NEW ORLEANS — Dozens of calls this year to report aggravated rapes to New Orleans police were reclassified from “emergencies” to a less urgent status, leaving some survivors waiting hours for officers from an overstretched and understaffed department.
The result is that, increasingly, survivors are no longer on the scene when officers arrive. Though the NOPD’s policy is to attempt to follow up on such cases, the lengthy waits are raising concerns among advocates and officials about the emotional toll being taken on rape survivors — and the likelihood that such crimes may not be investigated at all.
The sharp rise in the de-prioritization of rape calls is highlighted in a report that City Council crime analyst Jeff Asher is scheduled to present to the council this week. Asher noted that a range of other serious crimes — including armed robberies, carjackings, aggravated assaults and domestic disturbances — are also being shifted in many cases from high to low priority before police arrive.
The rationale for those moves is not entirely clear, but the reclassification of such serious crimes as non-emergencies comes amid a historic staffing crisis at the NOPD. With manpower at the lowest levels in decades, authorities appear to be trying to make sure that only still-unfolding emergencies get lights-and-siren treatment.
So far this year, 98 calls reporting an aggravated rape in New Orleans have been reclassified from emergencies to non-emergencies while the call was being dispatched. That amounts to 40% of all aggravated rape reports in 2022.
In addition, Asher found 431 domestic batteries, 74 armed robberies or carjackings, 252 aggravated assaults and 1,486 domestic disturbances that had been de-prioritized.
De-prioritized calls raise concerns
Dispatch call logs of the 98 downgraded rape complaints suggest that some incidents are de-prioritized because the incident occurred in the past and the survivor doesn’t appear to be in imminent danger. For example, a 15-year-old girl called police at 4:25 p.m. to report she had been sexually assaulted 10 years prior at a church; call logs indicate the case was closed when officers responded three hours later and no one answered.
But in some instances, the circumstances are more exigent. On June 27, a woman called at 12:49 p.m. to report she had been raped — and that her attacker was following her down South Prieur Street. It’s unclear from the terse dispatch notes when officers arrived. But the log shows that the sex crimes unit wasn’t requested by dispatch until nearly four hours after the survivor initiated the call. By then, the case was marked “gone on arrival.”
In January, a pregnant woman called to report she had just been raped. She placed her call from a medical facility at 3:47 p.m. At 5:18 p.m., a nurse called to tell police the woman had gone home. Police arrived at 6:56 p.m., but with no one to interview, they marked the case “gone on arrival.”
In another case, a “hysterical” woman called from the Hollygrove neighborhood at 6 a.m. to report she had been beaten and raped, dispatch notes show. An Uber driver made the call for her and waited with her for an hour and a half. They had to call back to police to tell them they were leaving the scene. The case wasn’t even assigned to an officer until after that, and it took another hour before officers arrived and marked the case “gone on arrival.”
In the Hollygrove case, dispatch records indicate the call was de-prioritized within the first two minutes, long before the NOPD’s Sex Crimes unit was notified.
Asher said those kinds of decisions appear to doom those calls to longer response times, averaging more than 2 hours and 30 minutes for all downgraded emergencies. The average response time on cases where a report is filed is 88 minutes. But it's more than 4 hours and 30 minutes for cases marked “gone on arrival.”
Council member Helena Moreno said such cases were disturbing and expressed worry that they might never be officially reported.
“It's very concerning to see that these significant crimes on people are being downgraded to non-emergencies,” Moreno said. “And because then response times are taking so long that now it's even hard to track the victim, find the victim. And now these cases are not even reported. They just … poof.”
The practice of moving calls to non-emergency status isn’t new, but it’s become increasingly common as the department’s resources have been stretched to the brink. Such incidents were half as frequent in 2018, when overall response times were far speedier.
Shorter response times, of course, also mean a higher likelihood that a victim will still be on the scene when police arrive.
NOPD says it follows up when victims leave
NOPD spokesperson Gary Scheets said the department has policies in place that aim to prevent such cases from disappearing completely. Any time a sex crime or an instance of child abuse is reported but the caller cannot be located, investigators are required to attempt to follow up, Scheets said.
When that fails, the incident is left open but inactive, he said. It was not immediately clear what happens to cases with that status.
But Scheets was unable to say how frequently such efforts result in an officer contacting a survivor and opening an investigation.
Scheets confirmed that calls reporting older incidents, which would not require the lights-and-sirens response typical of an emergency call, could be downgraded.
He declined to say whether that decision is made by NOPD or the Orleans Parish Communications District, which runs the 911 dispatch center. But he did say that NOPD is working on revising policies to prevent district supervisors from downgrading calls about sexual assaults or child abuse. And, he said, they are working on policies that would ensure the Sex Crimes or Child Abuse units are advised before any such calls are marked “gone on arrival.”
Long waits may discourage reports
Advocates, however, say that the downgrading of any rape allegation is distressing, however — including for incidents that didn’t happen within moments of a call for help.
Survivors may wait for any number of reasons to report, and a delay may not be a sign the danger has passed, said Katie Hunter-Lowrey, an organizer with the Promise of Justice Initiative. They could be in an unsafe situation, such as living with the perpetrator or prioritizing the care of others, such as children, ahead of themselves. They could be homeless.
“There’s no guarantee of when a person is going to be able to make the decision — or find the strength or support — to report on being sexually assaulted,” she said. “And being treated as unimportant [by law enforcement] is again, just another example of how these systems can be so retraumatizing.”
When a survivor leaves, it isn’t necessarily an indication that he or she has lost patience with police, said Morgan Lamandre, local policy and compliance director of Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response, or STAR.
Less than 25% of sexual assaults are ever reported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It takes an incredible amount of stamina for sexual assault survivors to report to law enforcement,” Lamandre said. “It’s exhausting to build up the mental and emotional capacity to report” to a legal system that could potentially expose them to more trauma, including being subjected to invasive sexual assault kits and aggressive legal examinations. The longer a survivor has to wait, she said, “the longer they have to come up with reasons they should not report.”
A survivor may not want to stay in the place where they were just sexually assaulted.
And survivors also “still have lives to live,” said Lamandre. “So, a survivor who works, has children, no transportation or a number of other obligations may not have time to wait around all day for someone to show up to take a report.”
NOPD criticized over sex crime investigations
NOPD has long faced scrutiny for its handling of sexual violence. A recent report from the Sexual Violence Response Advisory Committee, commissioned by the New Orleans Health Department, showed its officers clear just one of every 20 sex crimes — as its depleted force handles a caseload three times larger than the recommended average.
That figure does not include rapes that wind up uncounted because the victim could not be located.
The committee was first formed in 2015, after a damning probe by the city's Office of Inspector General, which found the sex-crimes unit failed to investigate hundreds of reported sex crimes.
The police department gained ground shortly after, the OIG later reported, but the most recent report indicates the sex crimes unit has backslid significantly since.
Compounding the problem is the department’s declining force: The NOPD’s current roster of officers, at around 950, is the lowest it’s been in decades.
“We’ve had concerns with the potential slippage” from any ground gained in the past, said Mary Claire Landry, executive director of New Orleans’ Family Justice Center.
Landry stressed that she thinks police are making an honest effort. “I think they’re doing their best,” she said.
Lamandre said STAR has noted a recent uptick in the downgrading of rape reports, as well as the yawning on of police response to calls reporting sexual assaults.
Advocates, Lamandre said, no longer feel that they can “adequately provide survivors with clear expectations of what will happen when reporting to law enforcement.”
Every report not taken is a lost opportunity to catch a perpetrator, Lamandre said. “We know that evidence that is not collected as soon as possible can be lost or destroyed,” she said.
Landry said that years ago, as the Sexual Violence Response Advisory Committee was reviewing reports of sexual assault, it was clear that not all calls rise to the level of criminal prosecution.
“But at the very least,” Landry said, “we should be investigating them and responding to them.”