The looters hit the gun stores in New Orleans first, loading up with rifles and ammunition to better fend for the crimes to follow. Then they descended upon other stores. Before long, they moved from the business districts to nearby residences. And what Hurricane Katrina hadn't ravaged or left destroyed, they did.
In response, a type of neighborhood watch developed overnight. Armed hurricane holdouts patrolled the streets protecting their own houses and those of evacuees.
Some New Orleans residents wondered why the National Guard did not show more initiative in stopping looters. Others put the blame on local law enforcement personnel. More enlightened souls recognized that many local officers and their families were among the victims. Police officers who remained on duty were shot at. Some simply tossed in their badges. Two committed suicide.
Perhaps more than anything, those two suicides illustrate how helpless and even hopeless some law enforcement officers can feel when confronted with mass looting. When looting breaks out, it seems like nothing can be done to restore order. But that's not necessarily true.
A quick police response is the most effective weapon against mass looting.
"Looting is basically crime that breeds itself," explains Commander Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "The first hours of an incident are critical. A timid or delayed response sends an implicit message: We are either unwilling or unable to stop the situation. A single window smash can be a precursor to hundreds. When people see somebody get away with a brazen crime, they conclude, 'Well, if they can do it, so can I.' And the cycle continues."
Unfortunately, law enforcement faces a conundrum when it comes to the prospect of dealing with looters: If we use force and show an assertive law enforcement presence, will we later be accused of escalating the situation? If we don't, will we be prepared to deal with accusations of ineptitude and cowardice by business owners and residents for not acting to save their property?
It's pretty common for some officers to assume that an agency's indecisiveness in the face of such diabolical choices is a result of administrative cowardice. But Richard Odenthal, a retired law enforcement veteran who trains on civil disorder management, believes the situation is more complicated than that.
"First, you need to have a clear-cut mission," Odenthal explains, saying that everyone needs to know what they are trying to accomplish and how they are going to do it. "Next, you have to have sufficient training, personnel, and logistics to carry out that mission. Finally, you have to have administrators who will stand by the mission that they developed. From the very top on down, everyone has to be on the same page. If you don't have that kind of commitment up and down the food chain, people will be hesitant to carry out their missions."
Lee Clarke, a professor at Rutgers University and the author of "Worst Cases, A History of Disasters," says the biggest factor in a police agency's ability to prevent or quell looting is having a general knowledge of how people respond to disasters.
"The chief thing to remember is that the problem is almost never as extensive as it is reported. The situation in New Orleans is a prime example," says Clarke. "We now know that the reports of widespread killing and raping were gross exaggerations. The major issue of looting coverage is that it is often a better barometer of the intensity of media interest than it is of any actual instances of looting."
Like most serious incidents, the best way to handle looting is with plans developed to combat it in advance of the incident that triggered it. Unfortunately, when all hell is breaking loose on the streets, plans change in a hurry.
"Having a plan is essential," adds Odenthal. "But no single plan can cover all possible contingencies. A plan should be structured enough so as to make sure that everyone has a clear mission, but flexible enough to allow for situational variances."
Also, like any battle, the decisive factor in a police agency's attempt to quell looting is for the hearts and minds of the people. It's a battle that's won or lost long before looting breaks out.
"The other important component that must be established, long before any disaster, is institutional trust," says Clarke. "Local law enforcement needs to be truly integrated into the community to enjoy a degree of reciprocal trust. In those areas where law enforcement is well regarded, law-abiding citizens are more likely to step up to the plate and help police officers in their hour of need."