A 3-year-old child showed up at the emergency room after an alleged sexual assault and was diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, yet a New Orleans police detective saw nothing to warrant a criminal investigation.
Another detective was assigned 11 simple rape cases over a three-year period, but she forwarded just one to the District Attorney’s Office — possibly because, as she told others, she didn’t think simple rape should be a crime.
A third detective in the same unit documented no results from a rape exam kit he said he submitted to State Police for testing, when in fact the evidence never left the NOPD’s evidence room. The same sex-crimes detective scrambled last year to write up four investigative reports that were found to be missing from his files — backdating them by years.
It’s been a running lament for years among victims and prosecutors alike: Reported sex crimes get swept under the rug in New Orleans, whether from pressure to suppress the numbers or because lackadaisical detectives can’t be bothered to put together a case.
A scathing report released Wednesday by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux lent support to those suspicions, citing the shoddy or nonexistent work of five detectives in the NOPD’s Special Victims Section. Those detectives, the report said, failed to document any follow-up investigations in the majority of cases assigned to them for the three years ending Dec. 31.
Nor did their supervisors hold them accountable for failing to justify dropping 840 calls for service into the “miscellaneous” bin, leaving Quatrevaux’s office with nothing to review in those cases. Of the 450 combined cases for which the five detectives wrote brief initial reports or notes, supplemental reports documenting further investigation were lacking in 60 percent of them, the report states.
All told, Quatrevaux’s office found the five detectives had authorized just 179 supplemental reports from 2011 to 2013 — an average of one per month for each detective.
Quatrevaux presented the report’s findings at a news conference Wednesday at NOPD headquarters, flanked by new NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison and Arlinda Westbrook, head of the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau, which launched its own investigation this week based on the findings.
“These failures do have serious human consequences for all, and 15 involve children,” Quatrevaux said. “These revelations suggest an indifference to our citizens that won’t be tolerated.”
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said she was “shocked and dismayed by today’s revelation of the unconscionable mishandling of sex crimes” by the detectives, and she vowed to address the issue.
“For these victims, a wrong has been committed that cannot be undone, and I will work to ensure that swift actions are taken to ensure that future victims will not be treated callously by the system that is supposed to protect them,” Guidry said.
All five reassigned
The five detectives — Akron Davis, Vernon Haynes, Merrell Merricks, Derrick Williams and Damita Williams — have all been reassigned to patrol duty, Harrison said, though he said they have yet to face any discipline.
Davis was assigned to the Child Abuse Unit, while the other four were in the Sex Crimes Unit, which is usually staffed with eight or nine detectives — meaning nearly half of the unit apparently was exceedingly lazy, dismissive or worse.
The Special Victims Unit overall has 16 detectives and seven supervisors, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
Harrison said some supervisors also have been booted from the section.
The five officers face possible criminal charges for their alleged failure to investigate reports of possible crimes or, in the case of two detectives, if their backdating of reports proves to be intentional, Harrison said.
Aside from a few mostly minor infractions, partial personnel records provided by the Civil Service Department on Wednesday showed little to suggest the five detectives have been seen as sore spots for the department.
Facing the first major departmental black eye of his three-month tenure as police chief, Harrison said he was “deeply disturbed” by the allegations and that he has taken steps already to make sure the problems don’t happen again, including appointing a task force to take a “deep dive” into the allegations. Harrison said the department has checked into the 15 cases involving alleged juvenile victims and has made sure that all of them are safe.
“It’s our duty to protect and serve. We’re going to take that seriously. In this case it appears these five detectives may have neglected our duty,” Harrison said. “Sex crimes are some of the most heinous crimes we can investigate. Victims have no time to wait, and they deserve better.”
The report is only the latest smear on a sex-crimes detective squad that over the years has seemed to defy the kind of cultural about-face that Harrison insists is underway in the Police Department.
Serpas had claimed progress
The time span covered in the report fell within the tenure of former NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who earlier this year claimed major progress with the rape unit under his watch, as he challenged a May audit report by Quatrevaux’s office claiming the misclassification of dozens of reported rapes.
Serpas credited the supposed improvements for a rise in reported sexual assault figures citywide, saying the department had “accepted as a principle that our detectives should investigate to prove a crime happened — not to disprove a victim and survivor.”
“When we got here in 2010, the unit, quite honestly, was a dismal failure,” Serpas said.
The report issued Wednesday argued that, at least for the five detectives, “widespread failure” persisted. It said two of the detectives failed to file supplemental police reports in at least 85 percent of the cases assigned to them.
Among its recommendations, the report called for the NOPD to investigate 271 cases where the files showed “no supplemental reports documenting any investigative effort beyond the initial report.”
But Quatrevaux also pointed to the 840 cases that never got that far. The dispatch notes for those calls are usually sketchy and rarely include a victim’s name, so there’s nothing for the Inspector General’s Office or police to review, Quatrevaux said.
“That’s 840 service calls we, the NOPD and the public know nothing about,” Quatrevaux said, “and that’s intolerable for a government.”
The 2-year-old federal consent decree mandating an array of reforms to the NOPD lays out a series of strict requirements and extra training for sex-crimes detectives and their supervisors. The mandates include a one-year ban on officers or detectives coding reported sexual assaults “in a miscellaneous or non-criminal category without the express written approval” of top-level commanders. Following the yearlong ban, only the sex-crimes detectives can code reported sex crimes as miscellaneous, and even they must get written approval from a supervisor or commander.
Those demands followed a 2011 U.S. Justice Department report that found myriad problems with sexual assault investigations in the NOPD, including “problematic” interviewing techniques such as asking “blaming or leading questions” of reported victims, and the routine failure of detectives to seek out witnesses or interview suspects.
Westbrook said she has already requested the court-appointed monitor assigned to oversee the consent decree to watch over PIB’s investigation of the detectives’ conduct.
Howard Schwartz, the first assistant inspector general who led the latest investigation, said the IG’s Office provided the Police Department early last month with information on the 15 cases involving alleged juvenile victims, and it delivered the rest of the undocumented cases to the NOPD on Oct. 15.
Of the 450 cases where the detectives had written something, none of the reports were complete, Schwartz said.
“We’re not saying that they’re all crimes. We can’t say that. We’re just saying there’s no documentation for what they did,” Schwartz said of the 271 cases with no investigative reports.
“Until that’s done, nobody’s gong to be satisfied. It’s up to them to reinvestigate. Whatever it takes to answer that question,” he said.
That’s not to say no investigations were done, he noted. Doctors’ reports, DNA lab results and reports from sexual assault nurses and other sources were completed.
“Things were done. Just not by these detectives,” Schwartz said.
He said District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office asked Quatrevaux not to reveal the names of the detectives, who are identified only as Detectives A through E in the report. The NOPD, however, released the names after the news conference Wednesday.
Two of the detectives — Merricks and Derrick Williams — are accused of ginning up reports that they backdated as far back as 2010 after Quatrevaux’s office asked the NOPD to provide missing reports last year. Based on information from the city’s information technology office, all six reports from the two detectives were filed on the same day in 2013, Schwartz said.
Harrison said, however, that administrative or criminal action against the two detectives would depend on whether there is proof they backdated the reports to cover up their failings.
Overall, the five detectives forwarded 105 cases to Cannizzaro’s office for prosecution over the three years, and the DA accepted 74 of them — after the office was forced to gather much of the required documentation and investigate the cases on its own, the report said.
Cannizzaro “intends to personally work with Chief Harrison to provide him whatever assistance he may need to help him resolve these issues,” a spokesman said in a statement. “The conduct of the detectives, as described in the IG’s report, is, at a minimum, extremely disturbing.”
Quatrevaux’s office homed in on the five detectives after its audit last year of a sampling of 90 randomly picked sex-crime-related reports. The audit found that the five detectives were tied to the bulk of 23 cases that “aroused significant concerns” over documentation.
The IG investigators then looked at every case the five detectives handled over the three-year period, digging through the case files, tapes of 911 calls, state DNA lab results and medical reports, among other documents.
Schwartz said the NOPD brass cooperated fully with the IG’s investigation.
“I’m confident they’re going to do the right thing and fix this,” he said.
Harrison said detectives are now required to fill out a checklist to verify “that the work is being done,” and supervisors are now required to attend charging conferences with prosecutors.
‘Under the radar’
In an interview on WWL Radio on Wednesday, Serpas said he welcomed the investigation from Quatrevaux’s office and lamented its results, saying it signals an evident breakdown in the chain of supervision over the sex-crimes unit.
“Those are incredibly complex cases, there’s no question about it, but that means you have to step up your game,” Serpas said. “We’ve been fighting with the culture of that particular type of investigator since the day I got here.”
Serpas blamed “a small group here that was obviously getting under the radar.”
Donovan Livaccari, an attorney with the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, urged restraint in casting the detectives in a harsh light.
“Let’s not jump the gun to demonize these five individuals,” Livaccari said. “If this was a systemic problem, it may be something that needs to be addressed through supervisor training.”
Harrison said three of the five detectives were transferred prior to Serpas’ resignation in August and Harrison’s elevation to the chief’s post.
During most of the period covered in the IG’s report, the Special Victims Section was led by Lt. Louis Gaydosh Jr. He was replaced in September 2013 by Lt. Melvin Gilbert Jr., who left in May, days before the release of the earlier audit. Harrison placed a new supervisor, Lt. Gervais Allison, in the post in September.
“We’re not running from it. We’re not hiding from it,” Harrison said. “The investigation will be thorough.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.