After Katrina, New Orleans cops were told they could shoot looters
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. It remains unclear who originated
them or whether they were heard by any of the officers involved in shooting 11 civilians in the days after Katrina.
Thus far, no officers implicated in shootings have used the order as an
explanation for their actions. Only one of the people shot by police -- Henry Glover -- was allegedly stealing goods at the time he was shot.
Still, current and former officers said the police orders -- taken
together with tough talk from top public officials broadcast over the
airwaves -- contributed to an atmosphere of confusion about how much
force could be used to combat looting.
In one instance captured on a grainy videotape shot by a member of the
force, a police captain relayed the instructions at morning roll call to
cops preparing for the day's patrols.
"We have authority by martial law to shoot looters," Captain James Scott
told a few dozen officers in a portion of the tape viewed by reporters.
Scott, then the commander of the 1st district, is now captain of the
special operations division.
Another police captain, Harry Mendoza, told federal prosecutors last
month that he was ordered by Warren Riley, then the department's
second-in-command, to "take the city back and shoot looters." A
lieutenant who worked for Mendoza, Mike Cahn III, said he remembered the
scene similarly and would testify about it under oath if asked.
Mendoza and Cahn said in separate interviews that Riley made the remarks
at a meeting at Harrah's casino, where police had established a command
post. Mendoza quoted Riley as saying: "If you can sleep with it, do
it," according to a document prepared by prosecutors and provided to
lawyers defending police officers recently charged with federal
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."
Riley also questioned the credibility of Mendoza, whom he fired in 2006
for alleged neglect of duties. Mendoza has since been reinstated; Riley
Scott declined comment but said through his attorney that a fuller
version of the videotape places his remarks in a different context. But
he would not disclose what else he said that day or characterize more
completely what he meant.
The officer who shot the video, Lt. Sandra Simpson, would not permit
reporters to see the complete recording. New Orleans police officials
have said that they do not consider the tape a public record and that it
is thus up to Simpson whether to allow the tape to be viewed.
Scott's address came at a moment of widespread confusion over whether
authorities had imposed martial law, a phrase used by then-Mayor Ray
Nagin on the radio. In fact, martial law does not exist under
Louisiana's constitution. But experts in police training said the use of
those words by politicians and in news reports may have fueled
perceptions that the rules had changed.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
"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
"For a commanding officer to tell you that I'm giving you this order -
it's easy to think that officers would have taken that and run with it."
Mendoza, who is now in charge of the police academy, said he described
the meeting at Harrah's to a group of federal prosecutors studying the
department's training programs.
In an interview, Mendoza expanded on his statement to prosecutors. He
said Riley arrived in the morning and asked all the police operating
from Harrah's to gather beneath the casino's canopy. He estimated that
30 to 50 people were present.
Mendoza said he was "shocked" by the order to shoot looters and believed
it might have confused less experienced officers. The remarks, he said,
"could have easily damaged their understanding and ability to clearly
recognize their responsibilities and follow state law."
Two current officers and one former officer, speaking on condition of
anonymity, also remember Riley telling officers at Harrah's that they
could shoot looters.
All quote Riley as speaking of the need to "take the city back." Like
Mendoza and Cahn, they say they decided not to pass on the order.
Riley strongly denied issuing such an edict "I absolutely deny it; it
absolutely never happened," he said. As for Mendoza, he said: "I despise
that guy. I fired him. I don't know where he's getting that foolishness
Kevin Diel, a former officer, said he saw Riley address a group of 40 to
50 officers at Harrah's on Sept. 2 or Sept. 3. Riley "walked up in a
pair of blue jeans, his uniform shirt and a ball cap, and really just
starting giving a pep speech, you know, kind of a morale-booster, saying
that we were not gonna allow the looters to take the city," Diel
recalled. "We were going to more or less protect the borders of it and
march through downtown and take the city back."
Diel did not recall Riley explicitly saying that officers could shoot
looters. After Riley left, Diel said, cops began analyzing the orders,
and some wondered aloud whether the deputy superintendent expected
officers to "go through the streets, you know, shooting looters?"
Experts said that even instructing officers to "take back the city" -
the order Riley acknowledges giving - was dangerously ambiguous.
"Just sending out a general order, general statement about 'take back
the city' with no specific guidelines is an invitation to disaster,"
said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at
Omaha and author of 13 books on police, civil liberties, and criminal
justice. "What do the officers think? We can do anything?"
Under standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court, Louisiana law and police
department guidelines, officers are allowed to use deadly force when
they have a reasonable belief there is a threat of "great bodily harm"
to either the officer or another person.
"A statement, explicit or implied, that you take back the city and do
whatever needs to be done is absolutely wrong, [a] complete invitation
to disaster," he said.
It remains unclear whether the orders have any direct link to the shootings of civilians.
On Sept 3, 2005, a 1st District officer shot Matt McDonald in the back,
killing the man. The officer said McDonald, a 41-year-old drifter,
ignored orders to let go of a white plastic bag containing a handgun,
which he allegedly brandished at police. McDonald's relatives are
skeptical of the account.
Bryant Wininger, the narcotics squad lieutenant who shot McDonald, has
since retired. He declined to respond to questions or to address whether
he was present for Scott's statements about martial law and the
shooting of looters.
It's also unclear what role the orders to shoot looters might play in
the federal trials against officers accused of shooting unarmed
The lawyer for David Warren, the police officer who shot Henry Glover, said Warren had not heard the order.
But the lawyer, Michael Ellis, said the order was emblematic of the
chaos of that time frame. When Warren fired his .223 rifle at Glover, he
had just spent the night standing guard over a man charged with
attacking Kevin Thomas, his fellow officer.
"He was guarding the defendant who had shot Kevin,'' Ellis said. "He
looked through the window and could see that Oakwood Shopping Center was
in flames and being looted by vandals, and all that goes into the
equation of his mindset of the moment that he fired his weapon."
Defense attorneys representing two of the officers charged in the
shooting of six civilians at the Danziger Bridge said their defenses
will largely center on the contention that the shootings were justified
-- that officers believed they were under fire.
"They weren't shooting looters. They were shooting at people who they
thought were shooting at them," said Lindsay Larson III, one of the
attorneys representing former officer Robert Faulcon.
Frank DeSalvo, attorney for Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, also accused of shooting
people on the eastern side of the bridge, agreed. "Certainly, no one's
defense is that martial law had been declared and we should shoot
looters. They did what they did based upon what they were faced with at
the time they arrived at the bridge," he said.
But DeSalvo left open the possibility that he would use Mendoza's
statement, perhaps as a way to explain the environment in which officers
were forced to make decisions.
"That is part of the information that they had with respect to the
lawlessness in the city. People being shot and being raped. Supposed
armed gangs of people running around shooting people," DeSalvo said. "It
is relevant with how the fear was running through the department that a
chief would say that. When he says, we have to take our streets back,
that is what we are talking about. The streets had been taken away by
(Photo of New Orleans police barricade of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina by Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons.)
Sign up for our free newsletter for the latest news, trends & analysis.