Police departments around the country flounder in their investigations of rape because they are too busy judging victims to catch perpetrators. Our New Orleans Police Department has too often shared in this national trend — despite promising reforms made at the beginning of this administration, the old problems crept back.
A recent scathing audit of several detectives investigating sex crimes made national news. For what it’s worth, it turns out that the audit results were exaggerated by NOPD’s flawed record keeping. Hundreds of the “miscellaneous” cases were, in fact, routine sex offender checks, and many more of the missing investigative reports were located elsewhere.
More-accurate record keeping would have demonstrated mere mediocrity rather than utter failure, but the audit had the advantage of spurring swift action. Superintendent Michael Harrison, appointed just before the scandal, quickly made necessary changes in the chain of command.
The mayor appointed an advisory committee and charged us with creating immediate and fundamental systemic reform. The committee included advocates like myself, a rape survivor, and high-ranking officials in NOPD, the District Attorney’s Office and the Mayor’s Office.
I have never seen anything like the speed and thoughtfulness of this process. The committee’s report does not present the typical set of flowery proposals for consideration by the city. Instead, it lists dozens of practical reforms, most of which already have been accomplished or are well on their way. The city and Police Department agreed to our recommendations and helped improve and implement them at breakneck speed.
None of us let the usual bureaucratic obstacles get in the way — so much so that when we realized current state law stood in the way of a policy reform, we sought help from the New Orleans legislative delegation and changed the law.
Our top priority was to give detectives the resources they need to do this hard work. The superintendent has committed to doubling the number of detectives in the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse units as quickly as possible and is bringing in civilian investigators to help immediately.
The committee looked for ways to make the Special Victims Unit elite, a place that would reward, attract and retain the best and the brightest. There are (and always have been) some extraordinary men and women there, even when it has seemed like an untenable caseload could tank your career. The job is emotionally exhausting and requires an unusual mix of empathy and stoicism. The quickest and most effective way to create this culture change is to give SVU detectives the kind of special pay earned by other divisions. The superintendent has agreed to that pay (subject to the requisite Civil Service approval).
Beyond creating structures to select and intensively train the right detectives, the committee also worked to create a lasting framework to ensure the quality of their work. Together with NOPD, we created a detailed Policies and Procedures manual based on national best practices. These also include structured methods of supervision, from investigative checklists to acting on feedback from victims.
As another method of quality control, detectives will begin presenting their cases to a multidisciplinary team of supervisors, prosecutors and advocates, a process already required in child abuse cases. The team will provide constant feedback and instruction about the quality of investigations.
NOPD has created policy changes to prevent any future sexual assault kit backlogs and will hire a DNA evidence coordinator to make sure. The city will fund the immediate testing of the current backlog at a private lab.
Finally, the committee focused on the fundamental issue of treating survivors of sexual assault with dignity. The Sex Crimes Unit has moved to the New Orleans Family Justice Center, where victims can endure the trauma of describing their rapes in a place that offers immediate access to counseling and other resources. And NOPD already has begun hiring three social workers for the unit who can respond to the scene of each rape and help the victim for the many long months ahead.
NOPD has done extraordinary work to permanently reform its response to sexual assault. Victims need to know that they can trust NOPD so it can catch serial rapists and keep our families safe.
Tania Tetlow is the Felder-Fayard professor at Tulane Law School. She chaired the Sexual Assault Reform Advisory Committee.