The case of a 14-year-old rape victim in New Orleans has brought to light a troubling reality about the city’s police department, as well as others. A Washington Post report details the story of Nicole, who was sexually abused by a police officer who originally investigated her rape case.

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This story underscores the severity of the sexual assault of children by members of law enforcement. It highlights the disturbing reality that many agencies do not have policies and procedures to prevent this type of atrocity from happening.

It began in May of 2020 when Officer Rodney Vicknair showed up to assist the teenager after she reported being sexually assaulted by a 17-year-old boy. He encouraged her to go with him to the hospital to get a rape kit. “If I’m a young man that has done something wrong to a young lady and she doesn’t follow up and press the issue,” Vicknair said, explaining that if this were the case, “then I’m gonna go out and do it to another young lady.”

The report notes that “Within hours of meeting the girl, Vicknair wrapped his arm around her while they took a selfie” and even joked about “whipping your behind.”

At first, the girl and her mother figured he was being friendly, possibly trying to make her feel better after her ordeal.

However, over the next four months, the officer began grooming her, making her more amenable to the sexual advances he would later make.

Throughout the relationship, the officer would contact the young girl often – she gave him his phone number when they first met. He portrayed himself as a concerned officer who wanted to help Nicole. He became something of a friend to the family, having earned the trust of the mother as well. However, he later became her abuser and admitted to having touched her private parts without her consent on multiple occasions.

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Nicole’s mother became suspicious after discovering a photo on her daughter’s phone with Vicknair holding the teenager by her waist while standing behind her. She contacted law enforcement. The officer was arrested after an investigation, and despite denying the allegations, he later pleaded guilty to violating Nicole’s civil rights in a federal trial. Shortly after being sentenced and spending a few months in prison, he died from a brain tumor.

Vicknair’s actions did not happen in a bubble. The report notes that many law enforcement agencies, including New Orleans’ do not have robust policies in place to address sexual assault.

But while many school systems and churches have created practices and policies to root out predators, law enforcement agencies have largely treated child sexual abuse as an isolated problem that goes away when an officer is fired or prosecuted — rather than an always-present risk that requires systemic change.

There is no national tracking system for officers accused of child sexual abuse. At a time when police departments across the country face staffing shortages and are desperate to hire, there are no universal requirements to screen for potential perpetrators. When abuse is suspected, officers are sometimes allowed to remain on the job while investigations of their behavior are left in the hands of their colleagues.

Adding another layer of incredulity to this story, the officer was first hired in 2007 despite having a lengthy criminal record, including battery against a minor.

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In his application, Vicknair disclosed to the department that he’d previously been charged with disturbing the peace and aggravated assault. Just the year before he applied, deputies from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office were called when Vicknair reportedly brandished a knife at his ex-girlfriend and beat a man she was dating.

Citing the “potential for future violence, as well as threats made by Mr. Vicknair in the presence of deputies,” law enforcement seized Vicknair’s knife and his gun before taking him to jail, according to a police report included in his background check.

The charges were eventually dropped. Vicknair’s ex-girlfriend, Denise Trower, told The Post that she asked authorities to stop pursuing the case because she was afraid of what Vicknair might do if she didn’t. During their relationship, she said, Vicknair choked her and held a loaded gun to her head.

“He had threatened that he would make sure somebody did something to my son,” Trower said.

Even worse, Vicknair had also been charged with having a sexual relationship with a minor before he was first hired.

Three of Vicknair’s family members told The Post that he was charged after he had what they described as a sexual relationship with a minor. Vicknair was 20 years old. The girl, whom The Post is not identifying, was a preteen at the time. She did not respond to interview requests.

There is no indication that the background investigator looked into the simple battery conviction; he didn’t appear to know it existed. Though The Post obtained a record of Vicknair’s conviction from the court, the background investigator reported in his notes that Vicknair had no criminal record in Ascension Parish.

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The New Orleans Police Department has faced problems with child sexual abuse previously.

In the New Orleans Police Department, child sexual abuse has been a problem before. The city recently paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit over its 1980s Police Explorers program led by a lieutenant who was accused of sexually exploiting 10 boys. The case was investigated by the head of NOPD’s juvenile sex crimes unit — who in 1987 was convicted of child sex crimes, too.

In more recent years, two officers remained on the force after they were accused of abusing young girls. Then they sexually assaulted other children. They are among six NOPD officers who have been convicted of crimes involving child sexual abuse since 2011.

This case is horrific enough on its own. But in the greater context, it is even worse. The ACLU published a report in October highlighting how pervasive this problem is among law enforcement agencies across the country. The organization’s report points to a study finding that “over a 10-year period, a police officer was caught committing sexual abuse or sexualized misconduct at least every five days” while another study showed that “sexual violence was the second most reported form of police misconduct, after excessive force.”

The Independent also reported that “Some 2,000 allegations of sexual misconduct including rape have been leveled against serving police officers over the last four years,” with a significant portion of these complaints being dismissed or resulting in minimal disciplinary action.

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The Post’s investigation into the prevalence of this issue uncovered a shocking trend: “At least 1,800 state and local police officers were charged with crimes involving child sexual abuse from 2005 through 2022.”

Unfortunately, if there are no effective measures to prevent this conduct or promote accountability among officers who commit these crimes, they will continue to affect underaged victims. While police agencies typically try to weed out potential officers who exhibit problematic behavior, many of these individuals slip through the cracks.

As conversations over police reform have been had across the nation, this is an area that should be receiving urgent attention.