Municipal Court resumes normal operations after city sends off-duty officers _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison

Following Thursday’s revelation that more than 400 untested rape exam kits sit gathering dust on shelves at the New Orleans Police Department, Superintendent Michael Harrison tried to calm the controversy somewhat Saturday, explaining that half of those kits either do not require testing or are part of a case in which the department is not the leading investigative agency.

On Thursday, NOPD Cmdr. Paul Noel told City Council members that a backlog of rape kits had arisen since he left the NOPD Sex Crimes Unit in 2011. The statement further fueled the anger of sex crime victims and city officials already upset by a blistering report issued last month by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office, and it spurred demands for lasting reform to a unit that was under attack even before the report appeared.

Noel, who was credited with clearing a backlog of 800 rape kits after he took over leadership of the Sex Crimes Unit in 2010, related his discovery as council members questioned him alongside Harrison and NOPD Public Integrity Bureau head Arlinda Westbrook. They were trying to discover more about Quatrevaux’s findings in a Nov. 12 document that revealed five Special Victims Section detectives failed to investigate most alleged sex crimes assigned to them over three years.

On Thursday, Harrison couldn’t say how many of the rape kits in the NOPD’s possession were backlogged and awaiting testing and how many were just being stored with the department. On Saturday, however, he issued a news release in an effort to bring more clarity to the issue.

Of the 429 sexual assault kits in the NOPD Crime Lab & Evidence Division, 209 require additional investigation by the department and may require testing, Harrison said. He said the other 220 don’t currently require New Orleans police to investigate them further, for a variety of reasons. Most are from victims who got tested by medical personnel but ultimately decided to refuse police help, resulting in a dropped investigation.

The department, which has a newly revamped Sex Crimes Unit as ordered by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, is working to clear the backlog and is storing the others out of “an abundance of caution,” Harrison said.

“We are committed to clearing the backlog of sexual assault kits that require testing once and for all, and we are actively putting systems of accountability in place to ensure it never happens again,” he said. “At the same time, we believe that preserving evidence from these types of heinous incidents is an important duty for the department. We want victims to feel comfortable reporting incidents to police and to trust that we will do everything we can to ensure justice is done.”

Harrison said the NOPD “prioritizes” what sexual assault kits are processed, based on details of the individual investigation and resources available. Those kits are sent to the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab for processing as part of ongoing investigations. So far this year, the State Police have processed 120 kits submitted by the NOPD, he said, and 209 are in the queue for potential testing.

Louisiana law requires the department to keep sexual assault kits for victims who choose not to officially report the incident to police for only 30 days. However, Harrison said, in 2010, the department decided to preserve these kits indefinitely, in case the victim decides to report the incident in the future.

Of the 429 rape kits in the department’s possession, 130 are from victims who have decided not to have the police pursue an investigation, he said.

Another 90 kits don’t require action by department officers, he said, including 35 from cases that have been cleared by an arrest or warrant or by the death of a suspect; 25 from cases in which an investigation showed the victim was not actually assaulted; 16 connected to homicide cases and completed as part of those investigations; 12 assigned to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office; and two from cases that happened in Jefferson Parish.

However, Thursday’s critical comments by City Council members were just the latest examples of censure unleashed on the Police Department following a series of revelations about a Sex Crimes Unit that has been under scrutiny for years.

The inspector general’s report, for example, cited 271 cases from 2011 to 2013 in which detectives assigned to investigate sex crimes failed to perform anything more than an initial, cursory inspection of the allegations. Another 49 cases have since been added to the total of those needing reinvestigation, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said Tuesday. Those are all from reported sex crimes in 2014 that were initially investigated by now-suspended detectives who have been removed from the Special Victims Section following Quatrevaux’s scathing report.

Quatrevaux said an earlier U.S. Department of Justice report found a plethora of problems in the way the department handled sex crimes, including “grossly inadequate” supervision and the use of a “miscellaneous” classification for alleged rapes and other sex crimes to essentially stop investigations.

As a result of the federal probe, a 2-year-old consent decree mandating reforms to numerous aspects of the NOPD’s operations includes the way sex crime allegations are handled.

On Thursday, Quatrevaux suggested that the department has long downplayed rape cases in the city. Although in New Orleans police report more homicides than rapes, nationally, there is an average of about five rapes for every homicide, he said.

City Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry couldn’t be reached Saturday for comment on Harrison’s latest release, but on Thursday, they demanded more response from Harrison regarding the Sex Crimes Unit.

Cantrell, for example, wanted to know why supervisors overseeing the five detectives who had failed to properly investigate sex crimes were still employed.

“Have any heads rolled due to this? Has anyone been terminated due to this?” she asked at a council committee meeting. “Because otherwise you’re transferring that problem, and I have a serious problem with that.”

Harrison said a new task force led by Noel already has begun to reinvestigate cases, and he pledged new tactics in how calls about sex crimes are handled. In addition to the 320 cases that the unit will reinvestigate, Harrison promised for the first time Thursday that the department also would review another 840 calls for service that had been tossed in a “miscellaneous” bin with no report written.

So far, the task force — which includes Noel, a sergeant, two detectives and a member of the Public Integrity Bureau — is treating the 320 reported sex crimes as cold cases, meaning that in many instances, police are reinterviewing alleged victims and witnesses and conducting new medical exams.

It’s not clear when all of the investigations will be completed, but Guidry said Thursday she expects a progress report from Harrison in six months.