When New Orleans’ Inspector General’s Office issued a pair of scathing reports a couple of years back documenting a horrifying level of official indifference toward victims who sought help from the New Orleans Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit, I likened then-new chief Michael Harrison’s plight to that of former Superintendent Richard Pennington.
Former New Orleans Police Superintendent Richard Pennington’s rough welcome to town 20 years…
Pennington, recruited in 1994 by then-Mayor Marc Morial to turn around a dysfunctional police force, quickly learned upon his arrival 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 while under surveillance, one of those cops had arranged the murder of a woman who’d filed a brutality report against him.
As locals know, Pennington and the NOPD rose to the occasion and changed the department’s course for the better, although there was considerable backsliding afterward. And according to a new report from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, Harrison, promoted from within by Mayor Mitch Landrieu not long before the initial reports on the Sex Crime unit became public, has followed in Pennington’s footsteps.
If many New Orleans residents were mortified to learn that cops were routinely downgrading reported rapes, refusing to conduct basic investigations and outright demeaning victims who made the difficult decision to come forward, then Harrison stood beside Quatrevaux and let it be known he was right there with them.
The initial reports found that detectives had failed to pursue a majority of complaints over a three-year period and 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 Inspector General’s Office also found evidence that detectives had covered up their lax work when missing documentation was requested two or three years later. Investigators identified reports that had been thrown together long after the fact, including several that were wrongfully backdated.
Chilling anecdotes brought those numbers home. Detectives didn’t investigate after a toddler was brought to the emergency room with a sexually transmitted disease, nor when another child had both new and old skull fractures. There was no follow-up in cases in which DNA evidence was collected and when rape kits were completed but not submitted. One detective declined to submit the rape kit after claiming the sex was consensual and apparently didn’t investigate a victim’s allegations that her assailant was threatening her via text message.
The same detective told at least three people that simple rape, or sexual encounters in which the victim is too impaired to consent, shouldn’t be considered a crime. That would come as news to the not-exactly-progressive Louisiana Legislature, which deemed it an offense worthy of up to 25 years imprisonment.
Quatrevaux’s follow-up report, out last week, was every bit as stunning, but this time in a good way.
In what New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux praised as a “spectacular” transformatio…
Leadership in the division was quickly replaced, and the new report recounts a recent pristine audit in which complaints were properly classified, pursued and overseen.
Reported rapes are up, which would normally be considered a bad thing. But here it suggests cops are no longer routinely downgrading complaints — and also that victims may now feel more confidence in coming forward. All this despite the department’s long-standing staffing challenges.
Quatrevaux called the turnaround nothing short of spectacular, one of the best he’s ever seen. “What was bad before is very good now,” he said.
If the change reflects well on Harrison’s NOPD, it also underscores the value of an independent inspector general. In justifying the cost of supporting their operations, inspectors general often point to the money they can save local governments by identifying waste, fraud and abuse, and the help they’re able to provide in uncovering public corruption. Just as important is the sort of wake-up call they can provide via audits like this one.
In a letter included in the new inspector general sex crimes report, Harrison reiterated that he found the conditions the initial report identified “unacceptable,” outlined steps the department had taken to fix things and told Quatrevaux that he “sincerely appreciates our continuing partnership.”
Given the result here, he’s surely not the only one who does.