NOPD stock 2 _lowres

Advocate File Photo

New Orleans police detectives who specialize in domestic violence investigations are doing "an excellent job," but that's not the case with many of the patrol officers who are the first to respond to those often volatile calls for help, a federal watchdog reported this week.

The report, published Thursday, is the latest issued by the firm appointed to track progress and pitfalls as the New Orleans Police Department implements a 2012 consent decree that mandates scores of reforms for the force.

It details how Special Victims Section detectives and outside social workers have been doing well with the domestic violence cases that make it to their desks, under a thorough rewrite of NOPD policies and procedures for such calls.

But it also points to many instances in which the first officers to respond to the calls have downgraded their priority and waited too long to respond.

The report says more than 35 officers are facing discipline over violations of internal policies governing domestic violence cases between March and September.

In one case, the report says, police fielded a call involving a man punching a woman in the face and biting her — then waited 10 hours to send an officer to follow up on the initial response. No one answered the door when the second officer arrived, and that essentially ended the investigation, with the NOPD deeming the case cleared.

Tulane law professor and domestic violence expert Tania Tetlow said Friday that such lapses can be expected given the NOPD's severe shortage of officers.

Domestic violence cases are time-consuming to properly investigate because the personal relationships involved are frequently complicated, and having fewer cops means it takes longer to get to the calls and there's less time to spend on them, Tetlow said.

But she agreed with the report's finding that officers should receive better training on adequately handling those calls, which often present some of the most complicated circumstances cops encounter.

"It's an ongoing issue of training as well as of making sure they change ... the hearts and minds of officers throughout the department who can become very cynical about these cases," Tetlow said.

NOPD spokesman Beau Tidwell said Friday that the department "takes domestic violence very seriously," as evidenced by the performance of the Special Victims Section. The department "responded immediately" to the need for additional improvements highlighted by the report, he added.

The report elaborates on those responses, citing policy changes, added training, more diligent supervision of patrol officers and, in some cases, disciplinary actions. The report, issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Sheppard Mullin law firm, calls such corrective actions "meaningful."

The firm reviewed documents and body-worn camera footage from 124 calls for service involving allegations of domestic violence over the six months beginning in March and found "concerns or questions" regarding the handling of 83 of them, or two-thirds of the sample.

Among the calls reviewed were 41 that were cleared as "gone on arrival," meaning no one answered the door when an officer arrived. The report said 13 of those were handled within NOPD guidelines but 28 raised concerns.

In addition to the case dropped after the nearly 10-hour wait, in another case an alleged victim was left waiting for nearly seven hours, the report said.

According to the report, the officer spoke with a man who answered the door at the scene and said he had tried to cancel the call earlier. The officer then told him police were required to show up for all domestic violence calls. The officer did nothing more, clearing the case by coding it "gone on arrival."

That kind of response reduces the likelihood that the NOPD will deliver meaningful service to victims of domestic violence and could weaken the public's trust in the department, among other consequences, the report said.

While the report doesn't excuse the department on account of its manpower struggles, it acknowledged that the challenge of properly addressing such calls is heightened when a police force is spread thin.

The report noted, for instance, that only seven officers patrol the sprawling 7th District in New Orleans East on an average day and must respond to more than 160 calls for service — including a dozen domestic violence cases.

"These are large numbers," the report conceded.

Can't see file below? Click here.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

(504) 636-7433