New Orleans police go AWOL

Did state forces collapse along with the flood barriers?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

After the attacks of 9/11, off-duty policemen and firemen rushed into the burning towers. After the New Orleans hurricane, it seems that many policemen skipped town.

Up to 500 officers, almost a third of the 1600-strong New Orleans force – are still unaccounted for (1). Some may have been drowned or trapped in their homes, but it’s likely that many simply scarpered with their families. Captain Kevin Anderson, commander of police in the city’s French Quarter, acknowledged this possibility: ‘If some officers didn’t report for duty, they’ll have to deal with their conscience.’

Those police left in the city were wary about going out on patrol. In the days after the hurricane, state forces seemed to melt away: ‘Where are they?’, asked frustrated residents. TV images showed a handful of police and national guardsmen guarding the pavement opposite the convention centre, reluctant to go in. One young guardsman said that he had spent three days inside the centre on his own, his colleagues keeping their distance for fear that it was ‘too dangerous’.

Morale is low, with little sense of public duty to see officers through their gruelling shifts. Two policemen killed themselves with their own service weapons. The others are just gritting their teeth and working day-to-day. ‘What’s kept us going is to just do the next task ahead. We were refugees like any other person here. The difference was that we didn’t have the right to leave’, said Captain Anderson. Deputy police chief WJ Riley admitted: ‘I don’t know what’s in [police officers’] minds. I don’t know what gives the others out here their adrenaline, their push.’ When police chiefs talk like this in public, what are the ranks thinking in private?

After 9/11, the response of firemen and police officers provided a heroic narrative for events, a story of people doing their public duty in a crisis situation. Their actions contrasted with the frightened-rabbit response at the top of the state, as Bush hopped around the country making nervous speeches. The White House was clueless, but officials on the ground had a sense of what needed to be done.

Of course, New Orleans is a different kind of crisis: it’s not a sharp shock, but a drawn-out emergency that has flattened police officers’ homes and left them camping out in squalid conditions. Nonetheless, the fact that so many apparently went AWOL is a telling sign of the times. It indicates the shaky state of the state, and the fact that the gel of public duty is thin stuff indeed. For many, the instinct to save themselves won out. When the state can’t count on emergency services to pull together, it becomes far more difficult to respond to crises. It is also tougher on those who are left mopping up the mess. They see it merely as a dirty job that has to be done, because they ‘didn’t have the right to leave’.

In the aftermath of Katrina many have accused the authorities of deliberate disregard. By these accounts, the police’s failure to respond was the result of their racism or disrespect for the people of New Orleans. But this appears less as a plot, than a collapse. The police didn’t formulate a political strategy to leave poor blacks stranded. Instead, it was perhaps just that they too felt like refugees, and so they took their belongings and fled.

Read on:

spiked-issue: After Katrina

(1) ‘Policemen commit suicide as pressure keeps rising’, The Times, 6 September 2005

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Topics Politics


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