By Cheryl W. Thompson and Robert Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 7, 2000
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said yesterday that he will create a case management review team to examine homicides to make sure they are thoroughly investigated and have the necessary paperwork before they are officially closed.
The team will include eight retired detectives and police administrators from inside and outside the department, Ramsey said. They will have the final say about whether a case should be closed. The team is expected to be in place next month and will work out of police headquarters downtown on Indiana Avenue NW.
"There are some things that people just weren't doing on a consistent basis," Ramsey said. "This is like an audit that will be done with the file. We can't afford to have any of these cases fall through the cracks."
The team will conduct random daily audits. If a case has not been appropriately investigated, the detective and supervisor overseeing it "will be questioned," he said. "We will take whatever action we deem necessary," he said.
A year-long investigation by The Washington Post published this week found fundamental flaws with the quality of homicide investigations, including hundreds of missing and incomplete case files, dozens of cases closed without arrests under unclear circumstances and poor supervision of detectives.
Ramsey said yesterday that at least 130 case files remain missing.
The investigation found that 1,500 slayings have gone unsolved over the past 10 years and that two-thirds of the 241 homicides that occurred in 1999 remained unsolved at that year's end.
At least 200 closed cases were blamed on people believed to have committed at least one earlier homicide. At least 150 alleged killers were themselves slain. At least 17 witnesses were killed.
The Post also examined 100 homicide cases that were closed "administratively" without arrests between 1996 and 1999 and found that 29 did not have the required documents explaining why they were closed.
"I knew we had problems with our clearance rate, but I never realized the closed cases had those problems," Ramsey said. "There's no excuse for sloppy investigations, which is what we've got in many cases. I had not looked into that problem."
Ramsey and at least four of his predecessors were aware of problems with the homicide unit and made repeated promises to fix it. But the unit remained in disarray.
"I'm very disappointed to see that the department has not made any progress in this area," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), the former chairman of the council's Judiciary Committee. "Closing homicide cases was a priority in 1997, but the same patterns that existed then exist now. The same bad practices that existed then appear to exist now.
"The chief, if he is to be successful here, has got to get a handle on this," Evans said.
Evans pointed to the example of a man who was beaten to death in Northeast Washington several years ago and whose case remains unsolved.
"I used to send letters to [Assistant Chief Alfred] Broadbent and [former Chief Larry] Soulsby," Evans said. "Nothing."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) acknowledged long-standing problems with homicide investigations and said that citizens "ought to be outraged."
"It is inexcusable that our closure rate is as low as it is," Williams said in a telephone interview yesterday from Boston. "I think victims ought to be outraged. I'm outraged."
Williams said he takes responsibility for "this mess" and predicted that improvements are on the way.
"If we haven't made significant progress . . . then there ought to be accountability up and down the line," the mayor said. "But we're committed to seeing that this homicide investigatory process works."
Carl Rowan Jr., a former FBI agent and a frequent critic of the police department, called homicide investigations in the District "disgraceful" and said it is time for Ramsey to follow through on promises to fix it.
"He needs to stop acting as though he just arrived from Chicago yesterday," Rowan said, referring to Ramsey's hiring in April 1998.
Rowan suggested that Ramsey implement "effective oversight" and urged Williams to "start cracking the whip on incompetence, just like he did when he was chief financial officer."
D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, urged Ramsey to reconsider the concept of decentralization--sending homicide detectives to the districts. Detectives have complained that decentralization prevents them from sharing information about cases.
Brazil said he supports conducting a public hearing on the police department's homicide crisis.
"I'd certainly be interested in an oversight hearing to talk about . . . these administrative closures," he said.
But Ramsey vowed to improve homicide investigations and said he just needs time.
"The problem is mine to fix," he said. "I don't plan to pass this on to whoever follows me."