Three New Orleans Police Department detectives and a supervisor who were heavily criticized for their alleged mishandling of hundreds of rape cases have received suspensions for periods ranging from seven to 30 days. Another received a letter of reprimand.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison signed off on the penalties last month, endorsing recommendations from Deputy Superintendent Rannie Mushatt, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble confirmed Tuesday.
Five other supervisors, however, were spared any discipline following a series of hearings in late July.
The suspensions come almost two years after a devastating report from the city's inspector general showed widespread failures within the NOPD's Special Victims Section, including hundreds of rape reports found to be missing from case files.
Five detectives listed in the report were cleared of criminal wrongdoing in August 2015, but an administrative investigation continued into policy violations.
The allegations against the officers formed an embarrassing chapter in the NOPD's history. Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s report sparked national headlines and prompted Mayor Mitch Landrieu to convene a task force to overhaul the Sex Crimes Unit.
In releasing a follow-up audit report in June, Quatrevaux praised what he described as a “spectacular” transformation for the long-troubled unit. But the question of what would happen to the detectives singled out in the original report lingered.
Personnel records reveal the punishments for the longtime officers:
- Akron Davis, a 29-year veteran, received a seven-day suspension for neglect of duty while serving in the Child Abuse Unit. He is now assigned to the 6th District.
- Damita Williams, a 22-year veteran, was accused of numerous violations and of telling people that she did not believe simple rape -- cases where the victim is incapable of resisting -- could be a crime. She received a 10-day suspension for failure to follow instructions from an authoritative source.
- Derrick Williams, a 27-year veteran, received a 10-day suspension for neglect of duty. He investigated rapes between 2007 and 2014 -- including the Darren Sharper case -- and has since been placed on extended sick leave.
- Vernon Haynes Jr. served in the Sex Crimes Unit for 13 years before the inspector general’s report was released. Internal investigators cited him for neglect of duty for failing to collect evidence, but he received no discipline after resigning from the force.
- Another Sex Crimes Unit detective, 19-year veteran Merrill Merricks, received a letter of reprimand. He is now a supervisor in the 4th District.
- The harshest punishment fell on Sgt. James Kelly, who served as a supervisor in the Sex Crimes Unit for three years. Records show he was recommended for a 30-day suspension for neglect of duty. His punishment was ratcheted upward because of previous examples of neglect of duty.
Kelly was not mentioned by name in Quatrevaux's report, which focused on the work of five detectives in the Special Victims Section based on a sampling of their work, or lack thereof.
Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said the officers will appeal their suspensions. He said the department still hasn't made clear its justification for the discipline.
Livaccari said he represented Davis, Damita Williams, Kelly and four supervisors who were cleared of violations.
"Walking in the door and really walking out of the door, I had no idea what it is specifically that they were disciplined for," Livaccari said of the July hearings. "This investigation was unwieldy. I had no idea what particular cases were being referred to, and I don't know that they knew."
Livaccari said the officers were informed of the allegations against them in unusually vague terms.
Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson said Tuesday that her office will review the Public Integrity Bureau's investigation of the officers.
"When you're talking about 10 days (suspension) and up, that's kind of high for what we normally see for just neglect-of-duty type issues. It seems significant, but we have not reviewed it all," Hutson said of the discipline.
Hutson said she only recently received the full PIB report, which she said covers all of the alleged misdeeds by detectives and their supervisors in one document.
"We're going to see if it's detailed enough for each officer," she said. "Did they ask specific questions about every one of those counts, and did the investigation support the counts?"
Kelly is the only supervisor to be disciplined, and Hutson questioned the NOPD's reasoning for not holding more higher-ups accountable for the failings exposed in Quatrevaux's report.
"It seemed to be like: 'We're not really going to hold the supervisors accountable because there was no structure in place, no database for them to check to see what was going on with the older cases, to provide real supervision,' " Hutson said. "They couldn't find that the structure supported them actually being active superiors."
A key failing identified in Quatrevaux's report was the lack of supplemental police reports or other evidence of investigative work in the files.
In their defense, some of the accused officers said writing a full report wasn't a requirement until a case was closed, often with an arrest. They noted a lack of training or protocols when they became detectives in the Special Victims Section.
In the hearing for Damita Williams, Mushatt, the deputy superintendent who recommended the suspensions, never brought up an allegation that the detective had once said she didn't believe simple rape was a crime. She was accused instead of failing on 25 occasions to include pertinent documents in case files, and of failing in one case to thoroughly gather evidence; the specifics of that case never came up at her 10-minute hearing.
Williams, who worked in the Sex Crimes Unit from 2009 to 2014, said she kept recorded tapes on a computer drive but "had no clue" how to transfer them to a disc to place them in case files, needing help from co-workers.
She told Mushatt that supplemental police reports, which contain the meat of an investigation, were "only completed when closing a case."
"A lot of cases were left open and inactive," she said.
Davis, who worked in the Child Abuse Unit, was accused of failing to gather and preserve evidence on 13 occasions from 2011 to 2013.
Mushatt raised two instances at Davis' hearing in which Public Integrity Bureau investigators found no evidence he'd interviewed the victim or witnesses in a case.
"I can't really remember the cases. I just know that we basically did everything in our power we could do with our manpower, and, you know, the lack thereof," Davis responded.
Davis said that when he arrived in the unit, he had never worked as a detective. He was put on the night shift with no assigned supervisor and an old "cheat sheet" for a manual, he said.
"That was a culture shock. I love kids. I'm a family man. I never imagined that people actually did the things they did to kids," he said. "Excuse my French, I busted my ass."
Davis transferred out of the unit before Quatrevaux's November 2014 report sparked a housecleaning in the Special Victims Section.
Livaccari said the inspector general's report overstated problems in the unit, casting false blame on the detectives for supposedly classifying hundreds of sex crime reports as less serious "miscellaneous" incidents, for instance. Many of those cases turned out to be sex offender registration checks, he said. Others were coded as "miscellaneous" under an unwritten policy from higher-ups, Livaccari said.
Quatrevaux's office later turned up several reports in the Sex Crimes Unit that had earlier been deemed missing from case files, Livaccari said. Police said many of the missing reports were found in different places.
Quatrevaux's report also said two detectives in the unit — Merricks and Derrick Williams — hurriedly created reports that they backdated as far back as 2010 after Quatrevaux’s office asked for them.
"I'm not going to try to persuade anybody that every detective did everything perfectly, by the book, every single time. We're human beings. Mistakes are made," Livaccari said. "But the fact is, they were underwater. Everybody knew they were underwater. They're still underwater today."
The total recommended discipline for the officers "was 57 days and a letter of reprimand too much," Livaccari said, suggesting that no punishment at all was deserved.
He said he expects to challenge the discipline before the city's Civil Service Commission.
Eric Hessler, a lawyer for the Police Association of New Orleans, represented both Derrick Williams and Merrill Merricks. He attributed the Sex Crimes Unit’s problems to a lack of training and “lax” department policies.
Merricks received the most lenient consideration from the Police Department, which Hessler attributed to his willingness to go “above and beyond the policy.”
“I hate to say it, but these officers were put in these positions and were given no training, no real guidance from the supervisors,” Hessler said. “It was a problem waiting to happen, and unfortunately it did happen, and unfortunately these officers were the public face of the downfall.”