She was 39 when Jimmie Spratt yanked her off the street, threatened to kill her if she looked his way, and raped her.
It took a decade of pestering, she said, before New Orleans police finally got her rape exam kit tested, and eight years more before she found justice, with Spratt’s 2012 conviction for raping her and two others over a span of less than six months in 1994. In the meantime, the serial rapist had gone on to assault several women in Tennessee.
“It seemed like they brought me to Charity (Hospital), and that was it,” the woman, whose initials are S.M, said. “Right away I could tell the cops weren’t doing anything. It’s a universal problem of wanting rape victims to go away. You feel disposable.”
So the woman, now 60, spent Saturday morning marching down Rampart Street and thrusting a sign high in the air: “NOPD: Do your job!”
More than 100 others marched with her, many of them wearing blue tape across their mouths as they headed silently for City Hall, to share stories of dismissive police responses to their rape allegations, and to demand more action amid the latest outcry over the New Orleans Police Department’s handling of reported sexual assaults.
The signs bore messages such as: “How many more?,” “New Orleans citizens deserve better,” “If only the cops were as supportive as my bra” and “NOPD: Not Our Problem Dude.”
The peaceful march from the 1st District police station came a month after New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office released a scathing report on the work of five New Orleans police detectives who handled sex crime cases from 2011 to 2013. The five, who were among 16 detectives in the NOPD’s Special Victims Section, relegated the majority of nearly 1,300 reported sex crimes to the “miscellaneous” bin, leaving no paper trail, according to the report.
Among the 450 cases in which the IG’s Office investigators found an initial, cursory sketch of the allegation, files on 60 percent of them contained no supplemental reports detailing any additional investigative work.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and new NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison did not quibble with the findings of the IG’s probe, and Landrieu pledged a complete overhaul of the Sex Crimes Unit.
All five detectives have been suspended pending the outcome of an internal investigation, and Harrison set up a task force to reinvestigate 271 cases flagged by Quatrevaux’s office. Criminal charges could follow for the detectives and perhaps others, Harrison said.
But the sentiment among the crowd Saturday was that the city can’t be trusted to fix its own mess. Many of the stories that demonstrators presented involved alleged sexual assaults and police responses that took place before or after the three-year time period the IG investigated, and that involved other detectives.
Among the group’s most pointed demands was for an external probe of the NOPD’s entire sex crimes caseload over the past five years.
“My case happened so long ago. I think about how many others, just since mine, how many unprosecuted, uninvestigated cases there were,” said Aubrey Warren, who told the crowd of being raped by an employee after a night in 2003 at a bar on Magazine Street. Police, she said, never wrote up a report.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Quatrevaux’s report, according to organizers of Saturday’s event, was the apparent disposal of 840 cases that were assigned to the five detectives and then coded “Signal 21,” or miscellaneous. That meant they were never counted anywhere as reported crimes.
“It obviously means rape cases are being ignored, but the problem is that a lot of the advocacy groups rely on public funding based on the stats reported by police,” said Laura Hope, an associate professor of theater at Loyola University who helped organize Saturday’s event. “So when you underreport rapes, not only is it shoddy police work, but you’re also taking money away from the very people who are there to help survivors.”
Hope and a colleague, Erin Dupuis, said they were troubled by an earlier report by Quatrevaux’s office, released in May, that sampled 90 reported rapes and found dozens were misclassified. That audit, which then-NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas vigorously challenged, pointed Quatrevaux’s office toward the five detectives for a deeper look.
When the second report hit on Nov. 12, “we were just sort of beside ourselves,” Hope said.
“It’s not acceptable for the NOPD to investigate itself on these matters,” Dupuis told the crowd.
A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice detailed many of the same problems that Quatrevaux’s office found. Among them were many cases of poorly documented “miscellaneous” classifications and detectives who seemed to dismiss victims’ claims or to ask them accusatory questions — a criticism that echoed through Saturday’s protest.
Also walking down Rampart Street on Saturday was Maria Treme, a Mid-City woman who has come forward to expose police missteps in handling her allegation of being drugged and raped this year by multiple men at the Country Club, a Bywater club that had a clothing-optional pool. Treme said she feels “some slight validation” from Quatrevaux’s report.
“I definitely had my moments of feeling very alone in this situation. People were looking at it like I’m crazy and overreacted,” Treme said. “I can look at this (report) and see how it’s (messed) up. How did these people get away with not doing their jobs?”
Angel Bruno, a French Quarter bartender, marched with one arm over a crutch. She said she still has nightmares from a rape during a paid massage. She eventually dropped the case after she was told the chances of a successful prosecution were slim. She called the IG’s findings appalling.
“This is a joke. It’s ridiculous. There’s so much sweeping under the rug,” she said. “I’m glad we’re doing things like this (protest), but there’s no guarantee.”
Saturday’s march came with a police escort under the group’s permit from the city.
Ali Duffey, who counsels local sexual assault victims, called it “heartbreaking” to think women she’s helped got little or no attention from police. Still, Duffey sounded optimistic that the IG’s report will prompt true reform.
“This is a great opportunity to turn things around,” she said.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.