Uptick in N.O. rapes hailed as more victims reporting

The New Orleans Police Department celebrated a milestone last year when the city recorded its lowest number of murders in recent memory, a glimmer of good news for a citizenry exhausted by rampant violence. Last week, police brass sounded a similarly upbeat note after releasing a broader batch of 2013 crime statistics — but this time it was a sharp increase in reported rapes that the authorities touted as a sign of progress.

On its face, the announcement seemed troubling. The NOPD investigated 176 rapes last year, a 29 percent jump from 2012 and the highest total of sexual assaults in one year it has reported to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program in nearly a decade. But instead of ringing alarm bells, officials said the increase suggested a renewed confidence in the Police Department and a more accurate reflection of a grossly underreported crime.

“The fact that our detectives were approached by 40 more victims last year compared to the year before is a sign that people believe our department can and will get these offenders off the streets,” Superintendent Ronal Serpas said in a statement.

Experts and victims’ advocates said it’s difficult to pinpoint the root cause of a year-to-year increase or decrease in rapes reported to law enforcement. But they tended to agree that, in general, more women are turning to police than in years past after becoming victims of sexual assault.

“We actually think it’s a positive thing,” Ginesse Barrett, a forensic nurse at Interim LSU Hospital, said of the higher figure reported by police.

The number of sexual-assault victims treated by the hospital’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program increased by only two last year — from 255 to 257 — compared to the year before. The program is a good barometer, Barrett said, because it is the only one of its kind in the area that collects forensic evidence from adult rape victims.

Of the 201 patients whose cases originated in Orleans Parish, 142 reported the sexual assault to law enforcement — a reporting rate of 71 percent, which Barrett said is far above national averages.

Shirley Young, a medical advocate coordinator at the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children, said shifts in societal views of both sexual assault and women’s sexuality have made more victims comfortable coming forward after an attack.

“It’s not necessarily that there are more rapes,” she said. “I think there’s probably less stigma now and less victim-blaming. A woman isn’t considered bad just because she had sex.”

Studies have estimated that only one in four rapes — or even as few as one in 10 — ends up reported to law enforcement.

“Everyone is in agreement that it’s way less than half,” said Judy Benitez, former executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault. “In terms of how many don’t get reported, it’s really difficult to tell.”

In an interview, Serpas said New Orleans experienced a 70 percent increase in reported rapes between May 2010 and December 2013 compared with the 44-month period before that. He said the trend is attributable not to an increase in the rate of sexual assault, but to changes in how police are classifying the crime and outreach efforts by the department.

A major increase from before May 2010 isn’t surprising. Right after he took office that month, Serpas ordered an audit of the department’s sex-crimes statistics, which had been called into question by news reports. At the time, he said Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro had expressed concerns about the sex crime unit’s investigations.

The subsequent reviews, including an audit by the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, found a number of cases that had been improperly downgraded and labeled non-criminal complaints instead of crimes. That led to an overhaul in the unit’s leadership and reopening of at least 30 cases.

“The audit essentially revealed that the unit was incorrectly classifying some investigations, and the chief determined that apparently the unit was talking victims into not reporting their alleged attacks as opposed to thoroughly and carefully investigating the alleged sexual assaults,” said Remi Braden, an NOPD spokeswoman, in an email. “Since that time in 2010, the NOPD has taken the revised strategy of thoroughly investigating every allegation of sexual assault.”

Serpas, who referred to rape as “the worst crime in the world,” said he believes word of the department’s new approach has spread throughout the community.

“We were not going to be a police department that tried to talk people out of reporting sexual assault,” Serpas said. “I think that subtle message has been going out to victims who have interacted with the department.”

The rape statistics reported by the NOPD likely will only go up in coming years, if only because the FBI is now requiring police departments to report a broader array of sexual assaults. Previously, the FBI used an extremely narrow definition of rape, excluding male victims and situations often labeled “date rape.” Rape, under this archaic definition, was “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.”

Although the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the change in late 2011, the NOPD numbers for 2013 were based on the old definition.

But beginning July 1, the state Commission on Law Enforcement will begin requiring the NOPD and other Louisiana law enforcement agencies to use the FBI’s newer and broader definition of rape. The new definition is gender-neutral, removes the term “forcible” and includes instances in which a victim cannot give consent because of “temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity.”

“Physical resistance is not required on the part of the victim to demonstrate lack of consent,” according to the new definition.

The FBI expects the number of reported rapes to increase once the new definition is implemented. Because it includes unwanted penetration of any kind, departments will also begin reporting other sex crimes that are not called rape under Louisiana law, such as oral sexual battery.

“I think it puts us where we need to be,” said Robert Mehrtens, deputy director of the law enforcement commission.