Like all people, I am wondering why New Orleans degenerated into savagery. As I ponder, I’m reminded of Occam’s Razor’
The simplest explanation is the best.
“Pluaritas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.” Plurality should not be posited without necessity, is the Latin translation. Don’t look for multiple complex reasons when a simple one will do.
KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. That’s the modern day interpretation.
Perhaps, then, if we want to understand why law and order failed in New Orleans, we need to look no further than the people directly responsible for maintaining it: The New Orleans Police Department.
We still don’t know all the facts but what we do know right now is grim: The cops had few contingency plans. Unprepared to deal with the flood, they stood by helplessly as the rising waters stripped the department of vehicles, communications and command and control. Several officers (that we know of) took part in the looting.
And large number of New Orleans police officers (some say hundreds) simply quit. Considering the devastation, roving gangs and heavily armed criminals they faced, New Orleans was as close to a combat zone as we can get this side of Baghdad. Add a new distinction to the NOPD: This would make their action the largest “desertion under fire” since the Civil War.
Remember the cops and firemen climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center? Why do some combat units hold the line while others melt away? It is espirit de corps, morale and above all leadership that give a unit the will to win against terrific odds. The simplest explanation is that the NOPD lacked the will to win.
Demoralization is nothing new among the “Finest” of the Big Easy. As Professor James Fyfe observed: “Some city police departments have a reputation for being brutal, like Los Angeles, or corrupt, like New York, and still others are considered incompetent. New Orleans has accomplished the rare feat of leading nationally in all three categories.”
And that triumvirate of infamy has not come without a price. Many of the men and women feel little sense of duty or allegiance to the city they served.
In truth, we should be grateful that the NOPD performed as well as it did. Hundreds did not flee and these brave men and women stood their posts. But the desertion of police officers and their inability to meet the challenge of The Great Flood should come as little surprise.
A brief history. This is the department where an officer was convicted of hiring a hit-man to kill a woman who had lodged a brutality complaint against him. He was caught on tape discussing the murder. His arrest was part of a larger sting that busted hundreds of cops and civilians for being part of a drug ring. It’s a department where hundreds more officers have been arrested for felonies such as rape, robberies and homicide in countless state and Federal investigations. And it’s the department where a female officer was convicted of a vicious murder-robbery gone bad, where one of the murdered victims was the restaurant security guard . . . an off-duty cop from her own precinct.
Brutality, incompetence and corruption are the historic norm for the NOPD. In one incident, a black man, Adolph Archie, killed a white policeman during a shootout. Since Archie had also been shot, the cops transported him to a nearby hospital. Of course, they took their time getting him there. Archie eventually got to a hospital, where he died later that night. The Coroner had trouble identifying the cause of death. Perhaps it was the severe beating he got after his arrest that killed him. Or maybe he died because at some time during the night, someone had yanked the breathing tubes out of his throat and his injuries didn’t allow him to breathe.
Eventually, the Coroner ruled the death a homicide. Cause? “Death by police intervention.”
Archie’s murder was nothing new. In another situation involving the murder of a white police officer, police-mobs went on a rampage in Algiers. Four residents died and 50 were injured. Many of the victims had been tortured, including two that were taken out to the swamps and subjected to mock executions.
When I first thought about examining the performance of the NOPD, I thought it might be useful to compare theirs to the performance of other police departments who faced great crisis. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and blizzards have hit many large American cities before, and their departments held the thin blue line.
That’s the obvious comparison.
And then I thought of the Titanic.
That’s right, the ship. The great big one that hit an iceberg and sank in April, 1912.
Well, to be more specific, I thought about the crew of the Titanic. After all, the crew on a doomed ship sinking into the dark, freezing waters of the Atlantic is expected to come to the rescue of the passengers, much like the NOPD should have come to the rescue of its citizenry when the city began to sink.
So let’s compare. How did the doomed crew of the Titanic perform?
First, it’s important to note that like in New Orleans, the Titanic’s crew failed to properly use its “buses,” in this case, the small, wooden lifeboats. There weren’t enough and neither the crew nor passengers had sufficient training on how to use them. They had briefly rehearsed an evacuation but the drills had been perfunctory. There was a “plan” but no one was exactly sure what it was.
Gee, this is sounding more and more like New Orleans all the time. Let’s go on.
We believe that there were a total of 2,229 people on the Titanic of which 913 (41%) were part of the crew.
A total of 713 people survived the disaster (32%). That includes both passengers and crew.
498 out of 1,316 passengers survived (38%).
215 out of 913 crew survived (24%).
In other words, although they could have seized the lifeboats, abandoned the passengers and fled, the crew did not. As a result, over twice more passengers than crew survived.
To really grasp the magnitude of this, we have to remember that most of the crew consisted of poor, unskilled laborers. How poor? Most were as poor, if not more poor, than even the 3rd Class passengers.
Ironically, the issue of class distinction that surfaced during the New Orleans evacuation also surfaced when the Titanic sank. Although it seems like I’m straying from the issue of the New Orleans Police Department, bear with me. I’ll tie the two together for you.
Here goes. As best as we can tell, the survival rates of the “classes” on the Titanic break down like this:
202 of 325 total 1st Class passengers survived (62%). How rich were these people? Well, consider that a 1st Class suite on Titanic’s maiden voyage cost $100,000 in today’s dollars.
118 of 285 2nd Class passengers survived (41%)
Only 178 of 706 3rd Class passengers survived (25%).
So, the numbers appear to tell us that class distinction certainly had an impact on who lived and died.
But not so fast. Before, the chants of “class-ism” begin, let’s look at one final statistic.
Remember that “shamefully” high 62% survival percentage for the 1st Class passengers%
Well, they were mostly women. Of 144 women traveling 1st Class, only four perished and 140 survived . . . a whopping 97%.
In fact, the overall survival rate for women on the Titanic was excellent that night. Seventy-four percent (74%) of all women passengers survived, compared to only 18% of male passengers.
And this is a good time to remind you that many of the men who willingly gave up their seats were 1st Class passengers, white, wealthy and powerful almost beyond our comprehension today.
So there WAS a story of “class” on the Titanic that night.
Those rich male passengers and those lowly crew members all had it in common. A certain type of class, I mean. They had a code of ethical behavior. A sense of “the right thing to do” when the going got tough. A sense of duty for duty’s sake. This ethical standard cut across economic lines and it made comrades of poor and rich alike.
And that’s what was really missing in the NOPD. It wasn’t just the history of corruption, brutality, incompetence and the demoralization caused by years of investigations and reforms.
What was missing in New Orleans among so many police officers was a basic sense of duty. I think it made the difference between those who stayed and those who quit.
Time for the final question. Is what happened in New Orleans unique or is a symptom of something larger at work?
Once again we can look to the Titanic for an answer. Perhaps the saddest thing about the crew of the Titanic is that their example of “duty” didn?t survive the 20th Century. It didn’t even survive the decade.
I keep seeing the image of the lights on the Titanic glowing brightly, the only lights in an ocean of dark. And suddenly the lights went out.
Two years after the Titanic’s sinking, Europe fought the “war to end all wars.” Millions died and with it died a way of life. The generation that produced the crew of the Titanic gave way to The Lost Generation. The role of women changed. Economies collapsed. Values changed. Federal paternalism and social welfare created a dependency mentality where one asks first what he is owed rather than what he owes.
In 1934, just 22 years after the Titanic sank, the cruise ship Moro Castle caught fire off the coast of New Jersey. The crew abandoned ship, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves in the burning wreck. Many passengers jumped in the water to escape the flames and 134 drowned.
Just coincidence, or an indication that something had changed in the world?
So perhaps it isn’t just the sordid record of the New Orleans Police Department that’s to blame. Maybe it’s just this world of ours that threatens the idea. The idea that in times of great crisis, you stand your post so that the other man can live. Duty, honor, country. The idea that you do your duty for duty’s sake.
Thankfully, it hasn’t died completely. It still glows here and there, across every generation, in military schools, homes and organizations across the Nation. It glows in Iraq and wherever our military serves. It glows wherever a cop walks a beat or an EMT answers a 911 call. It glows, not as strong as it was on the night the Titanic sank, but not extinguished yet.
But the sense of duty died that week in New Orleans. Let’s hope that we can learn from the experience to make that flame burn brighter.