Politics & Policy

Underwater Police Work

When the plan gets washed away.

Even in the best of times and the best of weather, New Orleans is a dangerous place. There were 265 murders committed there in 2004, giving the Crescent City the unwelcome distinction of being America’s most violent city, with a homicide rate of 56.3 per 100,000 in population. Those hoping to see New Orleans restored to pre-Katrina conditions might pause to reflect on these numbers.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there has been much discussion of the perceived failings of this or that public official and the various government agencies they supervise. The main lesson to be learned from all of this, as should be clear to nearly anyone, is that those who look to the government for deliverance from such a large-scale disaster as this are very likely to be disappointed, if not killed. What has come to pass in New Orleans was foreseen years ago, with grim accuracy, in such publications as Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, and New Orleans’s own Times Picayune, among others, yet when these predictions came true it seemed the city was utterly unprepared.

Both the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana had elaborate plans for how they would respond in the event of a major hurricane and levee failure. Rutgers University sociologist Lee Clarke labels such plans “fantasy documents,” i.e. documents that purport to lay out the appropriate response to any foreseeable contingency. Such plans reassure the public, Clarke says, but in reality they have little chance of being implemented, even, as was the case in New Orleans, when ample warning is given.

When the 17th-Street flood wall came down and Lake Pontchartrain came rushing into New Orleans, all those precious plans got washed away along with everything else, leaving the city’s police officers to cope with a scenario that, though predicted, was nonetheless unimaginable. Making matters considerably worse, of course, was the fact that as many as a third of the city’s 1,600 police officers remained unaccounted for even a week after the flood. Some of these cops may have died in the first hours of the disaster, others may have been stranded with no way of reporting to their assignments. In a city under water and without power or phone service, a certain amount of confusion is unavoidable. But it now seems clear that most of the no-shows simply decided they had better things to do than wade though the poisonous muck making rescues and engaging in gunfights with looters.

Even worse than those who didn’t come to work were the two uniformed officers shown on MSNBC as they joined in the looting of a Wal-Mart. When the public sees the police fail to respond to lawlessness, the result is even greater lawlessness. When the police participate in it, well, you saw the results. Not even the presence of a reporter and cameraman deterred these two cops from continuing to fill up their shopping cart. “I’m looking for looters,” one of them told the reporter. She wasn’t looking too hard; she might have started with her own partner.

But for every cop who disgraced the badge there were many others who bravely stood their watery ground and faced challenges beyond imagination, even to other police officers. And rather than wait for the bureaucratic machinery to offer direction, many cops simply went to where the trouble was and did their best. Jurisdictional lines were ignored as police officers and federal agents from across the country descended on the Gulf region, often at their own expense, and went to work. (A collection of police-related Katrina stories is available here.)

It’s been my experience in more than two decades as a cop that Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is just as applicable in law enforcement as it is in business. Put simply, 80 percent of the heavy lifting in police work is performed by 20 percent of the cops. When the danger is greatest, these are the ones who will be closest to it, while the others are directing traffic safely away from the action. The cops you saw risking their lives on television last week were New Orleans’s 20 percent. As for the ones who stayed home, the others were better off without them.

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.


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