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After Katrina, New Orleans Police
Shot Frequently and Asked Few Questions

After Katrina, New Orleans Cops Were Told They Could Shoot Looters

Alex Brandon/The Times-Picayune

New Orleans Police Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann aims his gun on the Claiborne Overpass in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005.

Updated July 24: The New Orleans Police Department and the Department of Justice have reached an agreement for top-to-bottom reforms of the troubled police force. The plan addresses a range of issues, several of which we reported on in our coverage of police shootings in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Since our reporting, federal prosecutors have built a string of criminal cases against 20 current or former officers.

This story was originally published on Aug. 24, 2010 and was co-published with The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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 offenses.

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 has retired.

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, which can be seen locally on WYES-TV at 8 p.m.

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 immediate impact.

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 looters."

"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 stealing things.

"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 from."

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 civilians.

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 armed gangs."

ProPublica's Lisa Schwartz, Sheelagh McNeill and Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.

Protecting and serving you, by taking your tax dollars and spending them on killing you. First, they took away guns from people who needed to defend themselves. Then, after those people ran out of supplies, they had the authority to shoot them if they tried to “loot” more supplies. The government protecting and serving. You think this is how it would have gone down in an affluent, all-white area? Hell no.

Great work Guys!

Thanks!

Ray

Bro. Keith X Hudson

Aug. 25, 2010, 8:58 p.m.

Typical shifting of the weight.

F all liars and especially f all lying murderous p

Aug. 26, 2010, 7:59 a.m.

wow , their only job is to enforce the law - yet they don’t even think it applies to them. Typical piggotry in the freemasonic “nation” of BS-A

Please speak clearly to the issue.  If by the word “shoot” you mean “shoot to kill”, then say so.  I don’t think that the police were instructed to “wing” them, eh?

george cameron

Aug. 26, 2010, 10:08 a.m.

Thanks pro publica.

Seems that more corroboration needed from 40-50 attendees at Riley’s briefieng in Harrah’s parking lot that morning.

Nagin was no leader during that crisis. Terrible. He was “holed up” according to Doug Brinkley’s book, The Great Deluge. Nagin should have been broadcasting directly to the people with messages of hope determination and perseverance before redirecting police assets. But then, he’s the guy who didn’t implement the evacuation plan and left the fleet school buses out of touch and inoperative. Then he wins re-election. His press

Why won’t Lt. Simpson show the entire video of the Scott briefing to reporters? She must be wanting to protect something or somebody - which could be unrelated to the shooting looters authorization. if so, how about somebody who’s agreeable to Simpson and ProPublica as trustworthy viewing it “in camera” to see if there’s other information that could be separately released.

Without A.C. Thompson, the vigilante shooting of blacks in Algiers would never have gotten the media
attention it got. Jim Letten didn’t care about blacks in this city, He knew the acts of NOPD, and done nothing. The FBI knew of the acts by NOPD, and done nothing. We were left to fend for ourselves, and
that resulted in massacres throughout the city, and not ONE rich white person lost their life during this atrocity!

It is deeply troubling that David Warren is not being tried separately with the other officers.  There is no allegation within the indictment that he had anything whatsoever to do with the alleged beating of Tanner and Glover’s brother, or the burning of the Tanner’s vehicle.  Warren must be tried separately and in another venue than New Orleans in order to have a fair trial.  That jury needs to look hard at the facts surrounding the shooting only.  Warren is not alleged to have had any part in the actions of the other officers or obstruction of justice.  This is insane.

I know several of the officers quoted here. It is a credit to them and NOPD that they ignored a superior who had obviously lost “situation awareness.” Give credit to the overwhelming majority of cops that keep their cool in what must have been, to put in mildly, a “challenging” situation.

The damage is far more than just these shootings. Now it is common knowledge that during an emergency the police cannot be trusted. Take a moment to consider just what the implications are.

The murder of Henry Glover hurt me! The beating of Mr. Tanner and Henry’s brother didn’t shock me, but what disturbed me was the inactions of Jim Letten and the FBI! What really made me mad was that they never apologize to the Glover family. Even if it was an accidental shooting, the NOPD NEVER apologized. And what really sealed my hate of these
people was they beat an innocent man trying to save Glover! The question I ask is this:
If the local government or the federal government is not going to protect us, what must we do?

White cops shooting Black people in the South, after
the worst disaster in American History.  Forget Civil Rights.  The question should be, are cops above the law?  Since no weapons were found after the shootings on the Danziger bridge, what was their rationale?  Why is the “cover up” allowed to continue?
Lastly, the only image in my mind that keeps popping up, is Bush looking from the window of Air Force One,
while Americans perished!  A POX on your house!

FYI not all white people are racist. Bad people exist regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual preference or whatever other label you can come up with. What happened is a tragedy in the aftermath of a disaster. Please don’t blame an entire race for the poorly chosen actions of just plain bad people.

This is for John, who posted a comment on 8/26/10
By you personally knowing these Murderers, I can tell by your comments that you feel they done nothing wrong. And your sentiments are the same as majority whites in this city. Killing a black is no big issue, you’ve been doing that for centuries! So, why is everyone making such a big fuss about a few
“Valueless/Meaningless Lives”. Right? Trust me I identify with you, because I’ve lived through the insensitivity. And I am fine with that, but do know it will come a day when We will not tolerate your race disrespect, and I pray to God that I see you face to face, and I promise you one thing, I will not hesitate
to administer the same insensitivity on you as your kind has extracted on us!

Check out the new doc from Harry Shearer “The Big Uneasy”
There were many crimes in NO at that time - all most all done by the authorities - from GB on down
One clear demarcation -
White people taking water from stores - surviving
Black people taking water from stores - looting

Here in New Orleans, there is a police chief who says: “If you lie, you die!” Now, this statement is directed to his subordinates - an agency that is infamous for LIE-ING!!! Now, here’s the reality to that
statement:
1) There will be no NOPD, if this is true;
2) The chief is playing politics with the public;
I will cite (3) cases that the NOPD lied and those lies has cost individuals their freedom!!! Yet, this chief continues to boast about changing this thug organization!!!

actually, black cops were shooting black civilians. so there goes the race card. as a fed l.e.o. in the city at the time, i can tell you that harry lee ordered shooting looters, didnt hear that nopd did, but i did hear they ordered martial law, but it wasnt clear to us what that was, other than cerfews. we stuck to our rules of engagement and l.e. use of force policies, and for 7 days, me and my crew were shot at several times while evacing the wounded, while never returning fire. we did come across several kias, shot. wasnt a nice place, mankind had lost its mind. gang rapes in the street (witnessed) brutal beatings of women and children(witnessed) hospital pharmacies looted and patients killed by looters( witnessed the aftermath) so why dont you chill the f&%k out about the officers “taking back the city”...its a city lost again to the druggies..murder capital. nice chocolate city ray!

This is to the pig who responded to my comment. How in the hell can you even ATTEMPT to respond to anything anybody anywhere say about a thug agency as the NOPD. You cowards have gotten away with MURDERS for decades, and after the deal of the century for Micheal Hunter/Lehmann, you
think you got the right to speak!!! Ain’t nothing you or your coward colleagues can say or do to erase the reality that exist. You cowards shot un-armed
citizens, and tried to cover it up. Now, you want the
victims to see you in another light. And stop the lies
about rapes, shootings, etc., that don’t work no more! You ain’t witnessed NOTHING! You’re just like
your buddies, a coward!!! And I will never chill out until, you and your kind are put where you belong, in a jail cell, proving to me, you are a man!!!, without
a badge & gun, and corrupt laws to protect you!!!

It’s already muddled enough for the officers to get off.
Remember the several videos made of that LA cop shooting a handcuffed prisoner in the back, killing the helpless prisoner?
That’s gone to trial and even with such overwhelming evidence the shooter could well get off.
If there is the slightest doubt about what happened, no cop is going to be prosecuted, much less brought to trial for merely killing the civilians who pay all the cops’ salaries and benefits.
It’s just not…, well,... the American way.

This is for jh, who posted a comment on 9/3. First of
all, being a “pig” you shouldn’t be on this site. Because for all we know you may have killed unarmed citizens, so you do best not to reveal your
real name. Secondly, wasn’t NOBODY shooting at you cowards. Stop trying to play the hero! You cowards were at your best during Katrina. All your hatred was displayed for the world to see, and you or your kind cannot say anything but plead guilty to
betraying the citizens of this city. Even thought we are considered citizens, we are human-beings, and you & your thug colleagues violated our human rights and you and your colleagues deserve the death penalty!!! Not some of you, but every NOPD in
uniform!!! Because under the law, if you know of a crime, and done nothing to prevent/report that crime
you are as guilty as the person who committed the crime!!!

Kornfed n kountry

April 14, 9:24 p.m.

I can’t imagine the reality that existed in this city during that time….I’m commenting on the crooked cops as since moving here three years ago I now see the transparency in the truth of this article,,,,,whether white or black I pray everyday for for cops to be held accountable for their actions…..police should definitely not fall under the exception to the rule for accountability or this issue will never fade…....again no matter the race

Kick butt

Sep. 14, 9:21 p.m.

martial law does not give anyone authority any more than authorizing the killing of civilians willy nilly does.  the people who pay the leaders need to step in line with the constitution and there is no martial law in the constitution.  this fairy tale stuff that leaders make up and sign into “law” is nebulous.  and as usual it is up to the people to let the leaders know that those leaders work for the people not the people for those leaders.  since they came for the guns during an emergency they violated the constitution and people’s inalienable rights - therefore the people had and continue to have every right to meet criminal conduct, whether by a person wearing a badge or a simple miscreant bent on righting perceived injustices in the world, with all the force necessary to convince them to not violate people’s rights.  this stuff has been going on for thousands of years - people make some claim they feel is legitimate and then force people to “obey”.  the people decided long ago that the tyranny of good is as bad as the criminal conduct of miscreants.  so whether you carry a badge or not, if you choose to believe in some legislation that violates the constitution, then be careful when trying to apply it to a knowledgeable citizenry - because you’ll get your butts whipped when tens of millions decide to stand up in favor of their rights and the constitution.

Did anyone notice the cross on the bridge next to the
large water battle by the man with no shirt on?

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The Case Files

Case One

Religious Street

There is no police report describing what happened in this photo.

Case Two

Matt McDonald

Why didn’t police tell his family he was killed by an officer?

Case Three

Danny Brumfield

How does a man waving down a police car die from a shotgun blast to his back?

Case Four

Keenon McCann

The gun police said he had was never found.

Case Five

Henry Glover

His skull and ashes were found in the back of an incinerated Chevy.

Case Six

Danziger Bridge

Officers responding to an emergency call opened fire on civilians, injuring four and killing two.

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