In what New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux praised as a “spectacular” transformation, the New Orleans Police Department’s long-beleaguered Sex Crimes Unit has reversed a history of frightful lapses in its handling of reported rapes, according to a newly released audit report.
“It’s just one of the most remarkable turnarounds I’ve seen,” Quatrevaux said at a news conference Wednesday, describing the results of recent reforms aimed at improving the department’s reporting and classification of sex crime allegations. “What was bad before is very good now.”
The nearly spotless new report, from an audit of 154 case files last year, follows two damning ones from Quatrevaux’s office in 2014. In those reports, IG’s Office investigators found detectives had downgraded hundreds of reported sex crimes as “miscellaneous,” mishandled numerous rape investigations and then filed sloppy paperwork or none at all.
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Advocates for survivors of sexual assault said it shows that outside pressure and Superintendent Michael Harrison’s insistence on change have produced results.
The changes show up, advocates say, in a 155 percent increase in the reporting of rapes so far in 2016 compared with the year before, signaling that victims are more willing to come forward.
Still, fallout remains from a a blistering November 2014 report that drew national headlines and prompted the NOPD to reassign five detectives — more than half the Sex Crimes Unit’s manpower at the time — to patrol duties.
Harrison said those five detectives have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing but that they, along with six supervisors, face administrative sanctions for their allegedly shoddy work.
One of the five targeted detectives, Vernon Haynes, has since resigned from the force. Hearings for the rest are expected soon, said Harrison, who blamed bad “systems,” overworked detectives and poor supervision for the black eye on the department.
Among the new report’s findings:
— Detectives once regularly failed to follow national crime reporting standards for rape. But by the last quarter of 2015, the audit found, 99.4 percent of sex crimes cases were properly classified.
— Supervisors once let detectives get away with poor casework and failing to file paperwork that should have documented interviews and rape exam kits. By the end of 2015, the audit found, unit bosses were reviewing 100 percent of detectives’ cases.
— In a striking departure from one of the unit’s most criticized practices, auditors found “no instances” of rape cases being downgraded to “miscellaneous” offenses. The report instead found sex crimes detectives upgraded just over half of the calls for service they received, reclassifying them as more serious crimes.
According to statistics provided by the Sexual Violence Response Advisory Committee, the NOPD’s Special Victims Section has investigated 230 sexual assaults so far this year compared with 90 in the same period last year.
“The progress we’ve made is undeniable,” Harrison added.
In the wake of the earlier Inspector General’s Office report, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pledged a thorough overhaul of the unit, and in March 2015 he appointed an advisory committee to change how the Police Department responds to rape allegations.
Police brass beefed up manpower in the Sex Crimes Unit, provided more training, hired civilian investigators and social workers, speeded up the processing of rape kits and barred detectives from using the “miscellaneous” category to dismiss allegations.
The Police Department also moved the Sex Crimes Unit to a new building. Rape detectives now work on-site at the New Orleans Family Justice Center, which provides support services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims.
“We are definitely hearing significant positive responses from survivors. They’re getting more information than ever before,” said Mary Claire Landry, the center’s director.
Landry acknowledged that the positive responses have come mostly from people with recent claims of sexual assaults, rather than those whose earlier rape reports languished.
To underscore the remarkable spike in rape reporting, Quatrevaux pointed to a chart showing a significant recent rise in the city’s ratio of homicides to rapes.
Nationally, police departments for the past 20 years have reported about a 5-to-1 ratio of rapes to killings, he said. But in New Orleans, the ratio was reversed. There were three homicides for every rape recorded, signaling a vast undercounting of rapes, Quatrevaux said.
The old numbers suggested the Police Department was failing to report hundreds or thousands of rapes.
New Orleans’ numbers have now passed an “inflection point,” Quatrevaux said, and are rising towards national averages.
At the same time, the reporting spike has exacerbated detectives’ caseloads, which already exceeded nationally recommended averages.
By the end of 2016, according to the advisory committee, the average Sex Crimes Unit detective will likely have 87 cases apiece. Advocates would prefer detectives handle no more than about 26 cases.
The manpower problems within the Sex Crimes Unit reflect the overall officer shortage in the Police Department, according to committee Chairwoman Tania Tetlow, a professor at Tulane University’s law school who also serves on the Civil Service Commission.
Tetlow said the goal is to build up the NOPD’s squad of 10 sex crimes detectives with veteran officers as new police recruit classes hit the streets.
“I don’t envy the choices he’s having to make,” Tetlow said of Harrison, adding that she has “never been part of a process that worked this quickly, worked this well.”
Quatrevaux and NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said it was too early to tell whether the reforms have resulted in higher arrest or prosecution rates.
NOPD Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel, who led the review of hundreds of sex crime reports flagged by Quatrevaux’s office in 2014, said just a handful of the 106 cases that a special task force reinvestigated have resulted in new arrests or warrants.
More than half of the reinvestigated cases are now classified as “open but inactive,” while 27 had already been adjudicated, according to NOPD figures.
A spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the impact of the NOPD reforms on prosecutions.