Revelation of 400 untested rape kits spurs new criticism of NOPD _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The New Orleans City Council took up the issue of the NOPD's dysfunctional sex crimes unit Thursday, December 18, 2014. Council member Jared Brossett talks with Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux before the meeting.

New Orleans Police Department Cmdr. Paul Noel, who was heralded for his work in clearing a backlog of 800 rape exam kits that had gathered dust on evidence room shelves for months or years, told a City Council committee Thursday that a backlog has arisen again since he left that work in 2011, with more than 400 rape kits now sitting untested.

Just how many of them are from purported victims seeking justice — rather than those who got tested but decided to refuse police help — is uncertain, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said.

However, the revelation added new fuel to the anger among rape victims and spurred demands from council members for lasting reform to an NOPD Sex Crimes Unit under attack since a blistering report last month by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office.

For nearly three hours, Noel, Harrison and NOPD Public Integrity Bureau head Arlinda Westbrook fielded aggressive questioning from council members about their response to the Nov. 12 report, which found that five Special Victims Section detectives failed to document follow-up investigations into the vast bulk of reported sex crimes assigned to them over three years.

The findings sparked a pledge from Mayor Mitch Landrieu to completely overhaul the Sex Crimes Unit, even as the mayor was forced to acknowledge that earlier reforms led by Noel had failed to take root under then-Superintendent Ronal Serpas.

Quatrevaux’s office cited 271 cases in which the five detectives failed to file a supplemental report documenting any investigation beyond an initial, cursory sketch of the allegation.

Harrison said a new task force led by Noel has begun to reinvestigate not just those cases but also 49 others that the five detectives, who have since been reassigned to desk duty, handled this year.

He also promised for the first time Thursday that the department would review another 840 calls for service that were assigned to the five detectives but were quickly tossed in the “miscellaneous” bin, with nothing at all written. That will require the review of each 911 call.

Thursday’s meeting marked Harrison’s first public appearance in front of council members over a scandal that has left another black eye on a police force already under the watch of a federal judge overseeing a 2-year-old consent decree that includes several mandates specific to sexual assault investigations.

Most of the mandates, at least until recently, had yet to be implemented.

Among the most stinging criticisms that Harrison faced Thursday came from Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who asked why the supervisors who oversaw the five detectives’ work haven’t yet faced discipline and continue on as supervisors.

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

Her comments drew applause from a small crowd of women in the audience, many of them self-described sexual assault victims who demonstrated Saturday in a march to City Hall.

“There’s no question in my mind that supervisors were at least neglectful and, at worst, complicit,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said. “This is just so horrendous. It would seem to me that once we’ve seen these cases were so mishandled, a decision can be swiftly made as to supervisors.”

Harrison insisted that PIB is investigating the supervisors as well and that criminal charges could follow, but he said due process needs to take its course.

“Here’s how I look at it: If a supervisor knew and didn’t do anything, that’s bad. If they didn’t know, that’s just as bad. Those are the things we’re looking at, but we’re looking at it at (every) level,” Harrison said.

Quatrevaux and his first assistant, Howard Schwartz, pledged to track the results of two separate investigations: one into the specific cases and the other, by PIB, into the Special Victims Section detectives and supervisors.

The federal consent decree monitor also is keeping a close eye on the probes, Westbrook said.

Schwartz, who led the IG’s investigation, said he found literally no complete files among the hundreds of cases assigned to Sex Crimes Unit Detectives Merrell Merricks, Derrick Williams, Damita Williams and Vernon Haynes and to Child Abuse Unit Detective Akron Davis.

Quatrevaux’s office reviewed all of the cases assigned to the five detectives from 2011 to 2013 after an earlier audit found repeated misclassifications of rape cases.

Suggesting a historic pattern of downgrading of rape cases in the city, Quatrevaux displayed a chart Thursday contrasting the national average of about five rapes for every homicide with New Orleans, where police report more homicides than rapes.

“We wrote a report that’s as bad as anything we could say about the Police Department,” Schwartz said, adding that the department cooperated fully and appears to be sincere in its plan for reform.

That wasn’t enough for Loyola University theater professor Laura Hope, who helped organize the march on Saturday and demanded an outside investigation.

“Restoring the public trust is very hard when we are right back where we were just four years ago,” Hope said. “Four years ago, we heard there was a backlog of 800 rape kits, but now we hear there are 400 untested rape kits. We’re halfway back to where we were.

“We have many of the same cast of characters in the room today, and they’re once again assuring us things are going to be different. And we’d like to know how.”

The IG’s report was only the latest to slam the department’s handling of sexual assault reports. Quatrevaux said his office looked into the problem following a U.S. Department of Justice report that found myriad problems, including 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.’ ”

Tania Tetlow, a professor at the Tulane University law school, said it didn’t appear to her that the unit has gone back to where it was before 2010, when she said “rape was essentially decriminalized in this city.”

Tetlow, who is helping the police craft new reforms, said she wants to know how many of the 400-plus untested rape kits are truly backlogged, as opposed to those being kept by the NOPD for other parishes or under a state law that lets victims decide whether police will go forward with a case. Harrison said he wasn’t sure.

He also reported that due to the NOPD’s manpower shortage, the detective squad in the Special Victims Section has shrunk from 23 detectives in 2011 to 18 last year.

Harrison pledged a new tack from the past, when, he said, “We changed the person; we didn’t change the culture.”

Councilman Jason Williams described Quatrevaux’s report as “a diagnosis for a problem we have that we’ve got to correct.”

Donovan Livaccari, an attorney with the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, cautioned against a rush to judgment on the allegations against the five detectives, saying he expected a fuller review will find they “were doing exactly what was expected of them by their supervisors and their supervisors’ supervisors.”

“I think we will learn that manpower problems negatively impacted the detectives’ ability to conduct investigations efficiently and that they often had to prioritize their efforts based on what their supervisors wanted,” Livaccari added. “There is a lot of information to consider and misinformation to sift through and discard.”

Thursday’s airing out of the scandal won’t be the last. Westbrook said U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who is overseeing the sprawling NOPD consent decree, has scheduled a court hearing on the matter.

Guidry, the committee chairwoman, said she wants a progress report from Harrison in six months.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.