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Nicholas Stix

New Orleans Police Department: When Cops Loot, It’s Not Looting
By Nicholas Stix
Mar 24, 2006 - 5:54:00 PM

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Well, it took almost seven months, but the New Orleans Police Department has finally gotten its lies straight, concerning pilfering police officers who availed themselves of other people’s property in Katrina’s aftermath. The official word: Looters in uniform do not count as looters.

The pronunciamento concerned four female officers – Olivia Fontenot, Vera Polite, Debra Prosper and Kenyatta Phillips – caught by an MSNBC news crew in a compromising position inside a Wal-Mart. According to a report from the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Michael Perlstein:

“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….

“In the video, the officers never offer an explanation as to why they're filling a shopping basket with merchandise. Instead, Fontenot tells (MSNBC's Fred) 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?’”

Office Fontenot was clearly seeking to intimidate Savidge out of doing his job by making a veiled threat of arresting him, while letting all the looters run wild.

According to Perlstein, earlier that day, several Times-Picayune reporters also saw officers taking items such as fishing poles and electronics “while dozens of other officers stood by.”

But that was then, this is now. Speaking through a department flack, Superintendent Warren Riley said "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."

Thus, the officers who were stealing in the Wal-Mart in front of the MSNBC crew weren’t “really” stealing, because they had their commander’s permission. Now, if they had really had their commander’s permission, don’t you think they would have simply said so, instead of hiding from the camera, making the idiotic statement that they were “looking for looters,” and threatening to arrest a reporter?

When I was a department store security guard, it was really easy to profile most shoplifters before they stole anything, because they practically had a big “G” for guilty written on their foreheads. They’d look around in a paranoid fashion and otherwise draw attention to themselves. Those New Orleans policewomen were acting guilty as hell. If they weren’t looting, why did they feel so guilty?

And what are we to make of a modern, big-city police department that requires almost seven months to come up with such a pathetic cover-up. Heck, my six-year-old could have come up with a better fib, off the cuff.

However, although the four officers were not, let me repeat, NOT looting, they still got 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.”

Officer Fontenot was also suspended for three days for being "discourteous" to MSNBC’s Fred Savidge.

The message is clear: Should a reporter catch you in the act of looting, remember to be courteous.

Considering how many NOPD officers stood around while civilians looted, I guess we can expect to see Assistant Chief Marlon Defillo (remember that name!), commander of the Public Integrity Bureau, to hand down a few hundred such ten-day suspensions. Hahahaha! Just kidding.

(Public Integrity is often called “Internal Affairs” in other urban police forces. Police departments periodically change the names of such divisions, thinking that a name change can confuse the public about the corruption the division is supposed to ferret out.)

In another case, in which two NOPD officers were photographed looting inside a store, Assistant Chief Defillo did not suspend them, saying that in the photograph, no one else could be seen looting in the store. I know what you’re saying: What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? Translation of Defilloese into English: It’s ok for NOPD officers to loot, as long as they don’t tolerate civilians looting.

This is a new one on me. I’ve never before heard of an internal affairs division trying to cover up corruption, and whose boss sounded more like a PR flack than a corruption investigator.

Warren Riley became chief when his disgraced predecessor, Eddie Compass, was forced out following the Katrina non-looting. But Assistant Chief Marlon Defillo (remember that name!) now tells us that police looting was a myth perpetrated by the media.

"People were saying a lot of things at that time, but we had to separate fact from fiction. 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."

Meanwhile, Lt. David Benelli, the president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said “It’s all a matter of perception.” The Times-Picayune’s Michael Perlstein quotes Lt. Benelli as saying, “[I]t 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….

"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."

If the stories about police officers looting were fake or matters of mistaken “perception,” why can’t Chief Compass get his job back?

But the police officers weren’t exonerated, they were given a pass as part of a bungled official cover-up. There’s a huge difference between the two.

If Chief Riley, Assistant Chief Defillo, and Lt. Benelli’s purpose is to guarantee that the NOPD remains the butt of jokes, they’re doing a bang-up job.

Are New Orleans burglars now going to be able to get off by claiming that the arresting officer “misinterpreted” their actions?

“The butt of jokes” brings us to the Times-Picayune, whose editors and some staffers perpetrated to my knowledge the most ambitious media cover-up ever, when, on September 26 they essentially told the public, regarding the early reports of anarchic, Post-Katrina violence, “Who are you going to believe, us or your lying eyes?”

The odd thing is, though the reporters writing the cover-up story wouldn’t admit it, the Times-Picayune had itself been the source for the most gruesome stories.

Do the editors now lead staff meetings by saying, “Today, we’re telling the truth about story X, but we’re lying about story Y”?

In any event, for those of you keeping score – and you really need a scorecard – the NOPD is covering up for post-Katrina police looters, while the Times-Picayune is covering up for violent civilian criminals.

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