Allegations of bungled rape, child abuse cases latest for troubled NOPD unit
failure to act
NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said he was “deeply disturbed by the allegations” in the report by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, and said the five detectives and two supervisors have been transferred out of the department’s Special Victims Section pending an internal investigation. Harrison did not rule out the officers facing disciplinary action or even criminal charges if the allegations are proven true.
Among the cases Quatrevaux says were mishandled: A toddler who tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease and a child who complained of abuse by a registered sex offender living in the same house. It was the latest black eye for a sex crimes and child abuse unit wracked by past scandals involving wrongful classifications of rape cases, and for which critics say a culture of indifference persists, despite repeated staff changes.
The problems cited in the report present a major test for Harrison, who is charged with leading the department through a time of severe understaffing as it struggles to comply with a systemic overhaul ordered by a federal judge.
“It is our sworn duty to protect and serve, and we take that duty very seriously,” Harrison said. “It appears these five detectives may have neglected that duty and, as a police department, we won’t tolerate it.”
Harrison said the five detectives — Akron Davis, Merrell Merricks, Derrick Williams, Damita Williams and Vernon Haynes — and supervisors Lt. Louis Gaydosh and Sgt. James Kelly have been assigned to street patrol duties.
The detectives wrote no investigative reports for 86 percent of the 1,290 sexual-assault or child-abuse calls they were collectively assigned to investigate from 2011 through 2013, according to the report released Wednesday.
“These allegations suggest an indifference toward our citizens that will not be tolerated,” Quatrevaux said at a news conference. He said the detectives might have violated the law by committing malfeasance in office or injuring public records.
None of the officers have been suspended or disciplined, Harrison said, noting internal investigators just started examining this week whether the detectives’ apparent neglect of duty merits punishment. The department also is investigating whether two detectives — Merricks and Derrick Williams — intentionally “back-dated” six reports to appear as though they were written years ago, when they were actually put into the computer on the same day Quatrevaux’s staff asked for them in 2013.
In 65 percent of the cases reviewed, detectives submitted no initial incident reports — a basic summary of allegations — because the detectives classified those calls as “miscellaneous” incidents that did not merit any documentation at all.
“For 65 percent of their work for three years, no one can evaluate that,” said the inspector general’s lead investigator Howard Schwartz. “There is no record. Other than making it a 21 (miscellaneous).”
In 60 percent of the 450 cases where there was an initial incident report, there was no supplemental report, a key record used by the department and prosecutors documenting investigative findings. Only 105 complaints became cases that were presented to the district attorney’s office. Of those, 74 cases were prosecuted, but only after the district attorney’s office conducted its own investigations, seeking medical records and interviewing witnesses and victims.
“The district attorney’s office should be commended for this,” Schwartz said.
The five detectives represented the majority of the Special Victims Section, which usually operated with eight or nine detectives throughout the three-year period. The group of five was identified as particularly unproductive by the inspector general’s office last spring, while auditors were looking into a pattern of rape misclassification in the department.
Lawyers for the officers said it was too early for them to comment on behalf of their clients. “We shouldn’t be in a rush to declare these officers guilty of any offense,” said Donovan Livaccari, an attorney with the Fraternal Order of Police. “I think we need to take a close look at it and see if this was an individual issue or if it was a systematic issue that could be addressed through policy changes.”
Harrison has established a task force of experienced investigators to review all the detectives’ work. He said least 270 cases are being reopened, as the inspector general had urged.
The inspector general’s office notified the NOPD on Oct. 3 that 13 children could be in danger in their homes after finding reports of physical and sexual abuse that apparently failed to get proper investigation. The department said it has made sure all are now safe by removing them from their homes or contacting child protective services, or both.
As of Oct. 3, NOPD had 53 outstanding DNA matches — notified in letters from the State Police crime lab since July 2010 — that they had not followed up on to start the process of finding potential rapists, the report says.
Supervisors should have been alarmed from the beginning that there was no documentation for most of the cases these detectives were handling, Quatrevaux said. “If there’s no record, there’s no accountability.”
The unit has been plagued with problems that several observers, including the inspector general, said illustrate its lack of oversight.
A Times-Picayune investigation in 2009 found the NOPD classified 60 percent of rape calls as miscellaneous incidents that merited no follow-up. A new commander in 2010 found the department had 800 backlogged rape kits that sat in storage and went untested, some dating back to the 1980s. And last May, the inspector general found the NOPD had misclassified 46 percent of 90 rapes they examined.
The fact that the mishandling of investigations was uncovered by an outside agency and not by the department’s internal controls is “inexcusable,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Goyeneche said the internal investigation should not only probe the behavior — or lack thereof — of the two immediate supervisors, but also those managers above them, all the way up to the deputy chief over the unit.
“This is a failure of the entire chain of command,” he said, calling for terminations and prosecutions if the inspector general’s allegations are proven true. “Those supervisors — if they’re not disciplined, there’s no incentive for them to change and the organization suffers and we will continue to see history repeat itself.”
Capt. Michael Glasser, the president of the Police Association of New Orleans, agreed, saying that the only person who remained in power amid all the upheavals was the chief of detectives, Kirk Bouyelas, who was the deputy chief over investigations from 2010 through late June, when he moved to be the chief investigator at the district attorney’s office.
“Chronic problems are management problems because they’re allowed to fester by management who failed to recognize it or failed to take action to address it,” Glasser said.
Asked at the news conference why citizens should believe that this overhaul will be any different, Harrison pledged to implement lasting internal accountability measures.
“What we’re doing now is not just replacing the leadership,” he said. “We’re changing the culture of the entire police department, so they understand the seriousness of what the allegations are … they understand that justice must be served and that the system must work.”
The report’s findings, while “disgusting,” fell in line with the widespread complaints of institutional indifference that rape survivors have voiced for years, said Amanda Tonkavich, a counselor with the New Orleans Family Justice Center.
“Frequently, survivors are frustrated by the speed and response of the police,” she said, adding that victims often don’t hear from detectives for weeks or months after they report a rape. Many victims say they feel like the NOPD detectives don’t take their cases seriously or are even actively trying to disprove their allegations.
That the NOPD has a reputation for problematic rape investigations could further discourage victims from reporting a crime that is already considered the most underreported, Tonkavich said. It’s demoralizing to victims to feel doubted by the police, she said.
“It’s a really big decision to report and it’s pretty disgusting to see that it’s not taken seriously,” she said. “And of course that’s going to lower the rate of prosecutions and taking rapists off the streets.”
The report alleges a culture of indifference within the unit and specific actions by detectives that botched investigations:
Damita Williams told at least three different people that she “did not believe simple rape should be a crime,” the report says. Simple rape, under state law, is sex without the victim’s consent when the victim is intoxicated or incapacitated, and the offender should have known.
She was assigned 11 simple rape cases over the course of three years; only one was presented to the district attorney’s office.
In one case, she wrote that no DNA evidence was recovered. But State Police lab records showed that DNA evidence had in fact been found in that case.
In a separate case in which a victim reported her attacker was sending her threatening texts, Williams never documented any attempt to obtain phone records or the text messages. She never sent the victim’s rape kit to the crime lab for testing and in a log book, wrote that she “would not submit the kit to the DNA lab because the sex was consensual.”
Derrick Williams, who was the lead investigator on the case involving former New Orleans Saints football player Darren Sharper, submitted no supplemental reports on two rape cases in which nurses collected evidence and documented the accusers’ injuries.
In one case, State Police’s DNA lab found a possible match more than two years ago, but Williams had not submitted a sample to confirm it. In the other, State Police notified Williams that an incorrect kit had been sent in, and he had not responded.
Williams created two supplemental reports on the same day in 2013 after the inspector general’s office requested them — he dated one in 2011 and the other in 2010, the report says.
Vernon Haynes never documented any investigation into three cases in which the State Police crime lab found DNA evidence, the report says. He also had two cases that were lacking files in the office.
In one case, a victim reported she was raped and her iPhone was stolen; Haynes never documented any effort to track her phone or obtain phone records.
Merrell Merricks wrote in a report that he sent a rape kit to the State Police crime lab but they found no results. But the inspector general’s office reviewed State Police lab records and found the kit was never submitted. The kit had never actually moved from NOPD’s evidence room.
Merricks created four supplemental reports on the same day in 2013 after the inspector general’s office requested them — he dated three in 2011 and the other in 2010, the report says.
Akron Davis was assigned 13 cases of potential sexual/physical abuse involving children in which the juvenile victims potentially were still in the same home where the alleged abuse occurred. Of those 13, 11 lacked a supplemental report. Cases in which infants were hospitalized for skull fractures, a toddler tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease and a young child complained of sexual abuse at the hands of a registered sex offender were among those identified by the New Orleans Inspector General’s office as failing to get proper investigations.