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Looter patrol to crack down in N.O.;
New squad to focus on ravaged areas

By Michael Perlstein, Staff writer

It was an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning in the nearly deserted post-Katrina landscape when State Police troopers saw a man leaving a Foot Locker store in Lake Forest Plaza with a pair of $150 sneakers, police said. At nearby Eastlake Mall about two hours later, two New York officers saw four men outside another Foot Locker franchise loading a vehicle with more than $15,000 worth of shoes.

Whether for personal comfort or profit, looting is looting in the storm-ravaged metro area and law enforcement is sending a strong signal that it won't be tolerated.

"It's unconscionable that some of our citizens have decided to take advantage of this natural disaster," Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said at a news conference Monday. "It's indefensible. It violates every code of morality. And it's against the law."

The five suspects arrested and booked with looting Sunday joined 342 others who have been picked up in Jefferson and Orleans parishes since Katrina left much of the area virtually unprotected from opportunistic thieves.

The bulk of those arrests, 276, have been made in Jefferson, which experienced less flooding and property damage and handed lawbreakers greater opportunities. In New Orleans, 71 suspects have been accused of looting, 10 of them arrested by a recently ramped-up antilooting task force, acting Police Superintendent Warren Riley said.

The crime of looting carries up to 15 years in prison, compared to a maximum of 12 years for a garden-variety burglary. In fact, the crime statutes are identical except that looting takes place when "normal security of property is not present by virtue of a hurricane, flood, fire, act of God, or force majeure of any kind."

With typical deterrents like streetlights, alarm systems and vigilant neighbors swept away by the hurricane, looting has been a high-priority concern among displaced residents. To help police, Crimestoppers is offering rewards starting at $500 to anonymous tipsters who report "someone in the act of looting or a person in possession of stolen property," Director Darlene Cusanza said.

"The cash reward of $500 will increase depending on the nature and the value of the goods recovered," Cusanza said. The looting of firearms is one urgent priority that could enhance a reward, she said.

In Jefferson Parish, Deputy Chief Fred Williams said Sheriff's Office patrols are fully staffed and ready to respond to any suspicious activity.

In New Orleans, Capt. Bruce Adams has been named commander of a new anti-looting unit made up of 50 Louisiana troopers, 50 New York troopers and 98 officers pulled from now-dormant squads such as public housing, schools, crime prevention and courts.

The squad operates citywide, but is concentrating on the hard-hit and largely uninhabited neighborhoods of Lakeview, Gentilly, the 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans, Riley said.

In one case, members of work crew that was emptying debris from a house were seen taking undamaged property from a neighboring house. In another, men were loading a U-Haul trailer with a television and appliances.

But most of the looting seen so far, Adams said, is the grab-and-run variety.

"It's more opportunistic than professional. We've been expecting more organized gangs to come to the city, but we haven't seen that yet," he said.

Riley said the squad will remain in place as long as necessary before normal district patrols can handle the workload. Even when the unit isn't making arrests, it can act as a deterrent, officials said.

Keeping looting to a minimum could help convince some displaced residents to return, Jordan said.

"We're not going to be able to rebuild New Orleans until we secure safety for every individual and their property," he said.

. . . . . . .

Anyone with information about looting or other crimes is asked to call Crimestoppers at (504) 822-1111 or toll-free at 1 (877) 903-7867. Callers do not have to give their names or testify and can earn up to $500 or more for tips that lead to an arrest.

Michael Perlstein can be reached at [email protected] or (504) 826-3316.[
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