NOPD clears cops in looting probe
They had OK to take clothing, officials say
Saturday, March 18, 2006
By Michael Perlstein Staff writer
Four New Orleans police officers have been cleared of looting allegations stemming from a news videotape that shows them taking items from the Uptown Wal-Mart two days after Hurricane Katrina, but the officers were suspended for 10 days for failing to stop civilians from cleaning out the ransacked store, the New Orleans Police Department said Friday. Advertisement
The video, shot by an MSNBC crew inside Wal-Mart, shows the officers filling a shopping cart with shoes, clothes and other items. In the background, citizens can be seen calmly looting everything from sweaters to bicycles. When a reporter asks the officers what they're doing, one of them responds, "Looking for looters." She then hastily turns her back to the camera.
Despite an avalanche of public outrage over the officers' actions, an internal investigation recently cleared them of looting allegations, said Assistant Chief Marlon Defillo, commander of the Public Integrity Bureau. He said the officers had permission from their superiors to take necessities for themselves and other officers. The New Orleans Police Department later informed Wal-Mart management, after the store had been secured, that its officers had taken some needed items, he said.
The four officers -- Olivia Fontenot, Vera Polite, Debra Prosper and Kenyatta Phillips -- were suspended for 10 days without pay for "neglect of duty" because "people can be observed illegally inside the store with property in their possession and you took no police action to prevent or stop the looting," according to their disciplinary letters. The officers are all seasoned veterans except for Phillips, a first-year rookie.
On top of her 10-day suspension, Fontenot received an additional three-day penalty for her "discourteous" response to MSNBC correspondent Fred Savidge, her disciplinary letter states.
Through a spokesperson, Superintendent Warren Riley said Friday: "It was determined that all four officers had received permission from their commanders to get clothing for fellow officers who were soaking wet. They did not steal anything."
Defillo said the officers, all assigned to the badly flooded 3rd Police District, were among the officers rescued from that district's emergency shelter at the LSU Dental School in the aftermath of the storm.
"They were putting underwear, socks and shoes in the (shopping) basket," Defillo said. "The problem we had with their actions is that there were citizens in the store taking nonessential items and these officers did nothing to prevent these citizens from looting."
A sharp exchange
In the video, the officers never offer an explanation as to why they're filling a shopping basket with merchandise. Instead, Fontenot tells Savidge that they are "looking for looters."
When Savidge points out that he can see looters everywhere, the following exchange takes place: Fontenot: "That's what I see, including you. What are you doing in here?"
Savidge: "I haven't taken anything, ma'am."
Fontenot: "But you're in the store, huh?"
The Wal-Mart store, at 1901 Tchoupitoulas St., was the site of frenzied and destructive looting the day after the storm and quickly became a symbol of the anarchy that gripped parts of the city in Katrina's aftermath. A group of Times-Picayune reporters saw a handful of officers inside the store early that afternoon taking food, clothing and some nonessential items, such as fishing poles and electronics, while dozens of other officers stood by.
The national and international media that descended on the flooded city reported isolated pockets of looting by New Orleans police at other locations, but Defillo said the department has yet to validate any of those allegations. The department cleared two other officers who were investigated for looting at Wal-Mart based on photographs, Defillo said. He said the photos of those two officers did not show other people looting, making it impossible to uphold suspensions for neglect of duty.
"There was a lot of information put out early on about looting and determining what was valid and what wasn't has been very difficult," Defillo said.
Still under scrutiny
However, two major looting investigations remain under investigation by federal authorities, Defillo said. One case involves the theft of about 200 vehicles from Sewell Cadillac Chevrolet and allegations that 3rd District commanders were involved in some of the thefts.
Another case involves a complaint from a Canal Street hotel owner that a group of officers from the now-disbanded Community Policing squad showed up with an abnormally large stash of goods, which they kept in one of the rooms they were using in the days after the storm.
Aside from those cases, though, Defillo said post-Katrina allegations of New Orleans police officers looting appear to be overblown.
"People were saying a lot of things at that time, but we had to separate fact from fiction," Defillo said. "Each of the cases that were presented to my office were thoroughly investigated and based on all the facts and circumstances, we found that officers either weren't looting or they were taking essential items. A lot of media ran stories about looting without proper validation."
However, Defillo said, if there are any other credible allegations of police wrongdoing after Katrina, his office will vigorously investigate the claims. Defillo said complainants can call (504) 568-6800, the new phone number of the Public Integrity Bureau.
'Matter of perception'
Lt. David Benelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said it was easy for witnesses to misinterpret the actions of police in the chaotic environment after the storm. He said he was the target of uneasy glares when he went to the Lower 9th Ward in September and retrieved jewelry and other valuables through the window of his mother-in-law's house on Caffin Avenue.
"It's all a matter of perception," Benelli said. "There were wild aspersions that the NOPD had run amok, but a lot of these stories came out before all the facts had been gathered and investigated. We were the whipping boys right after the storm. What you don't see is, months later when a police officer is exonerated, the media coming back to do that story."
Still, given the widespread accounts of police acting unprofessionally, if not criminally, Benelli said it's probably true that some officers strayed from the law.
"There's no doubt in my mind that not all police officers, unfortunately, honored their oath of office," he said. "But it doesn't take away from the fact that the majority, the vast majority, honored that oath. And they don't deserve to be lumped in by the media with the few who didn't do the right thing."
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Michael Perlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3316