After Katrina, New Orleans Cops Were Told They Could Shoot Looters
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In recent months, a team of reporters from The Times-Picayune, PBS Frontline, and ProPublica have examined department leaders' conduct as part of a broader look at police shootings after Hurricane Katrina. A documentary drawn from that work airs Wednesday evening on Frontline, which can be seen locally on WYES-TV at 8 p.m.
The confusion over whether martial law had been declared was widely reported at the time. But until now, it was not known that some within the police force interpreted it to authorize shooting of looters who posed no direct threat.
New Orleans police came under unprecedented pressures after the city flooded. Many of the department's police stations were submerged in water. The command structure broke down as the radio system and computerized communications failed. Officers went for days without sleep as they rescued trapped residents from rooftops. Commanders relied on sporadic face-to-face meetings to direct operations.
"During the Katrina days, we weren't living in the real world, we were living in a holocaust," said former police Lt. David Benelli, who was assigned to the Superdome and has since retired. "We were living in a situation that no other police department ever had to endure."
Rumor and reality
A mix of rumor and reality fueled concerns about the breakdown of civil order.
Nagin, the mayor, said in a televised interview days after the storm that there had been rapes and murders among the people taking shelter in the Superdome, a claim that turned out to be untrue. Police Superintendent Eddie Compass made similar statements.
On Aug. 30, 2005, Riley told the mayor he had heard an officer say on the radio, "I need more ammo. We need more ammo."
Sally Forman, the mayor's communications chief at the time, said this report -- which, it later emerged, did not come from NOPD -- had immediate impact.
Nagin, she recalled, directed Riley to "stop search and rescue and bring our force back to controlling the streets."
"The mayor said, ‘Let's stop the looting, let's stop the lawlessness and let's put our police officers on the streets so that our citizens are protected,'" Forman said.
Nagin had one more message for the deputy superintendent, in Forman's recollection: "Let's stop this crap now."
"We will do that," responded Riley, according to Forman.
That same day, Nagin learned that a police officer, Kevin Thomas, had been shot in the head. Forman said "it made the mayor furious.''
"And that's when he said we need to declare martial law.''
Soon after, Nagin gave a radio interview in which he said he had called for martial law, adding to the confusion about the rules of engagement. Nagin declined to be interviewed.
'Time to take the city back'
Accounts vary of the meeting outside Harrah's at which Riley delivered his remarks. Some recall Riley speaking to a small group of senior officers; others remember it as a larger gathering.
Cahn, who reported to Mendoza during the storm, said the order was delivered on Aug. 31, the day after officer Thomas was wounded. Mendoza thought the instructions were given either Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.
Cahn, who is still a reserve lieutenant, said: "It was in Harrah's parking lot. We were having our morning meeting – the captains and their lieutenants were there. And Riley said, "It's time to take the city back. I'm giving you instructions to tell your men to shoot all looters."
"It was such an almost ridiculous order that Mendoza and I said there was no way that we were going to tell our guys that. You can't just decide arbitrarily that you're going to start shooting people for stealing things.