If you dialed 911 to report a sex crime in New Orleans over the past three years, chances were pretty good it landed on the ink-free desk of Officer Derrick Williams.
In that case, you still haven’t seen a police report detailing his investigation, because none exists.
According to data from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office, which released a blistering report on Nov. 12 that retrained the national spotlight on the New Orleans Police Department, Williams stands out among the five detectives who are now suspended and face possible criminal charges for a rampant failure to properly handle and document investigations of hundreds of reported sex crimes.
Williams was assigned to 444 emergency dispatch reports of sexual assaults over the three-year period covered in Quatrevaux’s investigation — far more than any of the other four detectives who were targeted based on a random audit last year of rape cases.
He classified more than 90 percent of those 444 calls as “miscellaneous” incidents, for which he left no paper trail. In the other 35 cases, Quatrevaux’s office found a standard, barebones sketch of the complaint but no supplemental reports to show that the detective did any further investigation.
Williams, who arrived in the Sex Crimes Unit in 2007 and was transferred out in July, was assigned 84 more sexual assault reports that weren’t generated from 911 calls. He didn’t document much work on those either, the data show.
All told, Williams penned supplemental reports in only 17 cases from 2011 to 2013, averaging one every nine weeks, according to the IG’s Office.
The report found that Williams and the other four detectives — Merrell Merricks, Vernon Haynes, Damita Williams and Child Abuse Unit Detective Akron Davis — documented follow-up investigations for just 14 percent of the sex-crime-related calls for service that were assigned to them.
Just how nearly a third of the detectives in the NOPD’s Special Victims Section — which includes units dealing with sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence — allegedly got away with doing so little for so long proved hard for Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Michael Harrison to explain last week as they announced a task force to reinvestigate hundreds of sexual assault cases and map out an overhaul of the Sex Crimes Unit.
What’s clear, they acknowledged, is that there was a dearth of supervision over detectives in a unit that has faced years of withering criticism.
Myriad problems found
Some of that criticism came in a 2011 U.S. Justice Department report that found myriad problems in the unit: oddly low reporting of forcible rapes compared with other cities, “grossly inadequate” supervision, expansive use of the “miscellaneous” classification to effectively shut down investigations and “a focus on and effort to, from the outset, ‘prove an allegation false.’ ”
That report, which covered a much wider array of NOPD deficiencies, sparked a federal consent decree that mandates numerous reforms to sex crime investigations. Among them was a ban on patrol officers and detectives coding reported sexual assaults as miscellaneous “Signal 21’s” without written approval from commanders, plus numerous steps to force “direct supervision” of detectives.
According to a May report by a court-appointed monitor overseeing the reform blueprint, the NOPD had not shown full compliance with any of the mandates at that time.
“There was a policy where the detectives were supposed to be communicating and getting permission from the supervisors” for the Signal 21’s, Harrison said at a news conference last week. “So that’s part of the investigation, to find out where we missed that mark. So now we know we missed it. We need to go back and fix it.”
Harrison, who acknowledged being aware of problems with the Sex Crimes Unit before he became chief in August, said some supervisors already had been removed from the unit. Unlike the five detectives, however, it appears none has been suspended pending the outcome of an internal probe into the allegations in Quatrevaux’s report.
A mindset to get rid of cases with “low solvability” was prevalent in the unit as recently as late 2013, said retired Lt. Melvin Gilbert, who commanded the Special Victims Section from September 2013 until he left the force in May.
Gilbert blamed lackadaisical supervision by sergeants who he said failed to keep daily tabs on the detectives’ work, including their explanations for kicking cases to the “miscellaneous” pile.
With 911 calls, responding officers or detectives could call in a signal change over the phone rather than having to file paperwork justifying the change. It wasn’t policy, but according to the numbers in Quatrevaux’s report, it was prevalent.
“If the supervisor was doing what he was supposed to do, you couldn’t get away with it,” Gilbert said. “In my opinion, the supervisors didn’t know what they were doing. They weren’t hands-on enough. You had square pegs in round holes.”
Old mindset continued
Gilbert claims the Signal 21 issue was largely resolved by the time he arrived but that a mindset of clearing cases off the books was not.
Throughout the three-year period for which Quatrevaux’s office looked at every sex crime report handled by the five detectives, the Special Victims Section was overseen by then-Deputy Chief Kirk Bouyelas.
The message from Bouyelas was mixed, Gilbert said. On one hand, he said, Bouyelas said he didn’t care about the statistics.
“Bouyelas told me, ‘I need you to fix this. I don’t care how many open cases we have as long as they’re investigated,’?” Gilbert said.
On the other hand, Bouyelas insisted that performance measures for the sex crimes detectives go up on a scoreboard of sorts maintained in the Investigation and Support Bureau, alongside those of homicide detectives and others.
“It’s the undertone throughout the department. It turns it unconsciously into a competition,” Gilbert said. “The general theme was: ‘We got to clear a case by arrest or we got to get it off the radar. We can’t have any open cases.’ It’s never, ‘You will do such and such.’ But you know it’s there.”
Bouyelas, who retired from the NOPD this year to head up investigations for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, declined to comment, as did Sgt. James Kelly, a key supervisor who was transferred from the Sex Crimes Unit last December after three years.
“They weren’t bad detectives. They just couldn’t manage paperwork,” Gilbert said of the five detectives. “I don’t think any of this was intentional, nor do I think it rises to the level of a crime. It’s the result of a lack of supervision and motivation and training. This is primarily a supervisor and manpower issue.”
Derrick Williams, in particular, was notorious for failing to document his work, and Gilbert said he once wrote him up for it.
“He was a piss-poor paper guy. He needed help,” Gilbert said. “Derrick’s thing was prioritizing. If it was a ‘heater’ case (one with strong leads), he’s on it. But if you got a deal with a mental patient, you don’t have any leads, low solvability ...”
Oddly, despite writing only 17 investigative reports, Williams forwarded 33 cases to Cannizzaro’s office for prosecution over the three years, 26 of which were accepted.
“They’re making arrests,” said Howard Schwartz, the first assistant inspector general who led the investigation. But he said prosecutors would be left to investigate and gather up hospital reports, rape exam kits and other evidence in the cases sent along by the five detectives.
“Work still was done by other people,” Schwartz said. “Not these five detectives.”
Combined, the five submitted 105 cases for prosecution, with 74 of them accepted, according to the report.
Schwartz noted that the supplemental reports the detectives so often failed to write are necessary follow-ups to initial reports that are intentionally kept vague so as to protect the victim — usually lacking even a name or address.
“It could be as simple as a paragraph. I’ve seen one- or two-line supplemental reports that were acceptable,” Schwartz said. “Just some document to show the investigative steps (taken) to determine it wasn’t a crime or wasn’t a legitimate complaint.”
Detective Damita Williams — who, according to the IG’s report, told people she didn’t believe simple rape should be a crime — wrote one supplemental report from the 113 cases assigned to her from 911 calls.
Merricks was assigned 174 cases from 911 calls. As with Derrick Williams, none of them resulted in a supplemental report, according to the data in the IG’s report.
Haynes, a 13-year veteran of the Special Victims Unit before he was transferred a day before the release of the report, wrote supplemental reports in 14 cases that stemmed from 911 calls — the best of the lot.
In Gilbert’s view, Haynes was the best detective in the unit. Yet Quatrevaux’s report slammed Haynes for allegedly failing to follow up in three separate cases where State Police found evidence from a DNA test. The detective’s name also came up Friday, when a Texas woman accused him of dismissing her rape allegations against a hotel security guard from an incident this past Mardi Gras.
“I felt like I was bothering him,” the woman said at a news conference Friday.
Cmdr. Paul Noel, who heads up the new task force that will investigate hundreds of cases identified by the IG’s Office, said that case would be among them.
A spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge cautioned against a rush to judge Haynes or any of the other detectives.
“I am sure the review will show that the proper steps were taken by Detective Haynes. The case was never closed,” FOP attorney Donovan Livaccari said about the new allegation. “Unfortunately, the severe manpower crisis has affected the efficiency of every unit in the NOPD.”
Gilbert and others also cited manpower shortages in a Special Victims Section with 16 detectives, including eight assigned to the Sex Crimes Unit.
Retired Lt. Dave Benelli, who commanded the Sex Crimes Unit from 1998 to 2006, said he had 14 detectives assigned to rape cases alone.
“I think the report is indicative of a systematic problem, that you had so many cases that were not being properly followed up,” said Benelli, now an investigator for Cannizzaro’s office. “It doesn’t look good. It took more than four people to get to that point.”
Benelli said it takes a special breed of detective to work cases that are viewed as some of the toughest to investigate.
“It’s a lot more than being a cop. It’s dealing with a human being during the worst thing that could ever happen to them and understanding this is an individual who has just lost a lot of self-esteem, who really can’t talk to their friends and family about what happened because to them it’s disgusting,” Benelli said. “You have to have a special character trait to have people comfortable talking to you. It’s a tough deal.”
Ronal Serpas, the NOPD superintendent throughout the period covered in the IG’s investigation, staunchly disputed the gist of an earlier audit that Quatrevaux’s office published in May, which claimed the NOPD had misclassified dozens of forcible rapes in a randomly selected sampling of 90 cases.
Serpas, along with Landrieu and victim advocates, had touted a surge in reported sexual assaults as a strong sign of progress, given that hospital visits for reported rapes remained level over the same period. The numbers, they said, suggested victims felt more comfortable reporting rapes to police.
Serpas did not return messages last week for comment on the new revelations. In a WWL Radio interview, however, he too directed blame on lower-level supervisors.
“This was about one-third of the detectives in that unit, and they had a sergeant they worked for, and that sergeant had a lieutenant they worked for. Someplace in there, the whole thing obviously needs to be reviewed, analyzed,” Serpas said. “We’ve been fighting with the culture of that particular type of investigator since the day I got here.”
Mary Claire Landry, director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, noted heavy turnover among supervisors in the Sex Crimes Unit over the years, but she said Serpas needs to share in the blame.
“I do think it was a failure of the police chief during these last four years. The accountability, the responsibility goes all the way up the chain,” she said. “You can’t assume (reform) is happening. There needs to be checks and balances in place. Obviously, that was not done.”
According to the NOPD, the Special Victims Section had three commanders from 2011 to 2013.
During most of that time, from April 2011 until Gilbert took over in September 2013, the section was led by Lt. Louis Gaydosh, and before then by Noel, who was credited with several reforms. There was turnover higher up as well, with three commanders of the Criminal Investigations Division over that time, according to the NOPD.
Anthony Radosti, of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a former NOPD detective, said he’s received complaints for years about troubles in the Sex Crimes Unit, including downgrading of reported crimes using miscellaneous or “unfounded” classifications, and reports of detectives badgering purported victims.
“Obviously the problem never got fixed,” Radosti said. “How many supervisors are held responsible for not doing their job? They may transfer them, but that doesn’t solve the problem.”
For “Amanda M.,” the response of a detective who investigated her sexual assault allegation in 2004, then dropped it, still gnaws at her a decade later.
She had just turned 18, she said, when a housemate’s friend pinned her in the passenger seat of a car and raped her. She said she’d kept the perpetrator’s clothes and other evidence that the detective said he would retrieve but that he never bothered to do so. He also grilled her over why it took her several days to report it, she said.
“When I called him a month later, he literally told me, ‘It’s just a date rape. Get over it and move on with your life,’?” she said, adding that she contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her assailant. “It’s hard for me to date. It’s hard for me to go anywhere. If they would have at least tried something in the first place, shown they tried to help me, at least did the basic part of their job, it would have seriously helped me mentally and emotionally.”
Four years later, with help from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, another detective took up her case and arrested the man, although the rape charge ultimately was refused.
“Just having someone look into you and have someone believe you and at least attempt to help, makes all the difference in the world,” she said.
Landry said she has proposed that the NOPD move its sex crimes detectives into the Family Justice Center, along with domestic violence detectives who are already there.
Landrieu, meanwhile, pledged a complete housecleaning in the Sex Crimes Unit.
“We’re talking about two things that are going on here. One is individuals made bad decisions, and, two, the institutional structures in place were not adequate. Both of those things are going to be looked at, and both of those things are going to be fixed,” he said.
A request for the NOPD to provide an update on progress on the 17 reforms mandated under the federal consent decree for sexual assault cases went unmet last week.
But according to department spokesman Tyler Gamble, the number of reports deemed “miscellaneous” has dried up, with just six “Signal 21’s” from the Sex Crimes Unit this year.
With so many eyes on it, Landry said, she’s confident that the problem is fixable. But she acknowledged she has thought that before.
“They said the right words,” Landry said. “What we kept hearing is, ‘It’s fixed. We’ve addressed those things.’?”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.