Report: Nearly 200 New Orleans Cops Were Accused Of Sexual Misconduct, Domestic Violence, or Harassment

A judge ruled the report can be used as evidence in the civil case against an ex-NOPD officer who sexually assaulted a teenage rape victim.

Infrogmation of New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons

Report: Nearly 200 New Orleans Cops Were Accused Of Sexual Misconduct, Domestic Violence, or Harassment

A judge ruled the report can be used as evidence in the civil case against an ex-NOPD officer who sexually assaulted a teenage rape victim.

Between 2014 and 2020, a complaint of sexual misconduct, intimate partner violence, or harassment was made against New Orleans police officers about every 10 days, according to a report published late last year by the Umbrella Coalition, a coalition of 13 local and national nonprofit and civil rights organizations. According to the report, nearly 190 of New Orleans’ police officers had complaints of this nature filed against them with the department’s public integrity unit. But, in that time, the department sustained only three percent of complaints involving sexual or intimate partner violence, according to a spokesperson for the New Orleans Police Department.

The Umbrella Coalition found that, among other claims, officers were accused of watching pornography at work, sexually assaulting arrestees, stalking former partners, sexually harassing a restaurant server while drinking alcohol on duty, posting revenge porn of a woman, threatening a former partner with a gun, sexually harassing fellow employees, beating a child, punching a woman in the jaw, and numerous other allegations of domestic battery and rape, including one incident in which an officer allegedly sexually assaulted someone while another officer watched. The department currently employs about 950 officers, but that number fluctuated during the years the Umbrella Coalition studied, and at least 500 officers who worked for NOPD during those years have since resigned or retired.

In 2011, the Department of Justice found the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) had engaged in patterns of discriminatory policing, illegal searches, and excessive force. The DOJ then placed the department under a federal monitoring program known as a consent decree, which requires the department to adopt reforms, submit to independent monitoring, and make certain information publicly available. The Umbrella Coalition report, which was published in November, compiled reports on officer misconduct published by the NOPD as part of the DOJ’s monitoring process, as well as misconduct data published by the Louisiana Law Enforcement Accountability Database (LLEAD), an open-source database created by the Innocence Project New Orleans and the design firm Public Data Works. LLEAD collects public data from across the state of Louisiana, including data from police departments, sheriff’s offices, civil service commissions, courts, and public records requests.

“Cops are legally authorized to violate your bodily autonomy all the time,” a researcher of the Umbrella Coalition report said in an interview with The Appeal. The researcher requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “You can’t give people that degree of control of people’s bodily autonomy and expect to curtail it with reform and training. This is what you’re signing up for when you pay for cops.”

The report’s findings are now being used in the civil case brought against ex-NOPD officer Rodney Vicknair, who was accused in a 2021 civil lawsuit of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old rape victim the previous year.

The NOPD fired Vicknair in 2021, and in September 2022, federal prosecutors criminally charged Vicknair with violating the girl’s civil rights. He pleaded guilty in November and is set to be sentenced on March 8.

The mother of the teenage rape victim sued Vicknair and the city of New Orleans for keeping Vicknair on the force despite numerous complaints against him prior to the 2020 assault. In February, a federal judge allowed the girl’s mother to use the findings from the Umbrella Coalition’s report to allege that the city of New Orleans has a pattern and practice of failing to take officer misconduct seriously.

In a statement emailed to The Appeal, Reese Harper, a spokesperson for the NOPD, said the department takes allegations of sexual misconduct seriously. Harper said that the Umbrella Coalition report was a “misrepresentation of data” that harms the department’s recruiting efforts and has an adverse effect on officer morale.

Harper said that between 2014-2020, NOPD records “indicate that 97 percent of complaints alleging sexual or intimate violence were either unfounded, exonerated, or not sustained.”

Complaints of misconduct committed by NOPD officers are investigated by the NOPD. When NOPD’s Public Integrity Unit lists a case as “exonerated,” it means the department says an internal investigation found that the alleged event did occur, but didn’t violate NOPD policies. When complaints are “not sustained,” investigators say they did not find evidence to prove that the alleged misconduct occurred. When complaints are “unfounded,” it means that investigators say they found evidence proving the misconduct did not occur or did not involve the accused officer.

During the period that the Umbrella Coalition studied, Harper said that seven officers were “charged with various infractions from simple battery to sexual misconduct, which either resulted in termination or the officer resigning under investigation.”

The Appeal also contacted New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and seven New Orleans City Council members about the Umbrella Coalition’s report—and the fact that it is now being used in the civil case against Vicknair. None responded.

“This is just the latest slap in the face,” said Katie Hunter-Lowrey, an organizer with Louisiana Survivors for Reform, a coalition of crime survivors, homicide victims’ families, and organizations working to change the criminal legal system. “Policymakers don’t care about crime victims. If they did, they wouldn’t continue to allocate resources to an entity that doesn’t solve these problems and actually perpetuates sexual violence.”

“Police don’t prevent violence,” said Hunter-Lowrey, noting that Louisiana has one of the highest homicide rates in the country. “And the NOPD isn’t solving cases.”

According to data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 712 rapes were reported to the NOPD in 2020. The NOPD cleared 67 of them. Clearance rates measure how many cases are closed through arrest or exceptional means, like the death of a suspect or when a survivor stops cooperating with law enforcement. Overall, only 39 people were arrested for rape in New Orleans in 2020.

The complaints include a wide variety of sexual misconduct claims, including allegations that one NOPD employee created fake social media accounts under a woman’s name and posted inappropriate pictures, including a photo of her in her underwear. Multiple complainants alleged being hit on by officers or being groped or sexually assaulted while detained. One officer was accused of having sex with a woman and later having her involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution. Other instances included officers allegedly patronizing strip clubs while on duty and soliciting sex workers.

“The mundane, routine way that cops engage in sexual terror matters too, not just when they’re convicted of rape,” said one of the researchers who authored the report. “It’s still violence, it still affects your sense of safety, it still matters. Having sex with people as a police officer, tricking them, or not paying sex workers is sexual violence.”

It’s possible that reports of sexual misconduct by NOPD are actually undercounted, since few survivors of sexual violence come forward to report what happened to them. Victims of sexual misconduct by law enforcement are likely to be especially discouraged when they are asked to report their stories to the police department itself.

In one instance reported in 2014, a police officer obtained the phone number of a child who had run away from home from the child’s grandmother. Once the underage girl had returned home, the cop continued to text her and later sent her a friend request on a social media site, which made the child feel uncomfortable. The girl told police she did not wish to be contacted by the officer.

Many cases involve domestic disputes, harassment, or outright violence. In one 2015 incident, a woman reported that she was being harassed by an NOPD recruit who was dating the civilian’s ex-boyfriend. Another complainant reported that her husband, an NOPD officer, had shoved her into a kitchen countertop. In one instance, an officer was accused of swinging a police baton during a domestic disturbance “on the interstate.” In another incident, a woman reported that the father of her three children, an NOPD cop, showed up at her door holding a gun during an apparent custody dispute.

In February 2021, the mother of Rodney Vicknair’s teenage victim filed a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans in federal court. The complaint alleged that Vicknair, the city of New Orleans, and others violated the child’s civil rights, committed assault and battery, and inflicted emotional distress.

The mother also alleged that the city of New Orleans should be held liable for violating her daughter’s civil rights because the city created conditions that led to Vicknair sexually assaulting her daughter. According to the lawsuit, the city let Vicknair respond to a child sexual assault survivor even though he had a history of prior complaints.

According to the civil suit filed by the victim’s mother, Vicknair joined NOPD in 2007 and had complaints filed against him by either citizens or fellow officers in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, and 2016. The complaints involved allegations of excessive force, unprofessionalism, intimidation, neglect of duty, and failure to follow NOPD policy. In 2009, the lawsuit says Vicknair was accused of using a woman’s license plate to look up her name and call her over to him while he was sitting in a parking lot on a lunch break. The suit states that Vicknair was suspended for five days over the incident.

The Appeal reached out to both Vicknair’s criminal and civil attorneys. Neither responded.

In June 2021, a judge dismissed the mother’s claim that the city enacted policies and practices that allowed the assault to happen but otherwise allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

But in January of this year, the victim’s mother requested that the court reconsider its order and allow her to include the findings from the Umbrella Coalition report, since the documents allege that the city has a pattern of failing to take sexual misconduct committed by officers seriously.

In a January 30 response, attorneys for the city of New Orleans argued that the report was simply a “rehashed editorialization of old evidence” and didn’t merit reintroducing the municipal liability claim because the “social activists” who published the report “have an obvious pro-plaintiff / anti-police agenda.”

On February 16, a federal judge granted the woman’s motion and let her argue the city’s policies and practices directly contributed to her daughter’s assault.

“The Court previously dismissed Plaintiff’s municipal liability claims against City Defendants in part for failure to allege a pattern of similar constitutional violations—in this case, a pattern of sexual abuse by NOPD officers,” wrote judge Carl J. Barbier. But Upton’s amended complaint “alleges that NOPD routinely fails to impose consequences on officers who commit sexual violence, because of the 189 officers with formal complaints of sexual violence, only 38 have resigned and 6 were terminated or resigned under investigation.”

The city of New Orleans has denied the victim’s allegations in court. But advocates are demanding the city take further action.

“The data has been put into clear terms, and still, the city council, the mayor, New Orleans media have not addressed it,” said Hunter-Lowrey from the Promise of Justice Initiative. “It’s inaction like that that allows there to be a pattern and practice of NOPD sexual violence. How bad do things have to get before something is changed to protect the residents of New Orleans from terror instilled by the police?”

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