French Quarter crimes labeled as reports of lost items
New Orleans police improperly downgraded 177 thefts of wallets or purses in and around the French Quarter this year in which victims reported unauthorized charges on their credit cards, labeling the purloined cards as “lost” rather than stolen, according to a report released Wednesday by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office.
The IG looked at “Signal 21” or “Signal 21L” reports in the heart of the city’s tourism district for the first seven months of 2013 after receiving a complaint about misclassification of crimes in the NOPD’s 8th District, headquartered on Royal Street in the Quarter.
Signal 21 is NOPD code for a “miscellaneous incident,” while the “L” designation signifies “lost or stolen property.”
The audit is the second one published this week to question the accuracy of NOPD crime reporting, coming on the heels of a report by the state legislative auditor that found a pattern of underreporting of serious crime.
The IG’s review found about half of 803 incidents written up as Signal 21 reports — totaling 426 cases — involved people who reported losing their wallets or purses on or near Bourbon Street.
Of those 426 cases, 41 percent of the victims told police that after their wallet or purse vanished, their debit or credit card had been used without permission, yet police still classified them as “lost.”
More than 80 percent of the people reporting stolen wallets or purses lived out of state, according to the report.
Although making purchases on somebody else’s credit card is clearly a violation of the law — even if the wallet was lost, not stolen — officers in only six of the cases reviewed by the IG’s office subsequently reclassified the incidents as thefts, which in NOPD parlance get the designation “Signal 67.”
The report also said at least some of the 249 instances where a wallet disappeared but no unauthorized charges were reported probably involved a theft. “Many of the complaints stated that they had canceled their cards,” the report noted, adding: “It is possible that unauthorized charges could have been applied after the complainants filed their initial reports.”
“It’s hard to believe that all of these 249 people would just lose their wallets or purses,” said Howard Schwartz, assistant inspector general for investigations, in a telephone interview, adding he also doubted all of them were victims of thieves.
In a number of cases, however, a complainant was certain his wallet had been taken, Schwartz said.
“There were cases where a person said they knew they had their wallet in their right-hand pants pocket, and then three minutes later it was gone,” he said.
Many of the police reports the IG reviewed make note of the fact the complainant was drinking at the time his or her wallet vanished, but in most cases they do not suggest the complainant was not credible for that reason, Schwartz said.
The audit leaves open the possibility that the classification problem could be much broader than the 177 cases auditors flagged as problematic.
In more than four of five out of the 3,395 incidents in the 8th District that were classified as a “Signal 21” this year, officers did not write a report — making it nearly impossible for auditors to second-guess how the incident was classified.
State auditors, in the report they released Monday, flagged some incidents in which no report was filed, concluding the dispatcher’s notes suggested a crime had occurred and the incident should have been more fully investigated.
Schwartz said he was “concerned” about the possibility that some of the “Signal 21” incidents that did not result in reports could have been improperly classified as well.
But auditing those cases would be difficult if not impossible, he said, saying the issue would probably have to be dealt with through “better training and oversight.”
Speaking with reporters outside a City Council budget hearing Wednesday, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas blamed the misclassifications of some thefts on a longstanding practice that predates his time as police chief. He said the practice has been in place for roughly 30 years and is part of officers’ training; it calls for officers to automatically classify any case of lost property as “lost or stolen” rather than one or the other.
In the future, officers will base their classification solely on whether there is probable cause to think a crime took place or not, Serpas said.
The “21L” signal, meanwhile, will be retired. In a reply letter to the IG report, Serpas said the new policy will take effect Jan. 1.
“What we’re going to do is create a single policy that says if someone’s property is missing and there’s no threat of a crime at all, write it as such,” he said. “But if the property is missing and you cannot eliminate the threat of a crime, write it up as a crime.”
Serpas noted that reported thefts are actually up in the 8th District compared to last year — evidence, he suggested, that nobody is trying to purposefully massage the numbers.
Schwartz said he found nothing to indicate that police brass or city leaders are trying to juke the statistics to make New Orleans — which has long been plagued by one of the nation’s highest murder rates — seem safer than it is.
“In talking to Chief Serpas and the mayor as well, I found nothing to suggest that this (misclassification problem) came from the top down,” Schwartz said. “They all agreed they want accurate numbers, even if it means crime goes up 50 percent.
“This is how the system should work. We can write all the reports in the world, but if the entity we’re looking at blows it off and doesn’t do anything about it, it doesn’t do anyone any good. But we brought this to them and they’re taking action.”
The correct classification of crimes is critical for the NOPD, as the signal given to a particular incident determines whether it is included in the statistics given to the FBI every three months and published in the bureau’s annual “Crime in the United States” report. A crime labeled a Signal 67 is included in the theft category — one of eight categories of major crime categorized by the federal agency — while a Signal 21 is not.
According to the NOPD’s official data, just over 8,000 thefts occurred in the city last year. The department could not provide a figure Wednesday for the 8th District alone.
Serpas was more accepting of the IG’s critique than a report released Monday by the legislative auditor, which took a look at citywide crime reporting and found substantial underreporting of serious crime. Of 1,000 incidents reviewed by the state agency, the auditors found that 319 should have been reported as serious crimes to the state and to the FBI but weren’t.
The police superintendent chafed at that report, saying the auditors “cherry-picked” a category of crimes to analyze, making the problems they found seem more widespread than they are.
In the IG report, the authors’ noted that improperly classifying crimes essentially robbed 8th District leadership of essential information to help them tackle the area’s crime problems.
Furthermore, the IG emphasized the office’s auditors noticed pickpocketing patterns in the Signal 21 reports that they have since passed along to the NOPD.
The misuse of the Signal 21 classification has a troubled history in the NOPD. The sex-crimes unit in 2008 and 2009 routinely categorized sexual assault reports as Signal 21s. A 2009 Times-Picayune article found that 60 percent of all sexual assault calls in 2008 were given this “miscellaneous incident” designation — a percentage that experts at the time called highly questionable.
When Serpas took the helm of the department in 2010, he ordered a review of the 2009 Signal 21 sexual-assault cases. An audit by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement subsequently determined that a third of 93 cases had been improperly classified.
NOPD detectives reexamining the cases found another 21 that should have been investigated as sexual assaults. Quatrevaux has said his office is conducting a series of audits on the accuracy of the NOPD’s crime data in various categories. The first of those reports will examine rape, he said. It is expected to be released before the end of the year.
Staff writer Andrew Vanacore contributed to this report.