Crimes in the City
The recent hurricanes triggered a number of diverse responses
for me, as I am sure they did for many. As a person, it was nearly
inconceivable to witness the kind of devastation that occurred
in Katrina’s wake and the relatively lesser damage from
Rita. As a former police officer, I watched with a certain amount
of pride as most officers and other public servants tried to do
their jobs under nearly impossible circumstances.
Yet, there is also a tremendous sadness at the reports of a few
New Orleans police officers succumbing to baser instincts and
committing acts of theft. I also saw the extremely painful lessons
that were learned when worst-case scenarios come true.
Fortunately, at least in the short-run, these lessons were not
lost on governments and citizens in Rita’s path. But even
that relatively successful evacuation presented public safety
officials with a number of important lessons. It remains to be
seen how much will be learned to help better prepare for future
disasters, natural or otherwise. What is painfully clear is that
the logistical issues in moving very large numbers of people in
a short period of time require a great deal of advance planning.
Governments cannot assume that citizens will be able to take appropriate
actions to protect themselves without clear, specific, and timely
direction from their local, state, and national governments. Hopefully,
local, state, and national governments will learn from the destruction
of Katrina, and perhaps as much from the relatively limited destruction
As a teacher of theories of crime, I found the reports of crime
to be especially disturbing. Tales of armed gangs engaged in awful
acts of theft, assault, and even rape and homicide, both in the
city at-large and in the supposed shelters of the New Orleans
Superdome and Convention Center, combined with reports of shots
being fired at rescue helicopters, seemed too awful to imagine.
These actions seemed to strain our understanding of human behavior.
Do people turn into savages overnight when the normal instruments
of social control disappear? As it turns out, there was very little
to explain. As a sociologist familiar with the dynamics of mass
hysteria, I cannot say that I was particularly surprised when
nearly all of these reports turned out to be false, magnified
by a mass media hungry for details and apparently willing to believe
just about anything. Oddly, the number of crimes that have been
reported may not have been more than a city the size of New Orleans
might expect on a “normal” weekend. So, one of the
most important lessons from recent hurricanes is that it is important
to get the facts. The mass media covering the event failed miserably
in some respects regarding the reporting of crime.
I can only wonder how many others might have been saved from rooftops
had rescue helicopters not been grounded to protect the pilots
from imaginary lawless gangs shooting at them. What is most clear
from these recent hurricanes is that we still have many things
to learn about disaster preparedness. It remains to be seen whether
these lessons will be taken seriously or whether history is doomed
to repeat itself.
Thomas Stuckey is an assistant professor at SPEA,
IUPUI. His focus is on criminology, criminal justice, and political
sociology. He belongs to the American Society of Criminology and
the American Criminal Justice Association. Professor Stuckey received
his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Iowa in 2001.