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Avoid the cost of ambiguous orders

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In the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans police shot 11 people, at least some of whom were thought to be looters. Exactly who told police they could shoot looters, and how the message was conveyed, are under a federal investigation.

While he denies giving the order to shoot looters, former New Orleans Police Chief Warren Riley does acknowledge telling police captains to “take back the city.” How it was interpreted points to how dangerous ambiguous orders can be.

“Just sending out a general order ... with no specific guidelines is an invitation to disaster,” says criminal justice expert Samuel Walker.

The lesson: Your orders might not involve life and death, but many of them are important enough to ensure that you don’t leave anything open to misinterpretation.

— Adapted from “After Katrina, New Orleans Cops Were Told They Could Shoot Looters,” Frontline and The New Orleans Times-Picayune, www.propublica.org.

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