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Witnesses: New Orleans cops among looters

At least a dozen officers investigated; TV video used in probe

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Capt. Marlon DeFillo says the police department has "zero tolerance" for misconduct.

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
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NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- Four New Orleans police officers have been suspended and one has been reassigned over allegations of looting in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, acting Police Superintendent Warren Riley said Thursday.

The city's police department is investigating reports that at least 12 police officers may have gone on a looting spree in the days after the storm hit.

The probe began after police officials reviewed videos from news reports, Riley said, without elaborating.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. acknowledged his office was investigating "two separate incidents of potential looting by law enforcement" but would not identify the jurisdictions involved.

The officers are alleged to have taken non-essential items like televisions or jewelry or to not have acted against looting.

Riley promised "swift and decisive action" against any violators, saying, "There is zero tolerance for misconduct or unprofessionalism by any member of this department."

His announcement of the probe came two days after the abrupt resignation of police superintendent Eddie Compass. Mayor Ray Nagin named Riley to replace him.

A department spokesman said Compass' resignation was not related to the looting probe. Riley also called the reports that some 250 officers abandoned their duties "simply not true." He said a list of those officers was being examined to identify deserters, adding that some were off the job for legitimate reasons.

"When we lost telephone service and radio communication, some officers were stranded on their rooftops for four to five days, stranded in areas around the water due to rising water or displaced into other units or divisions," Riley said.

"We had to rescue our own police officers," Riley said. "Clearly, not everyone on that list is a deserter."

At present, more than 1,400 police officers are working 12-hour shifts, along with federal agents and the military, he said.

"The more than 2,000 men and women of this agency stand united in not letting a very small segment of members tarnish the great reputation of this department," Riley said. He added that they should be commended for "30 days of tremendous challenges."

One incident that Foti's probe is focusing on took place at Amerihost Inn and Suites just days after the storm hit, said police spokesman Capt. Marlon DeFillo. It was captured on tape by a reporter from WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge and a photographer from WAFF-TV in Huntsville, Alabama.

Officials viewed the TV news video showing an officer reaching for a gun as he blocked media from a door to the 10th floor, where he and seven other police officers were thought to be staying, DeFillo said .(See the video behind the investigation -- 3:50)

The hotel's owner, Osman Khan, told CNN that on the night of August 29, when the city flooded, 70 police officers had moved into his Canal Street hotel. He said that 62 went out to fight looters and thugs on the streets, while eight launched a four-day drinking and looting binge.

"They'd leave [at] nine or 10 at night and come back 4:30 in the morning," carrying "everything from Adidas shoes to Rolex watches," Khan said.

The eight officers were drinking almost all of the time, said hotel engineer Perry Emery, and when he came to the men's 10th floor room to bring towels, he saw "jewelry, generators, fans."

"One time they came back with a bunch of weapons," Emery said. He said he had no doubts about what he witnessed: "These were New Orleans police officers -- looting."

One generator, Khan said, was stolen -- as he watched -- from Tulane University Hospital next door. He added that the officers ran an extension cord to a refrigerator in their room to keep their beer cold.

The reporter and photographer who confronted the police officer at the 10th-floor door reported that a source told them the people inside the room were New Orleans police.

Several other witnesses said police are continuing to loot unoccupied homes.

Erlaine McLaurin said she saw two police cars pull up to an apartment building down the street from where she lives. Then she and her father watched as two officers walked inside and came out with their arms full.

"They [filled] up the white car, the police car," McLaurin said. "He got a four-pack of soda, a microwave, CD player. Put that in," she said. "I know everybody that lives here. Ain't no cops live here."

In the building, seven of 12 apartment doors appear to have been kicked, pushed or battered off their frames. It did not appear likely that rescue workers broke down the doors because the neighborhood wasn't flooded.

City resident Steve Thomas said he watched police kick in the door to a Lower Garden District home. He has no doubt he saw the officers looting, he said.

"They got police escorts coming in here, breaking in houses and taking the stuff," he said.

CNN's Drew Griffin and Kyra Phillips contributed to this report.

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