D.C. Police Knew of Homicide Problems
Detective Detailed Flaws in April Memo

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other high-ranking officials knew for months about serious problems in the department's homicide unit, including shoddy investigations, underachieving detectives and poor oversight by supervisors, but failed to take immediate action, according to internal police records and interviews.

William Corboy, who spent more than 10 years as a D.C. homicide detective and supervisor, said he hand-delivered memos to police officials, the mayor's office and several D.C. Council members, warning them that the homicide unit needed prompt attention.

"I wrote to all those people and said we were on track to achieve the worst homicide investigative performance of any major police department in the country," said Corboy, who retired as a captain June 23 after 20 years on the force. "Once again, a chief of police seems to be suggesting that he possessed no specific knowledge of what was occurring in the homicide investigation process."

An April 11 memo written by Corboy, which he gave to The Washington Post, spelled out problems he had found after examining hundreds of homicide case files.

"Common to all these cases is the lack of uniformity in the organization of the jackets themselves, a near total lack of investigative effort, and . . . the lack of any evidence of management oversight," the memo said.

Corboy's memo to Steve Gaffigan, the police department's quality assurance director, urged officials to take specific steps: initiate an immediate review of homicides that occurred in the first three months of this year; create standard procedures for case management and review; shift resources from the cold-case squad, a team of officers who investigate old killings, to new homicides; track gun recoveries; use crime mapping; and improve the use of personnel evaluations and discipline.

"The perception is that the command staff is at a loss over what action can be taken to improve the homicide closure rate," the memo said. "Action--meaningful action--must be taken to promptly and dramatically dispel any sense that the department is indifferent to the homicide situation."

Ramsey was informed about the memo's contents, according to other officials.

Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer also "was privy to those documents," Corboy said.

Ramsey, who has been under increasing pressure to improve investigations and the department's low rate of solving homicides, did not return several telephone calls seeking comment. Police closed just over one-third of the homicides that occurred in 1999 by the end of that year, the lowest performance in a decade.

Gainer said in an interview that officials were making changes to improve homicide investigations before Corboy issued his memo.

"I seem to recall that the things he pointed out were things we were aware of and were doing something about," Gainer said, citing the deployment of a "mobile force unit" of police officers to crime hot spots.

Gaffigan said he heeded the captain's advice and "started making plans for a review in the spring."

"I actually had discussions with the chief about it," Gaffigan said. "There was no delay. Homicide is a priority for this agency. It's always been a priority."

Gaffigan said the department is "moving ahead" on crime mapping, which will show pockets of crime by neighborhoods.

Corboy said he also wrote and telephoned D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Harold Brazil (D-At Large), and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3). Patterson was the only elected official to respond, he said.

"She called me right away and asked me to come and see her," Corboy said.

Evans, former chairman of the council's Judiciary Committee, said that he hasn't paid attention to the department's homicide problems in recent months.

"Since I left the Judiciary Committee, I have let Harold [Brazil] take the lead on this," Evans said. "I had no reason to believe [homicide investigations] had not gotten better."

Brazil said there was only so much he could do to help fix the homicide unit.

"What are we supposed to do?" he asked. "We've done hearings."

Corboy has written numerous memos to police officials over the years outlining problems with the homicide unit. In a May 21, 1996, memo to then-homicide commander Capt. Alan Dreher, Corboy expressed concern about a shortage of homicide detectives and an increasing caseload that is "well above what is manageable."

"The larger issue is what Ramsey has done or failed to do since he arrived, which has exacerbated an already bad situation," Corboy said last week. "From where I stand, the homicide investigative performance numbers speak for themselves."

Ramsey didn't publicly acknowledge any problems with homicide investigations until July, when the department turned over 100 closed homicide case files requested by The Post in two Freedom of Information Act requests.

He then launched a review of homicide cases and has drafted a manual of standard operating procedures for homicide investigations.

The manual has not been distributed department-wide.

Corboy was one of several people assigned to review the cases, redact some information and give officials a "heads-up" about what the files contained, before releasing them to the newspaper.

The files, which were examined as part of a year-long investigation by The Post, lacked crucial documents such as witness statements, crime scene accounts and "252" reports, which are required to close a case.

Corboy's memo urged officials to take immediate action, and not "wait until The Post reviews, analyzes and writes about the files. The Post should not have any difficulty securing the opinions of experts to disparage the work."

The Post's investigation, published this month, found fundamental problems in D.C. homicide cases, including dozens of cases closed without arrests under unclear circumstances, missing and incomplete case files and at least 200 slayings blamed on people believed by police to have committed at least one earlier homicide.

Ramsey announced last week that he was creating a case management review team to examine homicides and make sure they are thoroughly investigated and include the necessary paperwork before they are officially closed.

The department also is developing a new training curriculum for homicide supervisors that is expected to be in place early next year.

Only 11 of 33 supervisors who oversee homicide cases have experience investigating such crimes, according to department records

© 2007 The Washington Post Company