Former New Orleans Police Superintendent Richard Pennington’s rough welcome to town 20 years ago is the stuff of legend. Recruited by newly elected Mayor Marc Morial to take over a deeply dysfunctional force, Pennington soon learned that things were even worse than he’d thought.
An FBI drug sting, it turned out, had unearthed evidence against a dozen active officers. And soon came news that, while under surveillance, one of the cops had managed to arrange the murder of a woman who’d filed a supposedly confidential brutality report against him.
After last week’s blockbuster inspector general report detailing rampant disregard by five detectives for victims of alleged sex crimes, I’m guessing that new Police Chief Michael Harrison, promoted from the ranks by Mayor Mitch Landrieu after Ronal Serpas’ resignation, is feeling about as shell-shocked as Pennington did back in 1994.
Other than the post-Katrina police killings of unarmed civilians and subsequent cover-ups, I can’t think of any revelation since the bad old days that resonated quite so much, that cast NOPD in as devastating a light, that did so much to undercut public confidence.
In the aggregate, the report describes a stunning level of indifference toward people who’d made the often difficult decision to seek help from the cops in the first place.
Over the course of three years, the detectives, who were initially placed on patrol but have since been put on desk duty, failed to follow up on a majority of complaints. They classified 65 percent of 1,290 service calls assigned to them as “miscellaneous,” which meant the files contained so little information that investigators couldn’t analyze them. Of the remaining 35 percent, or 450, the detectives followed up only 179 times.
The individual examples bring those appalling numbers home. There was no investigation after a toddler was brought to the emergency room with a sexually transmitted disease, nor when doctors determined another child had not just a fresh skull fracture but an old one. There was no follow-up in cases in which there was DNA evidence, and when rape kits were completed but not submitted. In one case, the detective declined to forward the kit because “the sex was consensual.” The same detective apparently didn’t investigate a victim’s allegations that her assailant was threatening her via text message.
This detective, by the way, told at least three people that simple rape, a category that includes a sexual encounter in which the victim is too impaired to consent, shouldn’t be considered a crime — even though the Louisiana Legislature, not exactly known for its progressive leanings, deemed it an offense worthy of up to 25 years in prison.
Then there were the cover-ups, several reports thrown together when missing documentation was requested two or three years after the fact. Investigators say several of these reports were wrongfully backdated.
And of course, the investigation revealed a genuinely shocking breakdown in supervision and oversight.
The one government function in this whole mess that worked is the inspector general process. Struck by a lack of documentation in an initial audit, Ed Quatrevaux’s investigators dug deep and got the goods. The report should put to rest, once and for all, any complaints over the money the city spends to keep the office running, and also remind other parishes that the function is a vital one.
So far, Harrison’s handled the situation well, too. He stood alongside Quatrevaux when the report was released, vowed to change the culture and ordered those old investigations reopened.
Like Pennington before him, the timing actually works to Harrison’s advantage because the offenses didn’t take place on his watch. He’s got no reason to be defensive and every opportunity to try to make things right, even as he deals with low morale, anemic staffing, a contentious federal civil rights consent decree and an intractable murder problem.
And like Pennington, I’m guessing this is one opportunity he wishes he never had in the first place.