We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and details are still surfacing about the chaotic days following the storm. ProPublica reported yesterday that New Orleans command officers may have declared martial law in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina or authorized police officers to shoot at anyone suspected of looting.
Reporters spoke to both current and former police officers who recalled a morning meeting in the parking lot of a Harrah’s casino when the now-retired Warren Riley, who was then second-in-command at the NOPD and who would eventually become police chief four weeks after the storm, also told cops it was time to “take back the city and shoot looters.” In another meeting, a command officer named James Scott told the assembled cops “We have authority by martial law to shoot looters.” Lt. Sandra Simpson recorded the meeting on video. Riley denies giving any such orders to NOPD officers.
Riley categorically denied telling officers they could shoot looters. “I didn’t say anything like that. I heard rumors that someone else said that. But I certainly didn’t say that, no.”’
“I may have said we need to take control of the city,” Riley said. “That may have happened.”
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.
Some also said that reports from then-mayor Ray Nagin added to confusion; wild rumors and a total breakdown in the infrastructure of the city fueled misinformation and exaggeration about the state of the city, which many thought was under siege. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s plain now that public officials, if unknowingly, stoked those fears with untrue statements. Five years after the storm and with many police officers now facing criminal charges for shooting civilians, some police officers’ memories have gone fuzzy.
In the days after Katrina New Orleans police officers shot 11 civilians, and five were killed, prompting the involvement of the Department of Justice, which is currently investigating the NOPD on eight separate cases. The troubled department has been engaged in an effort to reform itself; the presence of the Department of Justice has certainly helped. So far, a total of sixteen NOPD police officers have been hit with criminal charges for their involvement in shootings of civilians, most which happened in the days after Katrina.