Hurricane Katrina hit the United States in 2005, there were many individuals whose lives were destroyed. The resulting flooding in New Orleans also left many without homes, food, water, and employment. Even those in positions of authority were left without means of communication, and in some cases, these individuals committed acts completely against their codes of ethics. This paper will discuss one set of individuals in power exclusively, those of the police officers of New Orleans, and will focus on the ethical dilemmas that stemmed from the acts of looting which occurred at the hands of some of those officers.
To fully understand the situation in New Orleans, one must first understand the issues underlying ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas can stem from a variety of sources, including a conflict between personal and professional values, between two principles, between two actions, each with strong positive aspects as well as strong negative aspects, and between ones’ perceived values and one’s personal values (Walters, 41).
Additionally, it is important to distinguish between three types of “looting”: those acts done for personal gain, those done for necessity in the line of duty, and those in between. In one incident, police officers were seen breaking into a car dealership, and taking eight to ten vehicles without permission. As New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley noted in the CNN report “New Orleans cops investigated for allegedly stealing cars,” if those vehicles were used in place of stalled patrol cars due to flooding, that act would not be considered looting, since the act would be to obtain a means of transportation in the line of duty (CNN, online).
However, other officers, such as those reportedly involved in looting at the Amerihost Inn and Suites, were not carrying out essential job functions. According to the CNN report “Witnesses” the hotel owner, Osman Khan, informed police officials that eight officers staying at the hotel were involved in the looting of houses and businesses around the hotel. Allegedly, the items stolen ranged from tennis shoes to jewelry to weapons to microwaves (CNN, online).
These acts are an obvious violation of police ethics, and do not cause an ethical dilemma, since there is no conflict between one ethic and another. The oath of an officer is to protect and serve the citizens of their jurisdiction, and to uphold the laws. In this case, the officers involved clearly violated that oath, in that their actions went against not only local, state, and federal laws, but also served not to protect the people of New Orleans, but to instead contribute to their losses. In this way, these officers clearly violated the ethical policy implied by their oath (Walters, 56).
When police offers were responsible for looting food, water, clothing, and medicine, or did not attempt to stop those stealing these items, however, the result is an ethical dilemma. On one hand, the officers have a duty to protect citizens. These citizens were ravaged by flood and a lack of federal aid, and were without the basic necessities. In this respect, the officers had an ethical professional duty to assist citizens in whatever way possible to ensure their safety and survival.
On the other hand, however, these officers were professionally responsible for upholding the law, which is clearly against theft of property, be it from a home or a business. In this respect, officers had a responsibility to protect storeowners against theft, and to protect the property of those unable to protect it themselves. By allowing looting to occur, or by participating in it themselves, the officers were clearly violating their professional ethical responsibilities.
The result of this duality of ethics is clearly an ethical problem for the officers (Macintyre, 142). Their oath requires them to enforce two competing ethical actions in this situation, both of which had strong positive aspects and strong negative aspects. To decide between saving the lives of individuals and upholding the law would require the officer to make a personal ethical decision over the value of each responsibility.
A further ethical dilemma resulted from officers whose own homes were destroyed by flooding. In this case, the officers had an obvious personal ethical responsibility to care for themselves and their families, and thus may have required food, water, or medication. With normal, legal sources unavailable, officers may have turned to looting as a means to provide their families the basic necessities. However, on a professional level, these officers were required to uphold the law in all areas of life, and thus, were required to do so off duty and in times of crisis. Again, the dual ethical principles of personal and professional ethics cause a conflict within the officers (Macintyre, 142).
A further ethical problem resulted from the perceived responsibility of the officers from the viewpoint of the average citizen. In some instances, citizens not involved in looting may have seen the officers as responsible for upholding the law. Since these individuals were not involved in looting, some saw the officer’s lack of force to stop looting as unethical. On the other hand, those in need of medical assistance, food, water, or other basic supplies would have seen any officer attempting to stop an individual from obtaining these supplies as unethical, as well.
There can be no question that the duality of professional ethical responsibility, the conflict between one’s personal ethics and one’s professional ethics, and the ethical perception of the public had a vast impact on the actions of the police officers in New Orleans. While it is certainly true that, in some cases, officers acted for personal gain, there were other circumstances that may have required the officers to make on the spot ethical decisions, either of which would have been perceived by some as the improper choice. Careful consideration of these ethical dilemmas should be made in any decision of reprimand or punishment for the officers in question.
CNN. “New Orleans Cops Investigated for Allegedly Stealing Cars.” Hurricane Katrina Updates. Updated October 7, 2005. Retrieved October 7, 2005 .
CNN. “Witnesses: New Orleans Cops Took Rolex Watches, Jewelry.” Hurricane Katrina Updates. Updated September 30, 2005. Retrieved October 7, 2005 .
Macintyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 1998. Questia. 8 Oct. 2005 .
Walters, James W. What Is a Person? An Ethical Exploration. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Questia. 8 Oct. 2005 .
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