by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
More than half the time New Orleans police receive reports of rape or other sexual assaults against women, officers classify the matter as a noncriminal "complaint."
Police, who have been touting a decline in rapes, say the share of noncriminal complaints reflects the difficulty officers face in coaxing rape victims to push forward with their complaints.
But former Orleans Parish sex crime prosecutor Cate Bartholomew says the frequent use of the alternative category -- referred to as a "Signal 21" in NOPD parlance -- is a problem, arguing that some of the cases she saw should have been categorized as sex crimes.
Bartholomew and some other experts say the alternative labeling of alleged sexual assault raises questions about the accuracy of the department's recent rape statistics, showing a sharp decrease from 2007 to 2008 in the number of rapes and attempted rapes reported to the FBI: 114 rapes in 2007, down to 72 rapes last year.
The police statistics contrast with the experience of the Interim LSU Public Hospital, where the number of sexual assault victims seeking rape examinations climbed from 149 in 2007 to 168 in 2008.
Police officials, however, countered that the drop in the tally of rape allegations could simply reflect decreased reporting of verifiable sexual assaults to law enforcement, emphasizing that they strive to encourage every victim they encounter to report the crime and assist with an investigation.
New Orleans police would never label a reported crime backed up by evidence as anything other than a crime, said Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo, who oversees the department's sex crimes squad.
"If it is a rape or a sexual assault, it is a sexual assault," Defillo said. "There is no gray line with respect to that. We call it the way we see it."
Defillo said persuading victims to follow through with investigators can be particularly challenging in a city where many people drink too much alcohol, often blurring their recall of what happened and making them reluctant to come forward.
No national benchmarks
In 2008, police say, there were 146 cases marked up by the sex crimes unit as a Signal 21, compared with 97 rapes and sexual batteries ultimately listed as criminal offenses by the Police Department. That means police classified 60 percent of rape calls as a Signal 21.
There are no national benchmarks for comparison, since the use of noncriminal classifications by local police varies widely. But New Orleans' high number of Signal 21 listings sets off alarm bells for sex crime experts.
"Any way you look at it, it is just too high," said Joanne Archambault, a consultant who previously lead the San Diego sex crimes unit.
Archambault said departments need a noncriminal category for some situations, such as a call about a suspicious activity that turns out not to be a crime. But too often detectives will put cases into these alternative categories -- or declare a rape case to be "unfounded," meaning that it didn't occur -- when they can't substantiate a claim of a sexual assault.
That may happen, she said, if they can't track down a victim who reported the crime or the victim doesn't continue cooperating after making an initial report. While those circumstances frustrate detectives, they don't justify declaring cases invalid, she said.
179 murders, 65 rapes
Several experts said New Orleans' official rape number reported to the FBI -- which doesn't capture all sexual assaults -- seems too low, especially considering the overall crime rate in the city.
Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf said the number of rapes doesn't make sense when considered alongside New Orleans' high rate of homicides. In comparison, Jackson, Miss., at a population of about 170,000 people, reported to the FBI last year 63 murders and 136 rapes. New Orleans, where the 2008 population estimates have topped 311,000, last year reported 179 murders and 65 rapes to the FBI. Police later changed the number of rapes that fit FBI guidelines to 72 in response to a newspaper request for statistics.
In a written explanation provided with crime data, the NOPD explained that the Signal 21 designation is used for a variety of reasons, including the basic one that elements of a case "have not yet been established."
Other reasons included victims "unwilling or unable to give an account of the incident," victims "unsure of what occurred" and a victim being "unsure if she wants to report the incident to the police."
To examine in more detail how the NOPD handled cases given something other than a criminal designation, The Times-Picayune asked to review the reports of the Signal 21 and "unfounded" sexual assaults for the past three years -- as well as documents, called "morfs," prepared when the sex crimes unit receives a call but no formal investigation is undertaken.
The information hasn't been delivered, as city officials maintain that assembling such documents would be time-consuming and costly. A letter sent to The Times-Picayune last week from City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields, for example, said the Police Department believes an officer would need 30 minutes to review and redact the "name, address and identity," as mandated by state law, in just one crime report at a cost of at least $20 an hour.
Bartholomew, the former sex crimes prosecutor, said that in late 2008 she wrote several memorandums to supervisors at the Orleans Parish district attorney's office about the NOPD practice of coding some sexual assaults as Signal 21s. While many of the classifications she saw were legitimate, Bartholomew said, some should have been categorized as crimes.
Bartholomew said she was most concerned about the larger policy ramifications if sex crime statistics are being low-balled, saying a reduced number of reported rapes would hinder all criminal justice agencies' abilities to obtain needed grant money.
A prosecutor who started under former District Attorney Harry Connick, Bartholomew conducted training in sex crime prosecutions for the National Association of District Attorneys before returning to the Orleans Parish district attorney's office. She left after DA Leon Cannizzaro took office.
Sex crime team
Cannizzaro said he could not directly address Bartholomew's concerns, as he had not talked to victims in those particular cases. But he acknowledged that his staff has dealt with a couple of older cases that "could have been handled better."
That led him to create a team of sex crimes specialists -- a prosecutor, investigator and victim advocate -- who would go to crime scenes, just as his office does with homicides. This is an effort to build better rapport with victims and encourage them to come forward, he said.
Speaking for the Police Department, Capt. Gwendolyn Norwood, who directs the sex crimes unit, said she saw little basis for Bartholomew's concerns about cases that were wrongly placed in a noncriminal category. The former prosecutor brought few complaints to her attention, Norwood said, and when she did Norwood was able to show that the procedures Bartholomew thought were neglected actually had been performed by police.
Many of the Signal 21s involve cases in which a friend or relative of the victim called the police, but the victim herself doesn't want to tell police what happened, Defillo said.
In cases like that, police can't write it up as a crime because they don't have the factual basis to assert a crime occurred, Defillo said.
Dale Standifer, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children, which provides sexual assault counseling, isn't among those concerned about Signal 21 classifications.
"My personal experience with the NOPD (is) they shoot pretty straight," she said.
Changes in Philadelphia
In other cities, the police practice of putting rape complaints into a category other than a crime has been controversial. Investigations have found that the practice sometimes resulted in a large number of cases that should have been counted as rapes not making it into official crime statistics. In several cities where this practice has come under scrutiny, police departments changed policies, allowing few exceptions to criminal listings.
This is what happened in Philadelphia a decade ago after a series of newspaper reports that questioned a policy of the Police Department's rape squad to classify about a third of the reported sex crimes under a noncriminal code that meant "investigation of person." A police internal review of 2,000 such cases determined that 700 were actually rapes, while 500 were other sex crimes, according to news reports.
Then-Police Commissioner John Timoney all but eliminated the alternative coding of sex crimes, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia.
Tracy and Archambault both said some departments have unfounded rates that are suspiciously high. For example, in Philadelphia the 2007 unfounded rate for rape was about 10 percent, according to FBI data. The national unfounded rate for rapes reported to the FBI in 2006 was about 5 percent.
In New Orleans, the Police Department for more than half of this decade recorded unfounded rates of at least 20 percent, although last year the rate dropped to 8 percent, according to data obtained from the FBI.
The unfounded category, for what police believe to be false sexual assault reports, differs from Signal 21s, which involve a variety of other reasons for a non-criminal listing.
Tracy and Archambault said even cases in the unfounded group demand scrutiny, to ensure police made sound decisions.
Scharf, meanwhile, said he was troubled that the use of Signal 21s has escalated in the past few years, even as the number listed as unfounded has dropped.
"If you blow off a case right in the beginning and say it is a 21, what it really says is you aren't investigating," he said.
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