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Katrina, One Year Later...Never Underestimate the Challenge

The New Orleans Police Department continues to fight its way back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Now, in the midst of the 2006 hurricane season, officers still are displaced, the police headquarters is located in trailers, and only a few sections of the city are fully functioning. In spite of the incredible odds against them, officers in the department remain on the job and plan to be better prepared for the storms to come.

The rising waters set the priorities for us last time. We had no time to give any thought to anything but saving people before they were swept away. The men and women of the department on the job on Aug. 29, 2005, instinctively knew that the decisions they made that day would stay with them forever. Responses were immediate. There was no thought to personal safety or outcome. The only reason none of us died was because of teamwork. During the aftermath of Katrina, most officers pushed emotions down, aside, or away.

About three months after Katrina, officers were asked to complete a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of the 912 officers who completed the survey, 55% said their homes were not inhabitable, 69% were currently separated from their immediate families, 67% had upper respiratory problems, cough, or sinus congestion, 54% had skin rashes, and 45% were experiencing some form of post traumatic stress or depression.

Captain John Bryson, commander of the Public Information Office, said, “We are getting back to police work. The department suffered such a heavy loss of our facilities that it set back our operations considerably. Individual commanders are being called upon to motivate and keep their people focused in a positive direction—despite all of the distractions from the destruction.”

Bryson continues, “It is difficult for an officer to come out of their FEMA trailer, go to work and act like nothing is happening in their personal life, but a professional attitude impacts performance—and we have to maintain our professional attitude.”

In the post-Katrina environment, the job of each officer is more difficult because officers have to manage customer contact in a professional way while having to deal with their own families being separated, houses and personal belongings being destroyed, opportunities to earn extra income through details no longer exists, and the entire future of their hometown hangs in the balance between insurance companies and government agencies.

Bryson explains, “No one calls the police when good things are happening. Customers are angry and upset when they have a need for the police. These emotions are running higher in the midst of all of the destruction and uncertainty.” Bryson discusses the bad press that the department received in the wake of some officers leaving their post and others being accused of looting. “More importantly than what people say about us is what we say about ourselves.”

Captain Harry Mendoza, commander of the Traffic Division, said a city with no traffic lights due to lack of power posed major problems. “Our safety signals were completely knocked out for months after the storm. We were very pleased with the response of our community. People became more cautious and adjusted their driving to four-way stops. People actually raised their awareness and increased their ability to manage their own personal safety.”

Mendoza said his officers quickly adapted. “We practiced adaptation, not change. Successful commanders standardized the daily routines, provided structure and certainty in a chaotic environment.” Mendoza continues to work with traffic officers to be patient with drivers who are totally stressed and exhausted. “A normal traffic stop should take about 10 minutes, but citizens are upset about everything and vent to our traffic guys. There is a lot of depression and suffering. It affects everyone.”

Captain Jeff Winn, commander of Special Operations Division, explained the importance of having a plan and having command in place. “The only people who survived this thing are people who had a plan and leaders who were not afraid to lead. Our officers are men and women who count on their rank to take charge and make quick, solid decisions. The plan we had for Katrina worked. SOD was able to save every vehicle in our particular fleet.”

Winn continues to look ahead and has requested Katrina equipment, i.e., swim fins, masks or goggles, boats, underwater lights and other gear that works in and around water. Though few of these items appeared on the department’s equipment list before Katrina, Winn believes it should be standard equipment now. Winn also believes that his tactical team should do water-borne training.

“Leadership made the difference,” he said. “The difference between a great job and an adequate job is leadership. This is even more important in a crisis like this. It was not an option to let people down.”

Because of the complete loss of communication systems, access to equipment and the general chaos that ruled in the aftermath of Katrina, NOPD is compiling its own disaster response plan. These plans coordinate with the overall emergency response Plan devised by the city, but officers insist that Katrina “taught us that we better be able to take care of ourselves.”

The federal response took six days. Bryson said, “I have met with business managers and hotels. I have chosen alternate locations and made arrangements for enough supplies to sustain life for seven to 10 days.” Because Bryson (who was captain in the Fifth District at the time of Katrina) lost his entire fleet, he had to rely on 25 years of training to improvise and adapt.

Not only does Bryson maintain a response plan for his officers, he has an evacuation plan for his family. “It is harder to focus on my job if I have no idea where my family is or if they are safe. The officers that didn’t prepare…their lives fell apart.”

A general consensus throughout the department is that the job has returned to normal police work, but the officers have fewer tools with which to work. Conditions are worse for the most part. They don’t have normal equipment and supplies. Many have had to find new homes and replace all of their personal belongings.

Some positive changes have come out of Katrina. Superintendent Warren Riley has created an anti-looting squad that is focusing on the unoccupied residential areas. “Due to the devastation following the storm, our mode switched from policing to rescue. We made efforts to stop the looting, but when the water attacked our city, we had to switch to rescue mode. That took every bit of manpower we could manage.”

Riley continued, “There is a lot to learn from a disaster of this magnitude. We have changed our Hurricane Preparedness Plan to include lessons learned and eliminate the mistakes we made.”

In an effort to keep dialogue open and to stay in touch with the needs of the residents, he created a Police Community Relations Board. “I’ve included a representative of every ethnic background in our city.” The board was created in December 2005 and meets monthly. Members discuss various incidents that were problematic and give an objective opinion. “This helps us train our officers better,” Riley said. “We want to understand the needs of our citizens, but we also need them to understand the needs of the department.”

As the criminal element began to repopulate the city, Riley created a Criminal Intelligence Bureau (CIB). “As the citizens began to return home, we found we had to refocus our energies on gathering intelligence about people involved in violence and drug trafficking. We have already apprehended 11 of our top 100. We feel very good about that.”

New uniforms are among the changes the department has had to make. So many of the old uniforms were lost or stolen that Riley changed the entire look of NOPD switching from the long standing traditional blue to black. “It was jeopardizing the safety of our citizens. They must be able to recognize a police officer without fear that it might be an imposter.”

Riley is also updating the fleet of department vehicles. “The new cars have a new look,” he said. “We have added the fleur de lis to our markings. We have a pride in our city, our survival—we want our cars to reflect how serious we are about our commitment to rebuilding and keeping the city safe.”

Riley’s team-building efforts have expanded beyond the confines of NOPD. “We are working on a regional approach. We want to be able to share resources, improve communications between all of the agencies – local, state and federal.” Riley continued, “We are looking at a regional training academy, a combined crime lab, and sharing information to assist with all investigations.”

The NOPD Police Academy has graduated two classes since Katrina. Funding for equipment, vehicles, overtime, uniforms, etc., all continue to be a problem. “We work closely with the New Orleans Police Foundation to find funding opportunities for the things we still need.”

Remembering that about 80% of the officers lost everything to the flood waters, “We need to try to help them get back on their feet and bring their families home—so we are always trying to find funding for that too,” Riley said. “Many of our officers are now taking care of two households because their families have been displaced, their details are no longer available—these officers are still going through a lot.”

The major issues to be better prepared for a disaster include, 1) supplies enough to sustain life for seven to 10 days, 2) fuel, 3) immediately available support from National Guard units, 4) vehicles appropriate for the situation, i.e., high-water vehicles and boats, 5) medical supplies, 6) communication system shared by state, local and federal agencies, 7) training, 8) plan with primary and secondary staging areas identified and 9) recruiting new officers to expand the size of the department.

Captain Winn understands the pressures on the officers in post-Katrina New Orleans and vows to keep the officers in a state of readiness. Winn said, “It is a different world now. I work to keep my team as busy as possible—having stuff to do will keep their minds working.”

Winn also insists on physical fitness. “I make sure that they maintain their workout routine.”

He also addressed the emotional health of his SWAT officers. “We have a lot of mental health issues. I still have men whose families are living out of state. Life is not anywhere near being back to normal.

“If ever there was a need to remember to life live one day at a time…it is now.” Winn said, “There is no reason to worry about the next step until you finish the step you are on. We are here to protect this city and the citizens. We did it during Katrina, and we will keep on doing it.”

Ann H. Wilder, a mental health professional, is a program director at DePaul-Tulane Behavioral Health Center. She volunteers as the team leader of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing and is the family liaison officer for NOPD.

James B. Arey, Ph.D., LPC, a mental health professional, is commander of the New Orleans Police Department SWAT Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT), an instructor at the NOPD Police Academy, and was previous the clinical director of NOPD Mobile Crisis Unit.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2006

Rating : 9.8

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