Michael Perlstein, New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 18, 2006
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.
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.”
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?”
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.”