Police and Katrina – in Retrospect


Last month we saw what, we trust, will be the last sentencing of a former New Orleans police officer because of a Hurricane Katrina-related incident. Ronald Mitchell received a 20-month sentence after being convicted of obstruction of justice and lying in the case of a man Mitchell shot in front of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center days after Katrina.

On all matters we are, of course, on the side of justice being done with an even hand. Looking back at the Henry Glover case, the Danziger bridge shootings and incidents at the convention center, there were great personal tragedies. Our hearts go out first to the victims of the violent acts and to their families. We acknowledge that those who commit crime need to be accountable for their actions, regardless of the circumstances.

Yet, we sill think that some comment needs to be made about those circumstances. In all trials, the so-called “Katrina Defense,” suggesting that the police officers acted in the horrible conditions created by the hurricane’s aftermath, was dismissed. Nevertheless, the argument is real.

There are many young men whose lives have been ruined and who are sitting in jail who would be better off today had they merely abandoned their posts as some others did. Had the police not answered the emergency call to the Danziger Bridge they would now be free.

Their actions, once the calls were answered, were inexcusable, yet we think that it’s fair to acknowledge that they were by then part of a rudderless para-military organization. We know now that there was a meltdown at the top, including the then-mayor and police chief. There was no one in charge to say, “Don’t do that.” We also know that some who were wearing the badge probably were not qualified to be doing so in the first place. For years, a residency requirement – mandating that all police officers had to be residents of the city – had severely narrowed the field of prospects. By the time of Katrina, then-Chief Eddie Compass had complained that the available pool was too limited to recruit the best.

Those police that responded to Katrina incidents were part of a leaderless police force that had been bogged down by policy as they faced the worst tragedy to ever hit an American city. Meanwhile rumors of civil disorder ricocheted, like bullets, throughout the city.

There are no victories in the sentencings, nor is there real closure for the families of the victims. The only hope is that there are some lessons learned for the future.

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