By Allison Klein and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 21, 2007
Acting in the wake of this week's fatal police shooting, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has put out a directive to clarify how off-duty officers should react if they become victims of a nonviolent crime. The guidance gives officers a great deal of discretion in an area that police experts said is loaded with risk.
The directive would not have barred off-duty officer James Haskel from acting on his own Monday night when he discovered his minibike missing from his Southeast Washington home. Soon after heading out with another off-duty officer, Haskel got into a confrontation that ended with the death of DeOnté Rawlings, 14, who allegedly had the minibike.
The killing, which police say came after DeOnté opened fire on the officers, has generated a community outcry. Police found no gun or minibike at the scene. Officials said the minibike was located yesterday, but a gun has yet to turn up. Police declined to say where the minibike was found or who had it.
A senior law enforcement source said federal prosecutors are likely to open a grand jury investigation into the shooting, possibly as early as next week, to subpoena witnesses and other information. Prosecutors are already reviewing evidence.
Haskel and the other officer, Anthony Clay, have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the probe. The U.S. attorney's office is leading the investigation, and the FBI yesterday said that it will assist.
Policing experts questioned the officer's decision to investigate the apparent theft of his own property, saying it created too much potential to cloud his judgment.
"If you're cruising around in a known high-crime neighborhood investigating a crime, it's a good idea to bring on-duty police with you," said Dennis Kenney, a Washington-based professor at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "That's why we put them in marked cars and uniforms."
Lanier's directive -- which she is having read at roll calls for the next two weeks -- is meant to cover off-duty situations.
"Importantly, off-duty officers who come upon or are victims of a non-violent property crime where there is no immediate threat to their safety, should proceed cautiously in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety," the directive states. It says that the off-duty officer should contact on-duty police officers before taking police action.
Sources have said that someone in the neighborhood called in a report of a theft at Haskel's home shortly before the shooting. It was unclear who made that call, and police officials no longer are releasing such specific information in the case, saying they will provide a full airing once the investigation is complete.
Haskel and Clay went looking for the minibike in Haskel's sport-utility vehicle. Police said the shooting occurred after they spotted DeOnté on the bike in the 600 block of Atlantic Street SE. DeOnté allegedly fired a shot that hit the SUV. Haskel left the vehicle and chased the teenager, engaging in a running gun battle that ended with the youth shot in the head, authorities said.
Clay took off in the SUV immediately after the shooting and returned about 10 minutes later without the vehicle, law enforcement sources said.
Criminal justice experts said that the case is further complicated by the fact that Haskel did not identify himself as an officer when he approached the youth. Both Haskel and Clay were out of uniform.
Lanier's directive, dated Wednesday, instructs off-duty officers who are victims of crimes to show "the utmost sensitivity." Under department rules, off-duty officers are required to act when they come upon violent crimes or life-threatening situations; in those incidents, too, they are supposed to notify on-duty police personnel as quickly as possible.
The chief said last night that she issued the directive because she did not find anything in the department's general rules that would cover conduct of off-duty officers who are victims of property crimes.
"I wanted to make it a bit more clear," Lanier said. "If there's a property crime and no immediate threat to anybody's safety, call the local jurisdiction and have uniformed officers handle it."
At the same time, she said, she wanted to avoid an order that would "lock anybody into a box."
The chief has declined repeatedly to say whether proper procedures were followed by Haskel and Clay, saying that remains a subject for internal review.
Yesterday, Lanier's predecessor, Charles H. Ramsey, called the shooting a "bad situation." He said officers should generally resist investigating crimes in which they are the victims.
"If you are emotionally involved in a situation, it's always best to have someone on duty handle it," said Ramsey, who left office in December. "It keeps you from giving an appearance of impropriety."
During Ramsey's tenure as chief, an off-duty police officer, Edward M. Ford, fatally shot a man he suspected of stealing tools from a house Ford was renovating. No charges were filed against Ford in the February 2006 death of Ignatius Brown. Brown's family is suing Ford and the city in U.S. District Court.
Greg Lattimer, a lawyer who has filed civil rights suits against the D.C. police, said he saw "no justification whatsoever for a police officer to operate off duty and out of uniform, conducting an investigation that is criminal in nature."
Lattimer also said the officers' conduct after the shooting raised serious questions. Sources said Clay left in the SUV at Haskel's instruction, because Haskel did not want anyone in the neighborhood to later recognize his car and do harm to him or his family.
Haskel stayed at the scene, the sources said, but kept his distance as a crowd gathered near the youth. In the chaos that followed, Lanier said, the gun apparently was taken.
"It would have been impossible for that to happen if those officers followed anything resembling proper procedure," Lattimer said.
Police first learned of the shooting through a rooftop device designed to detect gunfire, not from the officers.
Yesterday, officials declined to release tapes of 911 calls made to police that night, citing the U.S. attorney's investigation. Those calls could shed light on witness accounts.
The SUV, which authorities said has a bullet hole in the driver's-side door, is in the custody of prosecutors, and officials declined a request to view it.
The outcome of the federal prosecutors' review will hinge on a few key facts, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the process.
"What this will turn on is, Did that kid have a gun and was he firing?" said a law enforcement source knowledgeable about such reviews. "If they can establish that, the cops are going to be fine. If they can't, they're in trouble. "
If neither of those allegations can be established, investigators will try to determine whether someone else was shooting at the officers and whether Haskel could have reasonably believed that person was the youth.
The grand jury process is often used in shootings in which key facts are in dispute, prosecutors said. Investigators want to interview witnesses under oath, so they risk jail time if they do not tell the truth, and they want to get their accounts soon after the incidents, when memories are freshest.