In the days after Hurricane Katrina, an order reportedly came down through the New Orleans Police Department for officers to shoot looters.
According to a joint investigation by ProPublica, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PBS Frontline*, some officers report being told they could shoot looters in order to “take back the city.”
Their claims focus on a meeting in which the department’s then second in command, Warren Riley, told a group of senior officers to shoot looters, as well as a video shot by a lieutenant that shows a police captain telling officers, “We have authority by martial law to shoot looters.” (Riley denies that he order the shooting of looters.)
If the orders were given, they may have been fueled by statements by Mayor Ray Nagin and other politicians that the city was under “martial law” — even though the Louisiana constitution has no provisions for such a declaration.
The whole piece is worth a read.
Also of note, defense lawyers for the officers charged in the Danziger Bridge shootings of unarmed civilians discussed their strategy:
“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 armed gangs.”
*This line has been edited to include Frontline’s involvement in the investigation.