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by Peter Moskos

February 27, 2010

New Orleans Police after the flood

Dan Baum wrote an excellent, award winning, best selling book about New Orleans, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans. He first spent time there as a reporter and writer for the New Yorker in the days after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent devastating flood.

A few years ago I cold-called (or email) Dan after my wife realized that we were going to be in New Orleans with them and, more impressively, Dan and his wife just happen to be our doppelgangers. Dan and I shared a love for 1) writing books about ending the drug war, 2) food, 3) bicycles, and 4) literate women who edit extremely well. (Our mutual fondness for hats and hat stores is just, as they say down there, lagniappe.)

Dan is no dummy (though I'd never say that to his face). At our very first dinner, while discussion corporal punished in schools, Dan coined the title for my upcoming book, In Defense of Flogging.

Dan is also a very good writer. (He also loves guns and I look forward to his next book about America and guns.)

In the days after we met, Dan and his wife were kind enough to waste some time with us, so we [queue montage music] biked around, got a food tour of the city, danced in a second line, ate too much, drank just right, and heard some great music.

So naturally I'm very curious about Dan's thoughts on the famously f*cked New Orleans Police Department. But honestly, except for the police officers in his book, I had no idea what we thought about any of the many issues plaguing the NOPD. The officer who left? The officers who staying? The behavior during the flood? I couldn't get a straight answer! And it wasn't for lack of trying.

My queries were generally returned with what can only be described as minor apoplectic fits. There was this one: "didn't I ask you not to get me started about the NOPD during katrina? didn't I?" And then this one, "This is total, unreconstructed bullshit, and the kind of toxic rumor that made the disaster immeasurably worse when it was going on. Christ almighty."

But stubborn I am. So I sent him the latest on the police killing and cover-up of unarmed civilians on the Danziger bridge and politely wrote, "If you could be so kind to help me out, would you mind calmly and briefly (15 sentences or less) telling me your thoughts on police behavior during and after the flood, and the criminal proceedings that have followed." Perhaps Dan is a sucker for uncharacteristic formality, but it worked. And that he did not stick to the length limit is but our gain.
I decided early in my Katrina reporting to believe nothing I didn't see with my own eyes. New Orleans, as I constantly told the New Yorker's fact-checkers, is not a fact-rich environment, and the bullshit that flies around that city is beyond belief.

What I saw of the police during the storm were heroic officers operating with no leadership or resources whatsoever. The cops I was with were protecting and serving under incredibly trying conditions, and doing so with professionalism and compassion. That they were cut adrift from any command or support was obvious; Eddie Compass (and Ray Nagin) were not only criminally incompetent, they made everything immeasurably worse by all their talk about babies being raped in the Superdome and roving bands of marauders.

I also saw no violence or predation whatsoever. Everyplace I was, people were taking care of each other with unbelievable tenderness. Even the gold-toothed young men in the Convention Center were bringing water to the old folks, protecting a play area for the toddlers, and so on. I never once saw a black man with a gun who was not in uniform. My editor kept asking me about the violence -- because he was listening to the reporters who were repeating the wild-ass assertions of the city's so-called leadership -- and I kept saying, "there is none." I saw looting, but what I saw was people going into supermarkets and drug stores to take what they needed. Invariably, the liquor shelves were completely intact. The French Quarter is full of stores full of valuable art and antiques and no burglar cages over the windows. They were untouched. (Yes, smash-and-grab artists tend to go after electronics, but still, a lot of very valuable stuff was left unmolested.)

I say all this because for the NOPD to say, "we had to do what we did because the city was in chaos" is patent bullshit and disgraces the majority of officers, who did their jobs without any support at all. There was no chaos. The structure of government disappeared, and the people behaved themselves admirably. The police abuses are prime examples of what Rebecca Solnit, in her excellent book, "A Paradise Built in Hell," calls "elite panic." Officials, cops especially, are terrified of mass chaos and therefore react to it whether it exists or not. On some level, it creeps them out that the people really don't need them at all. Left alone, they behave just fine.

We now are learning about some of the things bad cops did. And it's certainly true that a small number of civilians did bad things during Katrina. But the vast majority, cop and civilian alike, behaved exactly as we would hope they would.


Anonymous said...

The New Yorker should do a cover story about what happened on the Danziger Bridge and the failed state prosecution. It is an interesting story, and really makes one wonder how many bad shoots are simply covered up well enough that the public never finds out.

I am not a fan of what the US military has become, but we really could have used them during Katrina and they were not there for us when real, average Americans really needed them. I guess the one silver lining is that somewhat reduced the cultish hero worship of the preseident and the army that got started toward the end of 2001. People didn't come out and say it. People try to shift the focus to Nagin (perhaps because he is not big on gun rights), but if there was ever a job for reserves and their expensive equipment, it was the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.

I have mixed feelings about whether civilians should have been allowed to keep their guns when in the dangerous zone. Since some policemen were taking potshots at people, it might have been better to let the civilians keep their guns so they could defend themselves against attacks by police and others. Perhaps the Second Amendment applies. I guess for me, it comes down to whether more or fewer people would have been shot if everyone had been armed. If the people on the Danziger Bridge had been armed then they might have avoided getting shot (because the bad policemen probably would have been cowardly enough to retreat in the face of an armed person) and that would have been a better outcome. Even if the seven officers who shot at the people on the bridge had all been killed, that also would have been a better outcome because it was just plain nasty to not let the poor people escape the floodwaters. If Madison were armed and had shot the seven officers, he would have had a rock solid case of self defense and defense of others. Policemen have no right to stop civilans from fleeing flood waters to try to avoid drowning. When they do this to civilians, they simply deserve to die.

One number we still don't have a good handle on is how many of the 1,464 victims of the flood waters died because police would not let them flee at Danziger Bridge, and most likely other checkpoints as well. Even if hundreds of people died in this fashion because of what the policemen did, we would have no way of knowing that because dead men tell no tales. We only know about the six shooting victims on the Danzinger Bridge because they decided to try their luck with the policemen, rather than the flood waters.

Finally, as I noted on the other thread, state courts simply do not work for criminal prosecutions of on-duty policemen.

Marc said...

Great post. I certainly like what it has to say about human nature.

PatriotPaul said...

Truly wonderful "the truth hurts" post! Thank you for it.

I was a San Diego tourist trapped in the Superdome during Katrina. The Airport, Amtrak, and Greyhound all shut down 2 days PRIOR to the storm and a day before the evacuation. All rental cars were gone.

Anyway we inside believed all the rumors of rapes and murders inside the Dome. I imagine it was one of us who started the rumor; we'll never know. Fear is a powerful tool in influencing behavior and that coupled with a lack of communication leads to so much misinformation.

Still, since so much attention is being paid to New Orleans these days I wish the media would take the initiative to do more follow up on correcting the exaggerations they made about the extent of the murders, rapes, and supposed helicopter shootings that they first reported during Katrina. This left some otherwise sympathetic Americans from giving as much of themselves as they would have liked to, and demonized parts of the City.

Gulf officials and the media have the world's ear these weeks and they need to correct some of the false rumors that still are prevalent in mainstream America.

Oh and by the way, GEAUX SAINTS!

Paul Harris
Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

Steve said...

FYI- the first link doesn't work.

PCM said...

Thanks. Fixed it.