The Role of Police During a Natural Disaster


August 27th, 2015 by Vernon Herron

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Traditional police responsibilities have expanded tremendously since Hurricane Katrina touched down in New Orleans on August 29, 2005. Katrina not only highlighted the need for officials in Louisiana and nationwide to enhance preparedness and coordination efforts, but also emphasized the need for local police to broaden their roles during a crisis.

Typical police training focuses on keeping communities safe through prevention and detection of crime, traffic stops, investigative techniques, and arrests. Self-defense tactics and firearms training are also required for officers to meet government regulations and maintain minimum safety standards. However, after Katrina and similar natural disasters, police executives have been forced to incorporate additional training designed specifically for responding to catastrophic disasters.

Police officers must be prepared with the proper equipment that goes far beyond a gun and a badge. Officers now are encouraged to carry preparedness kits that include food and water. In fact, nationwide, law enforcement agencies have mandated that police officers have personal preparedness plans and kits for their families as well. These kits should be adequate enough to sustain every member of their family for a minimum of ten days. As you might recall, some police officers were torn between reporting to work to assist in the response to Hurricane Katrina, or staying behind to deal with the impact of the storm at home. Today in New Orleans and surrounding jurisdictions, assuring that police officers and their families have these kits and a personal preparedness plan is just as paramount as the city’s own disaster plan.

During a disaster, police officers not only have to continue to keep the community safe from possible looting, destruction of property, and theft that may occur, they also have to be prepared to evacuate citizens, render advanced life saving techniques, and keep points of dispensing sites secure. Additional duties also include the delivery of food, water, and blankets to those who have been displaced by the disaster.

Hurricane Katrina, although devastating to the community of New Orleans and surrounding jurisdictions, provided us with additional “lessons learned” that should be part of every disaster management plan in the country. Among the gaps revealed as a result of Katrina was the unexpected refusal of first responders, including police, not to report during the response phase, even after being ordered by the police chief. Prior to the disaster, there was no coordination planning conducted with neighboring police departments for backup. And finally, the communications equipment and processes were inadequate or non-existent.

While these expanded responsibilities have stretched police resources thin, officers have demonstrated the ability to remain resilient during and after the response phase has ended. Even in the face of complete destruction, those first responders who did report during the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans performed admirably and probably prevented the death toll from being much higher. Police departments throughout the country have to be prepared for their own Hurricane Katrina. It may not be a breached levy but it may be snow storm, tornado, or other natural disaster that shifts police officers from traditional policing, to roles that could also save the lives of the citizens in the community.

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