Criminal Justice

NOPD review of sex-crime and child-abuse cases shows policy violations, broadens to include supervisors

The New Orleans Police Department is continuing to investigate allegations that five detectives routinely failed to follow up on hundreds of sex-crime and child-abuse cases over several years, police officials told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday.

Public Integrity Bureau Deputy Chief Arlinda Westbrook said the investigation has turned up evidence of policy violations, including neglect of duty and inadequate documentation, by the five detectives: Akron Davis, Merrill Merricks, Derrick Williams, Damita Williams and Vernon Haynes.

The detectives are on desk duty until the internal review is complete. None of them has been charged criminally.

“It’s hard to believe that there’s no malfeasance issues,” said Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee.

The internal investigation has also broadened. “We have identified the supervisors of those detectives and they have been added to the investigation,” Westbrook said.

The five detectives made up about a third of the 16 detectives in the Special Victims Section. Four of them were in the Sex Crimes Unit, which had eight or nine detectives, according to news reports.

The city’s Office of Inspector General revealed in November that the detectives had done little or no follow-up on most of their cases. It quickly blew up into a major scandal and resulted in the creation of a task force to re-investigate the cases.

According to the Inspector General, detectives did not write follow-up reports for 86 percent of 1,290 cases assigned to them.

Of those, 840 were classified as “miscellaneous,” or Signal 21, rather than as sex crimes. There was no followup paperwork for those cases.

The department no longer allows sexual abuse investigations to be classified as “miscellaneous,” Police Chief Michael Harrison said Wednesday.

The department has since determined that 677 of the 840, however, were not criminal complaints. They were relatively routine check-ins on registered sex offenders, Harrison said.

The Inspector General identified 450 cases with an initial criminal report; there was no followup report for 271 of them. Those and others are being re-investigated by the task force, led by Commander Paul Noel.

Noel said that review has expanded to 360 cases. Forty-seven cases have been completed; two have resulted in arrest warrants. Four more are awaiting review by the District Attorney’s Office.

In 15 cases, the department hasn’t found enough evidence to make an arrest. Noel said those cases are still open, but the task force isn’t actively investigating them.

Others had already moved through the court system by the time the Inspector General’s report was released.

Westbrook said the Public Integrity Bureau also is looking into “false and inaccurate reporting.” The Inspector General’s report identified two follow-up reports that “Detective C” — later identified as 17-year NOPD veteran Merrill Merricks — created only after the watchdog agency requested records and backdated by several years

In another case, Merricks reported that a rape kit did not contain any DNA. According to the Inspector General, the kit was never submitted to a testing lab.

Donovan Livaccari, attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, told the council committee that those results hardly prove wrongdoing by the detectives. He laid the problems identified in the report at the feet of higher-ups, saying they set bad policies and failed to supervise properly.

Police Association of New Orleans lawyer Eric Hessler said understaffing was to blame.

“A great part of this problem is caused by case overload and manpower,” Hessler said. That has become even more pronounced since the IG’s report was released, he added. He said only four detectives now handle child abuse and five investigate rapes.

“My fear is that they are again being set up for failure,” Hessler said. “These officers were thrown into a situation where they are destined to fail.”

In his report to the committee, Noel detailed what the task force has found in four cases involving children that were assigned to Officer Akron Davis. In one, an infant with a skull fracture probably was accidentally dropped by a sister who’s too young to be charged with abuse or negligence. Another skull fracture case is still under investigation.

In a case involving an 18-month-old child that a doctor found with genital warts, Noel said that a review of the doctor’s notes led the task force to determine that the disease could have been contracted through normal touching, like a diaper change, and not necessarily sexual abuse. The review found no evidence of trauma, he said.

Still, the child reportedly told a family member later about an incident of sexual abuse and said who did it. Investigators have interviewed the suspect, Noel said. However, the child did not repeat the allegation in follow-up interviews, and the police have yet to independently find any evidence of abuse, Noel said.

In the fourth case, also involving alleged sexual abuse, the police have identified but have not located a suspect. The case remains open and under investigation.

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