Sexual assault, NOPD and "indifference to our citizens"


Update: On Nov. 13, NOPD chief Michael Harrison announced that the officers in the report are now on administrative reassignment while NOPD and the Public Integrity Bureau conduct an investigation.

The New Orleans Police Department contends that it has worked to clear its backlog of rape kits, uploading DNA evidence collected from sexual assaults to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database. CODIS links federal, state and local criminal justice agencies and can find matches for DNA profiles to identify offenders.

But reports from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) reveal a culture within NOPD’s own sex crimes unit of reclassifying rapes, ignoring vital DNA collection, or refusing to believe rape even is a crime. Today, the OIG unveiled a devastating report alleging five detectives failed to follow up 86 percent of sexual assault cases assigned to them between January 2011 and December 2013.

In April, NOPD sex crimes detective Merrill Merricks told Gambit that the department’s backlog had been virtually eliminated. Merricks is one of five detectives in the OIG report, identified as Detective C.

According to the report, Merricks had reported that the state DNA lab found no evidence in a victim’s rape kit, performed by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). The OIG found that the kit was never submitted to the lab — it never moved from NOPD Central Evidence and Property.

The report also says Merricks made three supplemental reports two years after the initial report when they were found to be missing, while another supplemental report was created three years later. All reports were made on the same day in 2013 — only after NOPD received the OIG’s request for those missing reports.

In May, the OIG released a report that found 46 percent of rapes in one sample were misclassified by NOPD as “miscellaneous” or “unfounded” crimes. Among 90 cases involving rape between June 1, 2010, and May 31, 2013, the audit found that 41 of those cases were not reported correctly (or reported at all) to the FBI’s unified crime reporting system, which gathers data from local law enforcement. In two cases, physical evidence disappeared.

Today’s report also says that as of Oct. 3, NOPD has 53 outstanding CODIS hits for sexual assault — matching DNA profiles to other sexual assaults from July 2010 to September 2014. NOPD has failed to follow up on those hits after they were submitted to the Louisiana State Police crime lab for testing.

Among them, Derrick Williams (Detective E) was assigned to a case wherein a rape victim had SANE exams for rape kit collection, and the Louisiana State Police (LSP) notified NOPD two years ago of a possible match. NOPD didn’t follow up with a reference sample to confirm the match. In another case handled by Williams, the LSP crime lab told NOPD more than two years ago that NOPD had submitted an incorrect kit. NOPD didn’t respond.
"It’s our duty to protect and serve, and we take that duty seriously. In this case, it appears these detectives neglected their duty." — NOPD Chief Michael Harrison

Williams submitted no supplemental reports showing further investigations into either case. When OIG requested those reports, Williams made them — again, on the same day — despite the cases being two and three years old.

Damita Williams (Detective D) was assigned 11 simple rape cases in the three-year stretch within the report. She told colleagues that she didn’t believe simple rape — in which a victim is unconscious or inebriated, thus unable to respond or consent — was even a crime. Williams also had written in a report that DNA evidence wasn’t collected following one assault, despite the LSP records having that DNA evidence. Williams also failed to submit one victims’ rape kit for testing because she determined the sex was consensual.

The cases in the OIG sample audit also included children. In the report’s three-year time period, Akron Davis (Detective A) was assigned 13 cases of possible sexual assault and child abuse — 11 had no supplemental reports or signs of further investigation.

In one case, an emergency room nurse determined an infant's skull fracture was caused by a “non-accident trauma” — Davis didn’t investigate. In another case with an infant with a skull fracture, the ER doctor found an older fracture, a sign of possible repeated abuse. Davis didn’t investigate.

Davis also didn’t investigate the case of a child under age 3 who doctors found had an STD following an alleged sexual assault, nor did Davis investigate the case of another child who was brought to the ER for an alleged sexual assault. During a forensic interview, that child pointed out that a registered sex offender was living in his house — Davis closed the case.

(NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison and the Public Integrity Bureau have ensured the children involved with those cases are safe.)

The case sample breakdown looks like this:

The OIG accessed 1,290 potential cases of sexual assaults, pulling from 911 calls, NOPD internal databases and sex crimes files. The audit found that 65 percent of those cases were designated as miscellaneous with no report, leaving only 450 reports reviewable cases. Of that amount, 271 cases had no supplemental reports. Of the 105 cases sent to the District Attorney for prosecution, the DA accepted 74.

In today’s press conference announcing the report, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said the officers’ mishandling of the sampled cases “suggest an indifference to our citizens that won’t be tolerated.” At today’s budget hearing in City Council chambers, Quatrevaux said the office will continue auditing rape classifications next year.

Harrison endured a round of NOPD criticism in his first 30 days, including an Independent Police Monitor’s report looking at retaliation among NOPD staff and towards citizens — and there's bound to be more, with a forthcoming report on racial profiling among NOPD officers. Today’s report follows another change in NOPD procedure, including an overhaul among his leadership. At today’s press conference, he said he already has taken action against the officers in the report.

“I am deeply disturbed by the allegations in this report,” he said. “It’s our duty to protect and serve, and we take that duty seriously. In this case, it appears these detectives neglected their duty. … We won’t tolerate it. Victims do not have time to wait, and they deserve better.”

When he was formally announced as the new chief last month, Harrison began to replace department leadership, with Deputy Chief Rannie Mushatt to the Investigations and Support Bureau, while new appointees are Commander Daryl Albert over the Criminal Investigations Division and Commander Gervais Allison over the Special Victims Section. (Supervisors during the report time period were Lt. Louis Gayndosh and Sgt. James Kelly, who have been transferred and are also under investigation.)

Among other new procedures: Special Victims now also must send 10 sexual assault data collection kits a week to the state police crime lab to prevent a backlog, and NOPD staff has a new protocol to better connect victims to the New Orleans Family Justice Center and the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children, among other sexual assault services. Harrison also said the introduction of the Blueprint for Safety — which provides a criminal justice-wide response to domestic violence and sexual assaults — has ushered in a “cultural shift” in how NOPD responds to those crimes. Harrison, however, has not suspended or terminated the officers outlined in the OIG report. They have been assigned out of special victims and are on patrol assignment.

“We’re doing a deep dive” into the report’s allegations with a PIB investigation, he said, adding that the report still is allegations until proven through the department.

In a statement, District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who also serves on the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said the report “details in plain fact what many already know and fear: for too many victims of sex crimes, reporting the crimes against them does not lead to justice or safety, but to further victimization and trauma.”

Guidry touches on a chronic issue for sexual assault victims — with the trauma and shame of abuse and fear of retaliation for reporting a crime, there remains only the trust from law enforcement agencies. When that’s broken, who is there to turn to?

“We wonder why women don’t speak up — who are they speaking up to?” says Deon Haywood, director of the women’s health advocacy group Women with a Vision. “You can’t trust the people whose job is to protect you.”
"We wonder why women don’t speak up — who are they speaking up to?" — Women with a Vision director Deon Haywood

Haywood recommends NOPD also provide “implicit bias” training — to prevent officers from determining (or dismissing) criminal behavior based on stereotypes and personal attitudes. (For example, Detective Damita Williams determined simple rape doesn’t constitute a crime, which brings up issues of victim blaming and further entrenches the trauma felt among victims of sexual assault.) But the sampled cases in the OIG report “speak to a deeper issue,” Haywood says.

“What’s more egregious, and feels inhuman, is that someone’s job whose oath is to uphold the law could do something so unlawful,” she says. “Think about the trauma and the revictimization that does to individuals. We need to go back to the drawing board. Our hearts go out to the families, our hearts go out to the victims.”

2014 has revealed a staggering amount of “revictimization” among Louisiana survivors of sexual assault. In addition to the above reports, the Times-Picayune reporter Rebecca Catalanello outlined in a series of articles the massive medical bills many sexual assault victims receive after emergency room visits for rape kit collections. While Gov. Bobby Jindal passed a bill this year to speed up the state’s rape kit backlog collection, Catalanello unveiled an institutionalized signal to victims to literally pay for their own assault.

Today’s report signals another means to further victimize those survivors, by ignoring sensitive procedure and its potentially life-saving data, only for it to sit in an evidence locker.

'We’re on the consent decree — the jail and the police department — and obviously they don’t fear that either," Haywood says."I'm not sure what does need to happen, but something needs to happen."

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