NEW ORLEANS — City Council members, crime victims and their advocates called on the New Orleans Police Department to bring in more help from civilians to ease the backlog of emergency calls for service.
Morgan Lamandre, policy director for the sexual assault victims’ advocacy group Sex Trauma Awareness & Response, STAR, testified at the Council’s Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday. She said a difficult process for reporting sexual assaults to NOPD has become tougher as overworked and understaffed officers take hours to respond to 9-1-1 calls, often finding victims “gone on arrival.”
“It almost looks like a survivor is not cooperating. I think it's clear in New Orleans that's not the case,” she said. “But it's one of those things it doesn't it doesn't tell the whole story.”
The City Council held the hearing after an investigation last week by WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate showed NOPD’s average response time for high-priority emergencies had doubled in the last year and de-prioritized calls were leading to more cases being marked “gone on arrival.”
Crime analyst Jeff Asher did a deep-dive on the data and found NOPD is downgrading rape calls to non-emergency status 44 percent of the time, and 40 percent of those calls, or 18 percent of the total, are being marked "gone on arrival." Asher said there’s often cause to downgrade emergency calls, but that’s also happening far more often this year than it has in the past.
“If an officer is going to respond to a carjacking or a murder or some other situation where a person's life is actually in danger, it makes sense” to downgrade emergencies where the victim isn’t in immediate danger, Asher said. “It is a process that NOPD uses, all police departments across the country use. The problem is that they're doing it more often this year than in previous years. And when they do it, the outcome is more dire.”
City Council members said they want NOPD to hire more civilians to take reports and help victims, to take the pressure off commissioned officers, who face a mountainous backlog of calls.
“The sooner the urgency, the immediacy of addressing the civilianization issue will actually help with retention because it will stop the burnout,” City Council Vice President JP Morrell said.
“We have the solutions,” City Council President Helena Moreno said. “We see them. The solutions are there. But … let's move. Let's move.”
Asher said NOPD would need to hire 80 civilians just to reach the national average for the civilian percentage of a police force.
NOPD spokesman Gary Scheets says the Sex Crimes Unit follows up on rape calls that are downgraded to non-emergencies, even if they are marked "gone on arrival."
But, he says the department is still working on new policies that would prevent sexual assault calls from being downgraded to non-emergencies without approval from the Sex Crimes Unit.