NEW ORLEANS - Advocates for victims of sexual assault say they weren't surprised by a report from the New Orleans Inspector General Wednesday that found the New Orleans Police Department has misclassified rapes and failed to report them to the federal government.
The Inspector General’s staff evaluated 90 rape cases from the past three years.
While substantial changes in training and procedures have been made as part of the consent decree, sexual assault victim advocates say the NOPD has a long way to go for the victims they serve.
“It's a life-changing event,” said Shirley Young, a victim advocate for the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children.
Her agency services Jefferson and the river parishes, with overlap in Orleans Parish. They, and the Family Justice Center in New Orleans, take crisis calls from women and men who are victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking.
“There's a lot of shame and embarrassment for survivors and people who experience this. So, a lot of times they won’t even report it. And we understand that. So, if they are calling in to report it, we want to make sure that we really are documenting that,” said Mary Claire Landry, director of the Family Justice Center.
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux's office found the city had a forcible rape rate that is 43 percent lower than cities with the highest crime rates.
“It's absurd. It's obviously not an accurate number,” said Young.
Quatrevaux’s report also found the NOPD continuing to classify rape reports as miscellaneous offenses instead of listing them as unfounded rape reports if they lacked evidence, something that would affect the federal unified crime report statistics.
Superintendent Ronal Serpas defended the use of miscellaneous classifications in his response to the report calling it a best practice to classify crimes based on the investigation not on the initial call.
Serpas and Quatrevaux both said the problems with rape classifications and reporting to the feds for the uniform crime reports did not appear to be a conscious effort to downgrade the crime stats. The advocates said they are looking forward to next year to see if changes made as part of the consent decree help the situation.
“We created a SART team, a sexual assault response team that's been functioning for over a year. We're reviewing with the sex crimes unit all the unfounded cases to make sure that, you know, they're being addressed properly,” Landry said.
Both of the advocates said the department still needs more training about what legally constitutes a rape.
“I had somebody tell me last week that the police wouldn't take a report. So, that still happens,” Young said.
And both said they think officers need more help in knowing how best to deal with the victims, something all the players say they are actively working on.
Serpas said in a statement Wednesday that he's pushing forward with a cultural shift in the department and that "NOPD detectives are required to report sexual assault and are instructed to treat victims of this horrific crime with the utmost respect and dignity."