A sweeping internal investigation of the New Orleans Police Department’s mishandling of sex-crime and child-abuse cases has found what Deputy Chief Arlinda Westbrook on Wednesday called “serious neglect of duty issues” and has now expanded its focus to include supervisors.
Westbrook’s remarks came at a City Council committee hearing on a damning November report from the office of Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux.
Other witnesses who testified Wednesday said the detectives faulted in Quatrevaux’s report faced crushing caseloads and that many cases lacking documentation in fact were properly handled sex-offender checks.
However, in more than 50 percent of the 217 sex-crime investigations reviewed thus far, Westbrook said, the Public Integrity Bureau has found administrative policy violations ranging from failure to maintain documentation to outright neglect of duty.
Seven months after Quatrevaux’s report, no NOPD officer has yet been disciplined. Westbrook chalked that up to the fact that her investigation has now expanded to include those officers’ bosses.
“If I could focus just on those officers, I could make a decision today,” said Westbrook, who is in charge of the PIB. “These officers need to have accountability, but their supervisors also need to have accountability.”
Westbrook’s comment pointed to questions raised by many in the wake of Quatrevaux’s report about how a crucial unit could operate in such a state of dysfunction.
Despite weekly meetings with their subordinates, Criminal Justice Committee Chairwoman Susan Guidry said, supervisors failed to catch widespread record-keeping problems.
“I don’t know what they were doing during those weekly meetings, but they weren’t reviewing files for completeness,” she said.
But the NOPD — under the leadership of Superintendent Michael Harrison since August — now promises that a task force convened under 2nd District Cmdr. Paul Noel is thoroughly reinvestigating the cases the department may have initially botched.
“From the start of this investigation, we made a commitment to identify the problem, find a solution and put strong systems of accountability in place to make sure this never happens again,” Harrison said. “We’ve made great progress, but our work is not over.”
Noel said the department had taken “unprecedented” steps the second time around, including inviting the Inspector General’s Office and the federal consent decree monitor overseeing the Police Department to review the completed reinvestigations.
Noel’s task force of four officers is reviewing 360 sexual assault investigations. Those include 271 cases referred by the inspector general, two investigations from 2010 and all 87 sexual-assault cases in 2014 touched by one of the five detectives singled out in Quatrevaux’s report for not doing their jobs.
The task force has now logged 4,800 man hours and completed 47 of those reinvestigations, the council committee was told. Two of those have resulted in arrest warrants; 16 cases had previously been taken to the courts.
Howard Schwartz, the first assistant inspector general who oversaw the report on the NOPD’s Special Victims Unit, expressed confidence in the work of Noel’s task force. The reinvestigations he has reviewed, he said, were “thorough, complete, objective (and) fair.”
Officials revealed another number at the hearing that may dampen some concerns about the sex crimes unit.
Much of the outcry after Quatrevaux’s report was released focused on calls for service to the unit that were classified as Signal 21 — the police code for “miscellaneous” calls that required no follow-up. The PIB has now concluded that 677 of those 840 cases were classified as “miscellaneous” because they were simply checks on registered sex offenders, not independent investigations.
Lawyers for police unions seized on that fact as evidence that Quatrevaux’s report was off target.
“The OIG’s report in this matter really kind of misrepresented some important facts,” said Donovan Livaccari, a Fraternal Order of Police attorney. “Those 840 calls were cases that nobody expected any follow-up work to be done. The work was done when they went and checked on registered sex offenders, and that was a wrap.”
Eric Hessler, of the Police Association of New Orleans, meanwhile, said the detectives involved had been hung out to dry by bad policies and understaffing — a problem across the entire department. Hessler said he fears he will be forced to represent more officers in the future in similar internal investigations.
“When NOPD fails, it fails the public. It also fails our members,” he said. “They were set up for failure,” he said of the sex crimes unit officers.
That unit remains severely understaffed compared with past manpower levels. Retired Lt. Dave Benelli told The Advocate in November that when he led the unit from 1998 to 2006, it had 14 detectives assigned to rape cases alone.
The unit now has seven detectives assigned to all sex crimes, according to NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble.
Manpower issues are now so bad, said Tania Tetlow of the Tulane Law School’s Domestic Violence Law Clinic, that one new detective she spoke to was assigned 16 rape cases in three weeks.
NOPD statistics suggest that crime is down overall thus far in 2015, but murders were up 45 percent in the first three months of the year. The city in May announced plans for a 10 percent pay raise that should help with recruiting, but in the meantime, the department’s ranks remain far below where they were five years ago.
Tetlow said that for now, Harrison is faced with deciding whether to take detectives away from the homicide division to reassign them to sex crimes.
“I do not envy him,” she said.