Responding to an inspector general’s audit that uncovered dozens of misclassified rapes, New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas acknowledged Wednesday there is room for improvement in the department’s crime reporting, even as he disputed the audit and insisted no one under his watch has attempted to “game the stats.”
While Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said he found no sign the reporting errors were intentional, the audit marked the latest in a string of studies that have revealed improper downgrading of crimes by the NOPD and raised troubling questions about the accuracy of the department’s crime statistics — figures published by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program that supposedly offer an annual snapshot of how safe the city is.
Allegations of downgrading followed Serpas to New Orleans after he left the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department in 2010, and similar concerns emerged last year in a legislative audit and a separate inspector general’s report that found police misclassified scores of thefts in and around the French Quarter.
Nearly a third of the incidents reviewed in the legislative audit should have been reported as serious crimes to the state and FBI but weren’t for a host of reasons, including a computer bug and misclassifications.
But Serpas emphasized Wednesday that none of those examinations attributed reporting deficiencies to any legerdemain on the part of NOPD officers. He said state experts with the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, who recently audited 20 sexual assault cases worked by the department, “supported us overwhelmingly in our classification of investigations and reporting rapes.”
“The key issue here is that no investigation has determined, in our time, that there was any purposeful miscalculations,” Serpas told reporters. “We just try to get it right, and if someone points out where we can do it better, of course we want to. But when we can point out that our detectives have made the right choices as supported by state experts, we don’t know how anybody could choose to disagree with that.”
Quatrevaux’s latest audit was prompted by the department’s 2012 crime data, which according to FBI statistics showed forcible rape in New Orleans — a city that has one of the highest murder rates in the country — was 43 percent lower than in 24 other cities with the highest crime rates. The audit, which covered June 2010 to May 2013, found the NOPD misclassified nearly half of the 90 offenses reviewed by the Inspector General’s Office, often by filing cases as “miscellaneous incidents.”
The misuse of the “miscellaneous” classification, known in police parlance as a Signal 21, has been a well-documented problem in the department. In 2009, The Times-Picayune found that 60 percent of all sexual-assault calls in 2008 had been labeled miscellaneous incidents, an eyebrow-raising percentage. Serpas, after taking office in 2010, ordered a review of those cases, many of which were reopened, and an audit by the state law enforcement commission later determined that a third of 93 cases had been misclassified.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which conducted a wide-ranging review of the NOPD leading to a court-ordered overhaul of the department, reported in 2011 that officers had “systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape and other sex crimes.” That review also alluded to the pitfalls of the “miscellaneous” category, a designation where many sexual assault investigations apparently met an abrupt end.
Quatrevaux’s audit also pointed to several cases in which it said rapes were improperly classified as miscellaneous incidents when allegations were deemed “unfounded.” Unfounded complaints don’t affect the tally of rapes published by the national Uniform Crime Reporting program, but the figures are examined by the FBI for any statistical aberrations in how many rape complaints departments determine to be unfounded.
The audit recommended the department do away with the miscellaneous classification altogether. “Miscellaneous is not a code for rapes,” Quatrevaux said in a radio interview Wednesday with WWL.
Serpas and Quatrevaux also differ sharply on whether police should report all known forcible-rape offenses, regardless of whether a victim chooses to cooperate.
On Wednesday, Serpas sought to underscore the progress he said the NOPD rape unit has made during his tenure. “When we got here in 2010, the unit, quite honestly, was a dismal failure,” he said. Since that time, he said, the department has “cleared up” more than 800 backlogged rape kits and “accepted as a principle that our detectives should investigate to prove a crime happened — not to disprove a victim and survivor.”
“As a result of that, an unmistakable fact is that in the last four years of our time,” Serpas added, “we have reported 70 percent more sexual assaults to the state of Louisiana following the rules as we believe the rules should be followed.”
Robert Mehrtens, deputy director of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, said in a telephone interview that Serpas has taken positive steps to improve the department’s classification and crime reporting. Of the 20 sexual assault cases the commission recently reviewed, four had been misclassified — a result Mehrtens characterized as “basically passing muster.”
“Everything we’ve asked him to improve in the reporting, he’s done,” Mehrtens said of Serpas. “He has opened a line of communication with us and is actually telling me, ‘If we’re wrong, tell us.’ ”
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