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Looting in New Orleans

September 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: We get two perspectives on the problems of civil unrest in the wake of disasters like Katrina. Joseph Estey is president of the International Association of Police Chiefs. He’s run the police department in Hartford, Vermont, for the last 19 years. And Kathleen Tierney is director of the Natural Hazards Research Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Chief Estey, we’ve seen these instances of rising impatience, another day without reliable food and water, crimes against property. If you’re going to craft a response to New Orleans today, the situation on Thursday, where do you start?

CHIEF JOSEPH ESTEY: It’s such a desperate situation, and there are so many needs to fill. There’s the rescue component. There’s a response. That’s a security component. There’s a law enforcement component.

And it is an overwhelming task to do all of those, so, you know, unfortunately, you have to stage and respond as best you can with what resources you have. And you’re trying to do all of that with a very limited number of resources and an inability to get people there quickly and, you know, address all of those needs at once.

So it’s a frustrating task for those that are doing it. And it just takes time to be able to knock down each of those responses in order and try to prioritize what’s needed, and then also be able to deal with what you have with what resources you have.

RAY SUAREZ: We heard FEMA Director Brown talking about the fact that something as basic as communications we’re totally lacking. There are no police radios in the city of New Orleans. Is that something that just totally undermines any effort?

CHIEF JOSEPH ESTEY: It absolutely does. Without cell phones, without radio communications, without power to power up repeaters and radio communications, it leaves people in the dark, and you have this effect of basically no coordination whatsoever.

And it leaves, unfortunately, lots of room for error, and they’re human beings that remember also probably have families that live in that area and houses that are in that area, so they’re dealing with the added stress of not only dealing with the situation, but they’re also in the same boat as well. So it really is a desperate, desperate situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Tierney, does disorder inevitably move into the kind of vacuum that we’re talking about in New Orleans? (No audio – Network difficulty)

RAY SUAREZ: I’m sorry, there’s some audio problem from Professor Tierney and we’ll get back to her.

How big a problem is looting, and how do you make a decision between protecting lives and protecting property?

CHIEF JOSEPH ESTEY: You know, it’s a — I’ve never had the issue of trying to deal with that. You go to training and you sort of watch the images and my answer is based on what I see as a police officer with experience, but also as a human being watching that.

And I try to put myself in that place. If you come upon a scene where there are people that are grabbing diapers and water and food, that’s a desperate situation that people are obviously in and I think that’s a different characterization than if you come across a group that’s coming out of a gun store or a liquor store where they’re looting things for, you know, personal consumption and perhaps, you know, for criminal intent. That’s another situation, and it has to be dealt with very forcefully and very immediately.

And I think, again, it comes down to prioritizing, you know, what you’re trying to accomplish and what kind of order you are trying to establish. And if you’re in a situation as a police officer where there is no water, there is no food, no basic life-providing resources, then as an officer, you know, you’re going to sort of look the other way, I think, in that situation where people are just trying to survive.

But, again, in another situation where they look like they’re perhaps going to do something different with what they’re doing, or it’s complete lawlessness, and it’s something that needs to be dealt with very ruthlessly and very, very quickly in terms of establishing order and letting people know that that’s not going to be tolerated.

RAY SUAREZ: Okay. Professor Tierney, I’m sorry, we’ve addressed your problem and I think we can hear you now. You were going to say?

KATHLEEN TIERNEY: I was going to say that looting in natural disasters in the United States has been extremely vanishingly rare. Looting is almost never a problem in natural disasters, as compared to episodes of civil unrest, like the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where looting was a part of the unrest itself.

So I believe that much of the looting reports that we are hearing are exaggerated right now. And I believe that the majority of the looting that is taking place is being done by people who are truly desperate, and as you just heard, often this kind of looting is done with the sanction of the police officials so that they understand that people need to go for necessities like diapers and basic staples.

And these people, remember, are in a situation where, first of all, these were the very poorest of the poor in the city. These were the people that didn’t even have the wherewithal to evacuate. These were people who may not have had any cash whatsoever on hand with a hurricane occurring on the 29th of August where people are waiting for their paychecks.

They don’t know when help is going to come. They’re desperate for help, as has already been pointed out. There’s a breakdown of communications within the city itself. And this is the kind of a situation where, you know, I think your listeners need to really put themselves in the shoes of these desperate disaster victims, and I think it’s easy to see why this kind of looting can happen.

Now, with respect to people taking valuable goods, luxury goods, if there are these kinds of situations– and it appears that there are– we have to recognize that under conditions of extreme uncertainty and extreme desperation where law enforcement is not present, that new norms can emerge within groups that, if you will, legitimize behavior that, even on the part of the otherwise very law-abiding people who could get caught up temporarily in taking things that don’t belong to them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, chief, in an unusual situation– and you know, you said yourself you’d never seen anything like this — do you agree with that, that somehow a lot of people who wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing see the rule book as tossed away?

CHIEF JOSEPH ESTEY: I think there’s an amount of truth in that. You know, if you look at celebrations after a World Series, where people are out having a good time, and it suddenly turns into a violent situation where cars are overturned and set on fire, and what was a handful of people now turn into a mob, it’s not unusual to see that.

And I think that people get caught up. And, again, they’re under tremendous stress and tremendous pressure and a sort of fatality in not knowing where they’re going to be living or when they’re going to eat next or when they’re going to get any kind of relief from this, and it really — tell drive them to things they wouldn’t normally do, I think.

RAY SUAREZ: Joseph Estey, Professor Tierney, thank you both.


KATHLEEN TIERNEY: Thank you very much.