Police Often Close Cases Without Arrest
Monday, December 4, 2000
Three days after Christmas in 1995, a Chevy Camaro holding Chauncey Dillard and his cousin Reginald Palmer was sprayed with bullets on Montana Street in Northeast. At Washington Hospital Center, Dillard told his mother and a D.C. police detective who did it. Then he died in surgery.
"He gave up those names in the operating room," Detective Phineas Young said in a recent interview.
Dillard's mother believed his dying declaration would allow police to solve the case quickly. But it remained open for nearly two years, until one of the suspects Dillard named was killed. Then police closed the case "administratively"--attributing the killing to the dead suspect and "solving" the investigation without an arrest.
A Washington Post examination shows that the department's homicide clearance rate, the measure by which detectives are judged, is increasingly bolstered by such administrative closures. The proportion of homicides closed by arrest has dropped while the rate of administrative closures has risen, according to D.C. police records and Post analysis. Among cases that occurred between 1988 and 1990, a Post study in 1993 found that 10 percent of the cases closed were done so administratively; The Post recently looked at 1997 homicides and found that rate had risen to 18 percent.
Under General Order 304.1, D.C. police are allowed to close cases administratively under specific circumstances: a suspect is dead or commits suicide; two people kill each other; a dying suspect confesses; a suspect is already in prison or being prosecuted; or a suspect is in a country where extradition is not allowed.
But the very nature of administrative closures--they are made with evidence that is never tested in court--raises questions about their proliferation in recent years.
The Post study also found an increase in the rate of cases closed administratively with suspects who were dead. A look at 100 homicides closed without an arrest between 1996 and 1999 found more than 50 that were pinned on dead suspects. Eleven of the cases languished for years with little or no follow-up, only to be closed within days or weeks of a suspect's death. Some cases contained no records explaining why the case was closed.
"It's too easy to blame it on a dead guy," said William L. Hennessy, a retired D.C. police captain who commanded the homicide unit from 1993 to 1995. "We owe it to the community to make sure we're locking up the right guy. I didn't like closing cases 304.1."
The rise in the rate of administrative closures comes at a time when hundreds of D.C. homicide cases are missing and many closed cases lack proper documentation, a long-standing problem. A review of cases ordered by Ramsey in response to a Post records request found that 98 administrative closures between 1994 and 1999 were "properly closed" but said that seven others should be reopened. Still, hundreds of other cases were incomplete or could not be located. Among those cases are dozens of administrative closures.