Justice for DeOnté

Monday, December 1, 2008

ON SEPT. 17, 2007, a 14-year-old was shot in the head by an off-duty D.C. police officer who said he fired in self-defense. Investigation by the U.S. attorney's office found no criminal wrongdoing by the officer or a colleague who was with him. Investigation by an internal police panel concluded that neither officer broke any departmental rules. Case closed; the men were returned to duty. But the refusal of D.C. officials and law enforcement authorities to provide details of their inquiries left key questions unanswered. We've criticized the secrecy and, in recent weeks, have learned additional facts that underline the need for a better public airing of the events of that tragic evening.

DeOnté Rawlings was shot and killed in a confrontation propelled by the theft of a minibike from Officer James Haskel's garage. He and Officer Anthony Clay, both out of uniform, went in search of the bike; they said that they spotted DeOnté riding it in Southeast Washington. Mr. Haskel said that he told him to drop the bike but, instead, the boy pulled out a gun and fired, hitting the sport-utility vehicle in which the two officers were seated. The boy died in what authorities characterized as a running exchange of shots with Mr. Haskel. Federal prosecutors conducted a seven-month probe and, in exonerating the officers, cited gunshot sensor technology, shell casings found at the scene and accounts provided by police. No gun was ever found, the minibike went mysteriously missing and the officers, who at the time did not identify themselves as police, left the scene -- issues that have never been adequately addressed.

In the aftermath of the shooting, with the community in an uproar, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty promised a full, impartial investigation. It's troubling, then, to learn now that on the day after the shooting, Sept. 18, the initial propensity of authorities was to clear the officers for immediate active duty. Neither officer had been screened for drugs or alcohol, and a walk-through of the events surrounding the shooting had yet to occur, but the Metropolitan Police's force investigation team said that its preliminary review "found no issues of concern." Ultimately, the officers didn't return to duty until the investigations concluded this year.

Among the evidence that authorities cited as proof that the boy fired at the officers was a bullet hole in the side of Mr. Haskel's SUV. It turns out that there was no bullet hole but, as recently characterized by Mr. Haskel, an "indentation." The boy is alleged to have fired from a distance of about 10 feet and an initial police report said that a .45-caliber gun was used, but that has never been confirmed.

One of the more nagging questions of the case centers on the disappearance of the minibike from the shooting scene and its subsequent discovery. Police refused to disclose how they recovered it. We've learned that Mr. Haskel directed them to the bike's location following an unusual sequence of events. A police report describes how -- a day after the shooting -- a friend of Mr. Haskel reported seeing the bike being ridden in Southeast by a boy and how he tried to get an officer to investigate but ended up being offered the bike by another individual identified as "Stink." The friend called Mr. Haskel, who told him to take it to the friend's home in Maryland, where police retrieved it. Authorities investigated and are said to have found nothing amiss, but the removal of such an important piece of critical evidence to another jurisdiction is curious.

There are other issues. Police who immediately responded to the shooting scene apparently did not canvass for witnesses. The ShotSpotter report on the gunshot sensor technology used to reconstruct the event includes caveats about reaching conclusions based solely on the audio evidence. In providing information on the careers of the two veteran officers, Chief Cathy L. Lanier neglected to mention that Mr. Haskel had been involved in two other shootings; one resulted in an injury, and both were deemed justified.

It's mystifying that the internal police board found no fault with the actions of the officers even as the officers have since acknowledged that some of their actions were inconsistent with proper police procedure. Mr. Haskel's explanation for leaving the scene was that he didn't feel safe with a crowd gathering and he wanted to go tell his mother about the shooting so that she wouldn't worry.

We are mindful of the dangers of police work and the potential danger of a crime scene where a young boy lay dying and an angry crowd was forming. Both officers have distinguished police careers. Nonetheless, a shooting involving an officer is not just another case; it goes to the heart of the relationship between police and the people they serve, and particular attention is called for. Mr. Fenty told an outraged public there would be a complete explanation of what happened. So far, it's an unkept promise.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company