusion started is not the issue. Not one of the dinguses in charge of anything made any effort to clear things up.

    Also, Nagin is an asshole.

  7. Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution states, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

    Martial law (although Louisiana has no such law) has never been imposed in the history of the US solely for the protection of property, and has only been used in cases of war or insurrection.

    The courts have been clear under which circumstances it can be applied:

    “If, in foreign invasion or civil war, the courts are actually closed, and it is impossible to administer criminal justice according to law, then, on the theatre of active military operations, where war really prevails, there is a necessity to furnish a substitute for the civil authority, thus overthrown, to preserve the safety of the army and society; and as no power is left but the military, it is allowed to govern by martial rule until the laws can have their free course. As necessity creates the rule, so it limits its duration; for, if this government is continued after the courts are reinstated, it is a gross usurpation of power. Martial rule can never exist where the courts are open, and in the proper and unobstructed exercise of their jurisdiction. It is also confined to the locality of actual war.”

    I would argue that no one had the constitutional authority to issue the order or follow it, perhaps not even Congress or Bush, and certainly not the police, the Mayor or the Governor.

    Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s declaration of a state of emergency did not cover the right to suspend habeous corpus or shoot looters.

    It gave specific powers:
    Under the Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Assistance and Disaster Act of 1993, the governor and, in some cases, chief parish officials, have the right to commandeer or utilize any private property if necessary to cope with the emergency.

    “Authorities may also suspend any statute related to the conduct of official business, or any rule issued by a state agency, if complying would ‘prevent, hinder or delay necessary action’ to mitigate the emergency.

    “It also gives authority the right to compel evacuations, suspend alcohol and weapons sales and make provisions for the availability and use of temporary emergency housing.

    “The law gives mayors similar authority, except they do not have the right to commandeer private property or make provisions for emergency housing, according to a background brief prepared by the state Attorney General’s office.”

  8. Note that “shooting looters” is essentially the summary execution of people suspected of theft.

    In the aftermath of a disaster, the real threat doesn’t come from those of your neighbours also effected, who will be working with you to deal with the situation, it comes from the cops and cop-wannabes who have succumbed to elite panic, egged on by similarly deranged politicians and media hacks.

    1. That article link was worth reading but horrifying. Even more so because I wasn’t surprised some people were itching to start shooting any target they had an excuse to.

  9. A perusal of the linked article reveals a lot of unverified statements, “accounts vary”, and hearsay. I don’t think the flat statement “authorized to shoot looters” is justified.

    Having said that – Ray Nagin: Christ, what an asshole.

    1. An officer who says they personally heard the order is called a first hand witness, and that is not hearsay.

      enjoy wriggling around that one.

      1. Any given cop can hear any given lieutenant say “It’s now OK to shoot looters” and you’re right, that’s not hearsay.

        But it’s a major stretch to then write a headline that says “New Orleans police” (which implies the police force in general) and “authorized” (which implies that the order was given by someone possessing the authority to do so).

        A headline that says “Some New Orleans cops were told that it was OK to shoot looters” would correspond to the facts of the linked story.

        1. When someone says “New Orleans police were on the scene”, do you naturally assume the entire police force showed up?

  10. I remember the people taking shots at USCG Helicopters trying to help them and get them to safety.

    I remember hearing about that too, and I never saw a citation for it then either.

    But I do remember it being thrown -without proof- into the sort of conversation that devolved into fearmongering that led to orders like these (of which there is now proof) being given.

    Enough fearmongering. You are responsible for your part. Your fearful life is your punishment. Enjoy.

    1. “Your fearful life is your punishment. Enjoy.”

      Ha! Sorry tiger, no fear here…living a pretty good life. But thanks anyways. ;)

  11. I don’t know which makes the U.S. look less civilized, the looters or the holier than thou shooters. The country has changed an awful lot since I was a kid.

    The ease of justifying deadly force and abrogation of human and civil rights in the U.S., and the lack of meaningful response against it, defines the contemporary culture.

    There is something in people today that seeks identification with powerful groups by acting out dystopian roles and seeking cataclysm. It is very unhealthy, and demeaning, and scary.

    1. I just can’t tell who’s worse, the small number of people who may have tried to take a TV or somesuch, or the people who tried to kill other human beings.

      Whoa wait yes, I totally can tell, it is that second group of people I said.

    2. This country hasn’t changed. This stuff has been going on pretty much since the country was founded. Listing all the times when police acted similarly evil would take all day.

  12. It should be noted that this report released by ProPublica (which everyone should support) is coinciding with Frontline’s first airing (today – 8/25) of their report on the same issue. Both of the journalism agencies collaborated on this Frontline.

    Law and Disorder

  13. The news story is that they received this authority and not that they went on a killing spree, right? So they used heightened authority in a responsible manner, generally agreeing with all the commentators here that a stolen television isn’t worth a life? You can absolutely find endless instances of police abusing their power, but this actually sounds like the opposite.

    Look, breaking a window and grabbing an XBox is one thing, but looting can also involve finding the big houses and searching for cash and jewelry. And if the owners are home, all sorts of nasty things like shootouts can occur. Those looters would be endangering lives, and instilling fear in disaster survivors who really don’t need that. Its a disaster, everybody needs to work together, and you’re off trying to get rich off your neighbors who just went through a massive flood. If somebody decides you’ve crossed over from being a run of the mill sociopath to a menace to others’ well being, and a trip to the jail isn’t feasible because you decided to do this while society has temporarily broken down, I don’t have a hell of a lot of sympathy for you if you end up with a bullet in your head.

  14. Authorizing NOPD to do anything is dicey to be sure… but it would more surprising if there wasn’t a shoot looters order. I lived in Wichita Falls, TX as an 11 year old and a huge tornado ripped through the city killing 50 or so people… there was a brief — that night looter order as announced on TV. It was and rarely (if ever in any disaster situation) is ever enforced. Ditto L.A. Riots. So there’s not much to see here though, NOPD is uniquely disqualified from doing this sort of thing seeing as they have Nixonian ethics.

  15. Doesn’t anyone remember the footage of police officers looting? I do. And flatscreen TVs, not groceries.

    1. Don’t be so judgmental in calling it looting: they were clearly protecting valuable assets from being stolen by bad people. If they had left the stuff where it was, someone might have taken it.

      And actually I don’t remember seeing that, though it wouldn’t exactly surprise me. Any youtube links or something?

        1. I wonder if they cut off the end of the clip, where the cops must have walked that cart directly to an orphanage and saved New Orleans from chaos.

  16. I think everyone is missing the point. Police do not have the authority to declare martial law. Whether or not you agree with “shooting looters” no one in Louisiana had the authority to issue that command. Indeed, martial law was never officially declared (because no such law existed in Louisiana) and the declaration of Emergency did not authorize martial law (nor could it).

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