District police are still paying for forced hiring binge

August 28, 1994

This piece originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 1994 edition of The Washington Post.

Two ambitions drove Charles Smith in the summer of 1989. The first was to up his income as a member of the R Street Crew, a murderous drug gang. The second was to join the D.C. police force.

By fall, Smith had achieved both.

Smith was locked up in Prince George’s County awaiting trial on drug distribution charges when the letter of acceptance to the police academy arrived at his home. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” Smith recalled his father saying. “I can’t get you out. But you got a job with the police department.”

Smith got himself out. He cooperated with the court and named his drug supplier. Three months later, in November 1989, he donned his blue uniform, swore an oath to uphold the law and began classes as a police cadet -- and sold PCP at least once more.

A year and a half later, detectives investigating the R Street Crew caught up with Smith, and he resigned a few months before he would have been eligible to receive his badge and gun.

The tale of how a drug dealer served 18 months as a D.C. police cadet is part of a larger story of breakneck hiring and training by the department in 1989 and 1990 with still unraveling consequences.

The most obvious of those consequences is the worst: An investigation by The Washington Post found that graduates in those two years alone, who make up about one-third of the force, account for:

More than half of the 201 D.C. police officers arrested since 1989 on charges ranging from shoplifting and forgery to rape and murder. Some have been arrested more than once and in more than one year.

More than half of those involved in departmental disciplinary proceedings for breaches such as neglecting duty, making false statements and failing to obey orders, which have doubled since 1989.

Half of those on a list of 185 D.C. officers so tainted by their own criminal problems that prosecutors won’t put them on a witness stand as officers of the law.

The Post reviewed hundreds of court files and internal department records on training and disciplinary actions and interviewed scores of police officers, prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers.

That investigation revealed a system that in 20 months of haste to meet a congressional deadline brought on board 1,471 officers -- 40 percent of the force at the time -- in a way that hardly provided the best selection of recruits or adequate training for even the most trusted, committed and hardworking in the classes.

Critical background checks on applicants were cut short, and investigators scrimped on visits to neighborhoods and interviews with former employers. Physical examinations were hurried, and some people who failed to meet minimum requirements were hired anyway. The psychological services unit, which had rejected one in five applicants in other years, rejected just one in 20.

During the peak recruiting time, 1,000 people took the police exam each month, and 60 percent of them passed. An additional 1,500 a month signed up for the police cadet program. The department wound up taking one in four comers, Police Chief Fred Thomas said, far more than the one in 12 hired during the early 1980s, and well above the national police average of one in 10.

Class after class of recruits was rushed through cramped academy classrooms, sometimes with outdated materials, and sent to patrol city streets scared and unprepared. Some rookies did not even know the proper way to handcuff suspects.

They were trained haphazardly as investigators, barely coached on the basics of writing up cases and conducting themselves properly on the witness stand. Prosecutors complain that far too many of them still fall far short in providing the basic police work needed to win a conviction.

Less than a generation ago, the D.C. police department was a national model, flush with federal demonstration dollars and lauded as one of the first in the nation to put female officers on patrol. Officials won praise for the department’s handling of massive protests against the war in Vietnam and crises such as the takeover of three city buildings by a group of Hanafi Muslims in 1977.

But among the current generation of D.C. officers -- armed and given authority to make life and death decisions -- there are those who have raped and those who have beaten and stolen -- from strangers and from each other. There are more than a few whose sense of right and wrong is so tied to a time clock that they say they can’t understand why they should be punished or fired for wrongs they commit off duty.

Inspector William B. Riley, who took over the department’s internal disciplinary process in December 1991, said the glut of problems can’t be explained as a mere statistical phenomenon or as the indiscretions of rookies. “There is a problem with the classes hired in 1989 and 1990 and with the supervision of them,” Riley said.

Jerry V. Wilson, who was D.C. police chief from 1969 through 1974 -- which included a two-year period when the department hired about 2,000 officers -- said problems with training and screening of police applicants are cyclical.

“It comes every time the department does substantial hiring,” said Wilson, who works now as a consultant to law enforcement agencies. “I don’t think the problems are ever as bad as some people describe them.”

Remarkable Corruption

Yet the rates at which officers are arrested in other large cities, including New York, pale in comparison with the D.C. figures.

In 1993, there were 79 arrests of officers on the 4,220-member D.C. force, a rate of nearly 19 per 1,000 officers. There were 90 arrests that year among the 30,000 New York City officers, a rate of 3 per 1,000 officers.

Detroit police, with 4,000 officers, handled 69 arrests through the department’s internal affairs section in 1993, but some of those arrested were not police officers. The same year, there were 20 arrests of officers in St. Louis, which has a 1,500-member force.

“No police department of any size can prevent corruption,” said Edwin J. Delattre, dean of the School of Education at Boston University, who has written about police ethics. “You can reduce the hell out of it. But with the kind of numbers you’re talking about in the District of Columbia, it’s impossible to reduce.”

The hiring spree was a result of congressional alarm over the rising crime rate and the fact that 2,300 officers -- about 60 percent of the department -- were about to become eligible to retire. Congress voted to withhold the $430 million federal payment to the District for 1989 and again for 1990 until about 1,800 more officers were hired.

In interviews with The Washington Post, elected and department officials in charge during the period of unrestrained hiring faulted everyone but themselves.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was mayor at the time and is seeking election to that office again this year, blamed then-Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., Barry’s own appointee, and Congress. “Ike Fulwood ... recruited, screened and made all of the decisions as to who was hired and fired,” Barry said. “Marion Barry did not make any of those decisions.”

Fulwood accused Barry of ignoring pleas to avert the hiring rush by bringing on more officers earlier. He also criticized Wilhelmina J. Rolark, Barry’s council predecessor from Ward 8 and then chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight responsibility for the department. “We could have minimized the problem, avoided it, by overhiring,” Fulwood said. “That’s what I blame the politicians for not doing.”

Without naming Barry, who defeated her in the 1992 Democratic primary, Rolark echoed Fulwood’s criticism of Barry’s inaction. “The council does one thing, and the executive does something else,” Rolark said. “The record speaks for itself.” As for problems that resulted from the hiring and training of the recruits, Rolark said, “That was the police department.”

Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, seeking reelection this year, and Chief Thomas said problems sullying the police department they now command were inherited from Barry and the council.

“Someone should have protested the haste in which they were to be hired,” Kelly said. “And then people just sort of responded to that political pressure and hired too many officers indiscriminately.”

Although the vast majority of the officers hired in the rush have not gotten in trouble with the law, one of every 14 officers hired has been arrested. And those arrests come at a time when public confidence in the department is waning.

A Washington Post survey of District residents conducted last December, for instance, found that 16 percent of residents said they thought police were doing a poor job, a sharp increase from 6 percent in 1990.

Another way to gauge the cost of the hiring spree is to consider the public dollars spent on replacing all the officers who have been dismissed.

Considering the $22,000 it costs to train an officer at the academy and the roughly $27,000 salary paid a first-year officer, the District has spent at least $3 million because of bad hiring: half to pay and to train officers who later were fired and half for those officers’ replacements.

Among criminals, whispers about corrupt officers abound. FBI agents working in the District heard so many allegations that in March 1992 the bureau’s Washington field office began to sift through the tips.

That gave birth to Operation Broken Faith, which led to the arrests last December of a dozen officers -- 11 of them hired in 1989 or 1990 -- for bribery and drug conspiracy. Nine have pleaded guilty, and three others await trial.

The ‘Dirty Dozen’

The so-called Dirty Dozen were charged with taking $85,000 to protect people they thought were shipping hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into Washington. The “dealers” actually were undercover FBI agents investigating police corruption.

Some of the 12 officers bragged to the undercover agents about past criminal acts that had gone undetected, according to the indictment. Officer Nygel Brown, who joined the force in 1989, said he had sold cocaine and not been caught. Officer Roland Harris, who joined the department in 1990, said he sold drugs in high school and stole drugs from police custody while in training.

The arrest of the 12 officers was unusual for its high profile, but the public doesn’t hear about most of the other cases. Those detailed in local and federal court files here and as far away as North Carolina and Kentucky include:

Ernest Hamner, hired in 1989, raped and sodomized a woman at gunpoint on the roof of H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington.

John J. Poston, hired in 1990, stole a paycheck from an officer who worked with him in the 6th Police District in far Northeast and Southeast Washington, forged the signature and cashed it at a liquor store on Wheeler Road.

Michael Curtis, hired in 1989, was with six other off-duty officers at The Dome nightclub near Dupont Circle. A patron pushed one of the officers, an argument started. Outside, Curtis chased the patron for two blocks and fired a shot at his back as the man fled.

Walter E. Robinson and Richard Gentry, both 1990 hires, acquired keys to a Georgetown office building from a security guard to check on the building during the midnight shift in the 2nd Police District. First, the officers used the building as a place to nap while on duty. Later, they were caught on videotape rifling through offices.

The group that made it to the academy most often with incomplete background investigations were the cadets, police recruiters said.

The cadet program was designed primarily for high school seniors, who work in administrative jobs throughout the department and take classes at the training academy.

Cadets are issued the same uniforms as officers, except their shirts carry a red and white “cadet” patch. The department uses cadets on the streets to assist with crowd control and sometimes to issue parking tickets. They start the program at age 18, and at 20 become officers without taking the entrance examination.

Five of the 12 officers charged in the FBI drug conspiracy case entered the department through the cadet program. So did Charles Smith.

From Outlaw to Cadet

Smith lived on Rock Creek Church Road NW, next door to Darryl D. Williams, an R Street Crew leader who has been sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder and running a drug gang.

At one of the crew’s trials, Smith testified that he was 13 when he started getting drugs for neighbors from the gang. By the time Smith turned 17, he was storing gallons of the gang’s supply of liquid PCP in his home. The lower level of the row house was destroyed when the PCP exploded and started a fire.

Smith and his workers sold drugs in some of the most notorious markets, including Paradise Manor apartments in Northeast Washington and Drake Place in Southeast Washington, during his junior year at Roosevelt High School, the year he applied to the police department.

“Me and a lot of my friends did it just to be clowning,” Smith testified about his police application.

In June 1989, he was arrested on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway with two or three grocery bags filled with marijuana. Police sent Smith, then 17, to the Boys Village juvenile detention center in Prince George’s County. The department notified Smith that he had been selected as a cadet while he was there.

The Crack Wars

The decisions that led to the District’s hiring spree came in 1988. Crack cocaine had made its way here from New York and Miami, bringing with it out-of-town drug dealers determined to turn some city neighborhoods into 24-hour, outdoor drug markets.

When local drug dealers realized the amounts of money that could be made selling crack, nightly shootouts over lucrative territory between locals and out-of-towners -- and later between rival local gangs -- became common. From 1987 to 1988, homicides jumped from 225 to 369, the first of four consecutive years of record slayings in the District.

About 3,800 D.C. police officers patrolled the District at the time -- not enough, department commanders said. Plenty, said Barry, who during his tenure countered that the District had more officers per resident than any other of the nation’s 22 largest cities. When Barry became mayor in 1979, the department had 4,073 officers, but by 1988 the number had slipped to 3,782. Through a spokeswoman, he recently declined to talk about the drop.

Spending on police services also decreased during Barry’s years as mayor. In real dollars -- after adjusting for inflation -- the police department’s budget shrank by $50 million from 1979, when Barry was first elected, to 1990, his last year as mayor. Department officials and the police union say the spending drop is to blame for the fact that the department for years did not have enough of such basic equipment as portable radios and typewriters and only now is getting push-button telephones.

Congress included language in the District’s 1989 and 1990 budgets that withheld the District’s federal payment for those years until the city increased its police force by about 1,800.

Barry said in a recent interview that Congress had put the District and the police department in a no-win situation. “At the time, if these policemen had not been hired, the District would have lost more than $400 million,” he said.

Fulwood said he and his predecessor as chief, Maurice T. Turner Jr., now deceased, often warned Barry in memos before the congressional intervention that the department needed more officers to fight crime and offset retirements.

In a June 1989 memo, Turner pointed out that “without addressing these issues of personnel shortages and insufficient recruitment, crime will undoubtedly rise and the department’s image will be tarnished and its influence diminished.”

In June 1989, the department shortened its recruiting process by allowing a group of 1,000 applicants to take the police entrance examination without first having to go through a long application process.

Previously, a person interested in becoming an officer would have to fill out an application, wait for it to be approved and then schedule an exam date. The expedited procedure was followed for several months.

To become a District police officer, an applicant who was not a cadet had to be at least 21, no older than 30, and have a high school or general equivalency diploma. The rules on prior drug use were stricter than those of some big city police departments but less strict than others: Smoking marijuana or PCP up to a dozen times was not a disqualifier in the District. A driver’s license was not required.

A D.C. law gave preferential treatment to city residents.

The entrance exam, in use since 1981, had 100 questions concerning the duties of police officers. The exam didn’t include questions related to tasks for which arithmetic might be used, such as reconstructing an accident scene or totaling the value of property stolen in a burglary. The test also didn’t require applicants to demonstrate skills in writing or grammar.

Compromised Standards

Since the early 1980s, anyone who got at least half right on the test was placed on a register to be hired.

The department hired some recruits even when there wasn’t room at the academy for them. The recruits would be assigned to do administrative work at headquarters until a spot opened up, said Fulwood, who led the department from August 1989 until October 1992.

The department also hired some candidates who didn’t meet physical requirements, including a half-dozen whose vision fell short of the department’s standards. Two were fired later. Two had corrective surgery and remained on the job. Two others didn’t correct their vision and are still on the force.

The workload swamped the 25 to 30 investigators assigned to do background investigations on police recruits and cadets. Sometimes they didn’t visit the homes of applicants -- a minimum hiring requirement at accredited police departments -- or conduct face-to-face interviews with people who provided character references.

Process Under Pressure

Carolyn Looper, a 20-year veteran who has done background checks since 1988, said the pressure to clear applicants made it difficult, if not impossible, to leave the office during the investigations.

“If we wanted to go to their neighborhoods, they moved so much that the first thing we’d have to do is decide which neighborhood,” said Looper, one of a half-dozen officers interviewed who conducted background checks in 1989 and 1990. “We just didn’t have time to do that.”

Because there wasn’t a written list of disqualifiers, borderline decisions about moving a candidate through the hiring process were left to the background investigators.

A “suitability board” reviewed each of their recommendations before a candidate was hired. The board consisted of the three sergeants from recruiting. Then the file was reviewed by the lieutenant in charge of recruiting, the captain in charge of personnel and finally by the assistant chief for administrative services.

Officers and supervisors who conducted background investigations during 1989 and 1990 said they do not believe investigators ignored a candidate’s criminal record when making a recommendation to the suitability board about hiring an applicant. They said they scrutinized the applications, and some said they did visit the applicant’s neighborhood when they could.

Beating the System

The lackadaisical background checks became well known among the thousands of aspiring officers.

Some job candidates supplied a mailing address of a friend to the department -- but concocted a name to throw investigators off track -- and then alerted the friend that a form from the police department was on the way.

Under the pseudonym, “the friend would write wonderful things and mail the form back,” said Julian Cabellero, who started at the academy in May 1990 after working four years as a deputy sheriff in Fairfax County. He didn’t use the ploy, but recruits laughed about it at the academy. “No one checked,” Cabellero said. “It was a joke.”

Sometimes investigators didn’t wait for files to be completed before recommending that an applicant be hired, even if the pending information was the FBI’s criminal record check. Recruits hired in that way were called conditional appointments, and some became full-fledged officers without their files ever being completed, Thomas said.

Officer Pamela Nicholson was on the streets for a year before the department learned of her arrest record.

In November 1990, a Prince George’s County grand jury indicted Nicholson on charges of possessing PCP and possessing PCP with intent to distribute the drug. In December 1990, Nicholson started classes at the D.C. police academy and graduated several months later.

It wasn’t until December 1991 that the department learned that a warrant had been issued for her and that she was awaiting trial. She was fired.

Nicholson’s boyfriend had stored the drugs in the apartment the couple shared, she said, and he was later convicted on a drug charge. Nicholson was acquitted and said she doesn’t understand why she had to lose her police job.

“I didn’t see what the problem was,” Nicholson said. “I was living in the apartment where they found it, but it wasn’t mine. I should have been allowed to stay on.”

Gertrude Banks entered the police academy in January 1990. In October of that year, she shoplifted $62 worth of shirts, socks, pillowcases and dish cloths from a department store in Capitol Heights.

In May 1991, Banks was charged with battery after hitting a woman with a nightstick. That charge was dropped. In August 1991, she was caught using a credit card that had been among the loot inside a stolen purse. She has since been fired.

The purse’s owner, Linda Kempster, who lives in Bowie, couldn’t believe a law enforcement officer snatched her bag from her car.

“Holy cow,” Kempster said. “My purse was stolen by a cop. That makes me feel great, just great.”

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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