NEW ORLEANS – An audit released Wednesday blasts the New Orleans Police Department for a failure to properly report rape cases, a persistent problem that’s led many to question if the city’s lower-than-average rape figures are accurate.
New Orleans’ rate of forcible rape is 43 percent lower than any of the other U.S. cities with the 25 highest crime rates. But New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s auditing team found that 46 percent of a sample of reported sex crimes were mischaracterized by police as lesser offenses.
While the NOPD touts major improvements in the four years under Superintendent Ronal Serpas, the inspector general’s audit found that several issues identified as problems in the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2012 consent decree have gone uncorrected. (See IG audit)
The auditors reviewed 90 cases where rape was alleged or suspected between June 1, 2010, and May 31, 2013, and found that 41 of the cases were misclassified and not reported correctly to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.
The audited cases ended up classified as everything from aggravated rape to simple rape to sexual battery to unfounded and even “miscellaneous event,” but the auditors selected them because they all had the rape squad dispatched.
Serpas has never run from the department’s history of sweeping rapes under the rug. He made big changes in the leadership of the sex crimes unit, improved and expanded training and acknowledged that rape detectives “used to talk people out of reporting a crime.”
He responded to the audit by saying NOPD is working through a “cultural shift,” but he also fiercely disputed some of the audit’s central findings.
“We do not agree that the NOPD misclassified sexual assault crimes, and independent experts substantially validated our data,” he said, citing specific cases where the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement backed up decisions by NOPD detectives to classify a rape complaint as unfounded or miscellaneous because they did not believe there was a rape.
Serpas has said that changes to the unit’s leadership have led to a 70-percent surge in rapes reported under his leadership, as compared with the same length of time under his predecessor, Warren Riley.
But victims’ advocates say old habits -- from decades of cops blaming victims or seeking to disprove their complaints -- have been hard to kick.
“It is better than it was but it still has a long way to go,” said Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor and current Tulane University law professor who specializes in domestic abuse and sex crimes and has helped train NOPD detectives.
“Before this (Landrieu and Serpas) administration, rape was essentially decriminalized in the city. Right now, they have a great opportunity, because people would understand that the increase in rape stats is not a measure of more rape, it’s a measure of more enforcement. They need to end any pressure to make us think this is a safe city by sweeping it under the rug.”
The NOPD’s official response to the report was often defensive, leading to disagreements over many of the inspector general’s recommendations.
For instance, the inspector general’s report says NOPD should report all known offenses, even when the victim does not want to press charges. The NOPD argued that would conflict with state law regarding victim privacy, but the inspector general said that’s false because only a count of incidents gets reported, not any details of the victim’s identity or the location of the alleged crime. What’s more, the auditors cited the NOPD’s own policy to argue that the department is supposed to document the alleged criminal activity, even if the victim later declines to cooperate.
The inspector general report also blasts NOPD for automatically classifying potential sexual assaults as “Signal 21X,” “miscellaneous incident.” The NOPD claimed that was a “best practice.” The inspector general and the U.S. Department of Justice found that was not a best practice. They said NOPD abused the category to “effectively shut down investigations for a significant proportion of possible sex crimes.”
The auditors found that 14 of the 90 sampled cases were designated “unfounded” and not reported to the FBI’s Unified Crime Reporting program at all. If the NOPD had reported them properly, those cases would have only been used by the FBI to see if the number of total rapes reported was in line with national trends and would have had no impact on the city’s total rape figure.
The IG went so far as to recommend getting rid of the “miscellaneous” classification altogether. If the police find no crime was committed, the offense should still be reported under the originally reported crime, but marked “unfounded,” the audit said.
Even though the 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice identified the same problem, the NOPD still tried to argue that they should use “miscellaneous” instead of “unfounded rape” when their investigation finds the complaint was baseless.
The NOPD also changes the crime classification after an initial crime report is completed. That is necessary at times, but NOPD policy says supervisors have to file reports explaining the change.
Of the 90 cases reviewed, nine underwent signal changes with six of those lacking the required support documentation.
In a handful of cases, the NOPD reclassified forcible rapes to lesser offenses but failed to turn the supporting evidence over to its Central Evidence and Property warehouse. In two of those cases, the evidence disappeared entirely, the audit said. The NOPD said it has taken disciplinary action against the officers involved in those cases.