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New Orleans officers disciplined over allegations of looting

NEW ORLEANS—In the wake of allegations of looting after Hurricane Katrina, the city's police department has suspended four officers and reassigned one, acting police Superintendent Warren Riley announced Thursday.

In all, he said, 12 officers are the targets of an internal investigation into allegations of "unauthorized appropriation of non-essential items."

"If it is determined that any of the officers participated, swift and determined action will be taken," Riley said. "The more than 2,000 men and women of the New Orleans Police Department stand united in not letting a few individuals tarnish the image of this great department."

Riley said it's not clear if the four suspended officers took part in any looting, but videotapes show them standing by and not pursuing looters.

The department also is looking into reports that officers participated in the theft of cars from a New Orleans dealership. Riley said the dealership reported about 250 cars missing.

Some of those vehicles were taken by nonofficers, he said, and some vehicles, including a Cadillac Seville and other luxury cars, were commandeered by police for patrols.

Riley said the department had explained the situation to the dealer and had tracked down at least 100 missing cars.

He said the investigation into the missing cars was separate from the probe into the charges of looting.

Riley denied that the probe had destabilized the already embattled New Orleans Police Department. He said that more than 1,400 officers are patrolling the city's streets, along with 1,000 federal agents and 3,500 military personnel.

Thursday's announcement capped a turbulent week for the department. Police Chief Eddie Compass announced his retirement on Tuesday, a day after the department said that 249 officers were being investigated for not being at their posts in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

Compass had come under increasing criticism for his handling of the hurricane response. Both he and Mayor Ray Nagin also have come under fire as doubt has been cast on many of the stories they told the national media at the height of the catastrophe, including accounts of shootouts between police and criminals in the Superdome and the city's convention center, snipers firing on rescuers and rapes of "babies."

Thursday's announcement that a dozen officers were being investigated for possible looting drew a range of reactions.

"It's wrong," said Roger Addison, 44, of the West Bank in New Orleans. "We can't do it, why should they do it? They're not above the law. Nobody's above the law."

But city resident Lisa Fountain, 39, saw it differently.

"The police had to do what they had to do because they had no supplies," she said. "If you were there, and it was your family, wouldn't you loot, too? The police had to survive; they had no choice."

Compass said Monday that 249 officers weren't at their posts during the storm and that the reasons for their absence were being investigated.

Riley said Thursday that many of those officers were trapped on roofs or had left to aid family members.

Riley said the department had waited to announce the investigation into possible looting by police because investigators were trying to obtain videotapes of the alleged misconduct.

The department, when Katrina struck, consisted of 1,641 commissioned officers—in addition to the 249 officers who may have been AWOL—and 110 recruits, Riley said. Forty officers were out with injuries.

The storm took its toll on the department in many ways. The department lost 500 cars in floodwater. Two officers committed suicide, and the department took a serious blow to its morale when so many officers went missing.

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(Ott reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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