Five N.O. officers fired over altered crime stats

1st District chief is among those dismissed in probe

Friday October 24, 2003

By Steve Ritea
Staff writer

New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass on Thursday fired a district commander and four other officers in a statistics-cooking scandal in which hundreds of crimes in the 1st District -- including shootings, carjackings and stabbings -- were downgraded to "miscellaneous incidents" and never fully investigated.

An internal NOPD investigation concluded that members of the district's investigative unit routinely overruled officers who had responded to crimes. When officers complained about the practice to their commander, they were ignored, Compass said.

A review of more than 700 reports written in the 1st District from January 2002 to June 2003 found 42 percent of crimes were incorrectly classified and another 17 percent were "questionable." More than 200 of the downgraded incidents found in the sample studied were serious crimes that included violence or threats, Compass said.

In a news conference at NOPD headquarters, Compass said he had no other option than to fire the five officers.

"I have determined that in order to reaffirm the public's confidence in their police department and to maintain accountability, ethics and integrity, there was no other choice but to immediately terminate their employment with the New Orleans Police Department," he said.

Fired were Capt. Norvel Orazio, a 29-year veteran who Compass had promoted to commander of the 1st District in May 2002; Lt. Michael Glasser, a 23-year veteran; Sgt. Aaron Blackwell, also a 23-year veteran; Sgt. Gary Le Rouge, a 21-year veteran; and officer Stephen Kriebel, a 5-year veteran.

Probationary Lt. William Ceravolo was demoted to officer status.

Limited to 1st District

Compass stressed that investigators reviewed crime reports from the city's other seven districts and determined that manipulation of reports was limited to the 1st District, which includes the Lafitte and Iberville public housing complexes as well as parts of Mid-City, Treme and Bayou St. John.

The manipulation meant crimes required to be reported to the FBI were not.

It also meant that major crime in the 1st District was underreported by about 5 percent. The effect on numbers citywide was significantly less, about half of 1 percent, police said.

Downgrading serious crimes also led to inflated reductions in crime reported in the 1st District for the past 18 months. The district boasted a 21.5 percent reduction in major crime from 2002, compared with 2001. The actual figure is 18 percent. Likewise, crime dropped 31.5 percent in the first six months of 2003 compared with the same period in 2002, not 35 percent as originally reported. The crimes known to have been improperly downgraded will be re-investigated, including interviews of victims and witnesses, by a task force of ranking officers, Compass said. Amended reports will be sent to the FBI, he added.

Alerted by tips

The investigation, begun in June with anonymous tips from frustrated 1st District officers is the first scandal tied to the NOPD's aggressive use of statistics as an accountability measure. The program, launched by former Superintendent Richard Pennington in the 1990s, involves weekly meetings with district commanders, who are grilled about their numbers.

The department has been handing out quarterly and annual "crime reduction awards" to districts that posted the greatest declines in major crime -- a practice Compass said Thursday would stop.

Orazio had received the award in the first quarter of 2003, the last quarter of 2002 and for the full year of 2002.

After a preliminary review uncovered "numerous and obvious 1st District irregularities," Compass in June launched the investigation and brought aboard the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local watchdog group, to oversee it. Also in June, Orazio was transferred to the department's communications division while the investigation was pending.

The result was interviews with more than 100 members of the department and a 225-page report with thousands of pages of exhibits, Compass said.

Investigators found what Compass called a "policy, pattern and practice" in the 1st District that required officers who responded to serious crimes to notify a detective in the district's investigative unit. Those serious crimes included all crimes reported to the FBI, from robbery and carjackings to rape and murder.

The process, Compass said, allowed crimes to be downgraded by the investigative unit and not receive any follow-up investigation. Although several ranking officers complained, Orazio refused to change the policy, Compass said.

Examples of downgraded crimes include:

-- A carjacking that was reclassified as a miscellaneous incident pending further investigation, which was never conducted.

-- An incident in which a bicyclist, a victim of an attempted robbery, was shot by the gunman. The victim was treated at Charity Hospital and when officers tried to classify the crime as an attempted armed robbery and aggravated battery, the 1st District's investigative unit reclassified it, again, as a miscellaneous incident pending further investigation, which was never conducted.

-- Another incident in which a man was stabbed and robbed. The investigative unit again reclassified the crime as a miscellaneous incident warranting further investigation. Again, it never received further attention.

New safeguards

Compass said safeguards are being put in place to protect against future abuses.

The safeguards include monthly printouts of all downgraded crimes that will be reviewed by the NOPD's Operations Bureau and Inspections Division.

The Inspections Division also has assigned ranking officers to serve as "report reviewing officers" who will review samplings of incident reports and conduct "quality control checks," Compass said.

Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche commended the department for a "thorough job with the investigation" and said the group will continue to monitor the investigation, which is ongoing.

Thursday's actions followed internal NOPD disciplinary hearings held Wednesday. Police Association of New Orleans President Lt. David Benelli said his organization will provide legal counsel to all the fired or demoted officers, who are entitled to civil service hearings.

"To fire a police officer, especially a veteran, is the harshest penalty anyone can receive," he said. Benelli added that PANO will push for "a speedy hearing" in each case "so they can have their day in court, so to speak."

Compass said it was a "good day" for the NOPD because it shows that department standards for integrity are serious.

But some neighborhood groups were outraged over the loss of Orazio, a popular commander. The former leader of one group suggested that firing him was too harsh.

"He was a wonderful person who developed a rapport with the community," said Marie Marcal, a past president of the Esplanade Ridge and Treme Civic Association. "He was aggressively policing the area and making a difference in crime as far as we were concerned.

"The punishments, certainly if there was a crime, didn't fit the crime," Marcal said.

No decision on prosecuting

Compass said it is too early to tell whether the cases of the fired or demoted officers will be referred to the district attorney's office for criminal prosecution.

Compass also announced Thursday the elimination of the department's crime reduction award, which may well have provided at least some motive for manipulation of the statistics. Compass described it as being "like a Super Bowl ring."

Benelli applauded that move, calling it "long overdue."

"The 1st District shouldn't be in competing with the 2nd District" or any other district, he said.

The downgrading of hundreds of crimes to miscellaneous incidents that were never fully investigated reduced the caseload for detectives in the 1st District, as well as reducing the raw number of major crimes reported.