Cheryl Gerber Photograph
The Senate should reopen its investigation into the events that followed Hurricane Katrina and strengthen national disaster plans to protect against police abuse during calamities.
U.S. Department of Justice prosecutions of New Orleans police officers charged in the disparate, storm-related shootings of at least eight unarmed civilians have already resulted in eight convictions of officers for civil rights violations and/or complicity in police cover-ups.
As the Katrina trials continue, the public should urge the Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs to revisit its findings on “the public safety and security” chapter of its 732-page investigative report and address omissions of officer-involved shootings from After Action Reports (AARs) that New Orleans Police Department commanders submitted after the storm.
The Senate Committee should then review the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006 to ensure the protections of citizens from police misconduct during the aftermath of disaster. This isn’t only a local issue. America cannot be safe or sound if its national emergency management plan ignores recent federal convictions of officers for violating the civil rights of citizens during an epic disaster, then lying about such crimes to grand juries and the FBI.
Setting the congressional record straight is important. However, the panel’s greatest value may be as fact-finder.
The picture of post-Katrina violence in New Orleans still remains unclear. “The collapse of the police department was a main component here,” says veteran civil rights lawyer Mary E. Howell. “We really need to know the truth about what happened so we can fix it.”
Leslie Phillips, communications director for the panel at Washington D.C., said the Committee investigated “failures at all levels of government to properly prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina.” The inquiry closed shortly after the publication of its report in 2006.
“The Committee did not investigate ‘violence/disorder/looting’ per se,” Phillips said in an email. “Rather it looked at various reasons for the law enforcement failures.”
As this column first reported, the report followed 22 committee hearings with 85 witnesses – and formal interviews with 325 individuals – including testimony from city officials and New Orleans’ top cops. Yet, the report made no mention of the Sept. 4, 2005, police shootings of six citizens on Danziger Bridge, who federal prosecutors now say were unarmed when set upon by cops responding to an officer’s radio call.
The administrations of former Mayor Ray Nagin and his Katrina-era police chiefs – Eddie Compass and Warren Riley – apparently failed to mention the near-massacre of civilians on Danziger Bridge in Senate testimony.
Senators Joe Lieberman, Ind-Conn.; and Susan Collins, R-Maine – leading members of the panel – used testimony from the Katrina proceedings to advance a reform agenda of the troubled Federal Emergency Management Administration.
“... Senator Lieberman and I authored and passed legislation, the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006, to strengthen our nation’s capacity to respond to natural disasters and to terrorist attacks,” Sen. Collins said on the fifth anniversary of the storm.
Enacted Oct. 4, 2006, parts of the post-Katrina reform laws seem to rise from the floodwaters of the storm itself.
For example, the NOPD’s enforcement efforts during the first weeks after the storm managed to infuriate both the American Civil Liberties Union – and the National Rifle Association.
The NRA sued the NOPD for seizing weapons from local homeowners. Not surprisingly, the Post-Katrina Act explicitly spells out both the rights of gun owners and the limitations of law enforcement officers who try to seize a citizen’s weapon during a disaster.
“In the aftermath of Katrina, there were widely reported (and re-reported) instances of police officers and rescue workers being assaulted by armed gangs engaged in looting,” Harvard University professors Herman B. Leonard and Arnold M. Howitt said in written testimony to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee March 8, 2006 – five years ago this month.
“It appears that these reports were substantially exaggerated, but they had the significant effect of reducing the flow of resources” and delaying by “several days” aid to evacuees at the Superdome and the Dutch Morial Convention Center, until military escorts could be arranged.
Former Mayor Nagin and then-Police Chief Eddie Compass were the most noteworthy purveyors of what the 2006 Senators called “unsubstantiated rumors about violent crimes that had not occurred.”
Citing NOPD AARs, the report found “actual and perceived lawlessness hampered the emergency response during Katrina.” However, the panel found “an absence of significant violent crime.”
Latter-day admissions of police cover-ups do explain away the shortcomings of the original Senate investigation.
On Oct. 7, 2005, senators Collins and Lieberman asked Mayor Nagin for all of NOPD’s Katrina-related records from Aug. 23 to Sept. 6, 2005, “that refer or relate to lawlessness, looting or other law enforcement, public safety or public order issues.” Riley extended the time frame through Sept. 28, 2005.
On Oct. 23, 2005, a law enforcement committee formed by the NOPD’s Research and Planning Division summarized AARs of 20 police commanders. Headed by then-Lt. Heather Kouts, the panel included a representative from the DEA and the FBI, who aren’t identified in the documents.
The panel’s summary report included a darkly ominous section on delays in recovering the roughly 900 bodies found in Orleans Parish after Katrina: “Officers were instructed to leave bodies in place after their discovery. This is counter to normal procedure and undermined the morale of the [NOPD] ... There were officer-involved shootings where the bodies were left on the scene. This led to the belief that there would be no investigation and no documentation of the event. This engendered a belief that all rules had been turned off. Bodies remained in plain view for weeks, adding to the low morale and a somber atmosphere of the city, not to mention adding to the fear of disease and [the] possible inability to identify the [deceased].”
Capt. Tim Bayard, commander of the NOPD narcotics and vice squad – widely credited with leading the waterborne rescues of 11,000 people in the flooded Lower 9th Ward – lamented a lack of proper equipment, clothing and training to engage in body recovery. “I know it would have been impossible to recover all the remains,” Bayard wrote. “I feel we could have recovered more.” None of the roughly half-dozen police commanders, whose units later came under federal scrutiny, mentioned body recovery in the AARs they submitted to the Senate. The police panel’s memo stated that a follow-up “60- or 90-day AAR” would contain “some specific questions.”
This column couldn’t locate a second round of the storm-related NOPD memos to the Senate, if indeed any were ever submitted.
“We appreciate the opportunity to share with the rest of the country the lessons we have learned throughout this recovery,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the Senate Committee last August. “We are working in partnership with the Department of Justice to reform the New Orleans Police Department. The city is doing its part by selecting the country’s police chief, reorganizing the management structure of the NOPD, creating greater transparency, beefing up the homicide unit and putting more police on the streets instead of behind desks.”
The mayor also anticipated instituting police reforms “prescribed by DOJ.” The federal study of NOPD operations are expected to be released sometime after Mardi Gras.
If past is prologue at NOPD, the findings will be grim. Testifying in March 2006, the Harvard experts’ warning still rings out: “The search for individual culprits and malfeasants is not likely to help us improve performance in the disasters yet to come.” Katrina is a “story of failures of systems and of failures to construct systems in advance that would [have] helped to produce better performance and outcomes.”