By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009
In the Washington area, 37 officers from major police agencies are on leave or restricted to desk duty, sidelined while they are investigated for shooting at suspects.
All but six are Prince George's County police officers.
Unlike most area departments, which typically return officers to the street within days or weeks, officers in Prince George's usually remain on desk duty for months after firing a weapon. One has been on desk duty for more than a year.
In the county, such shootings are investigated by police, reviewed by prosecutors and then reexamined by an internal police board before officers are allowed back to work. The process represents a cautious approach in a county with a history of allegations of excessive force by police. But it is at odds with an aim shared by most other departments in the region: to see that officers who have done nothing wrong return to work as quickly as possible.
Over the past five years, the lengthy process has resulted in more than 100 county officers being taken off patrol for months at a time and more than $1 million in salary being paid to officers restricted in their jobs. Not one shooting by an on-duty county officer in that time has been deemed unjustified.
Until a reporter described them last week, Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said he was unaware that the differences between his department and others in the area were so stark.
"It goes against all models of reasonableness," Hylton said of his department's approach. A 28-year veteran, Hylton became chief this year.
Hylton said he would discuss the issue with State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, whose investigations into the shootings typically take months.
The strain of the officers' absence has become palpable in recent weeks, particularly as budgetary constraints have forced two-week furloughs. The 31 officers under investigation cannot work their patrol shifts; police supervisors have resorted to assigning fewer officers to target the most pressing crime trends in the very neighborhoods where carjackings, bank robberies and hostage situations led to police shootings.
Vince Canales, president of the Prince George's officers' union, said officers dislike desk duty -- many lose income because they cannot work overtime and are banned from working private security jobs while under investigation. In addition, Canales said, the policy has created a potential risk to public safety.
"We have had officers who have been in serious situations -- and who should have fired their weapons -- later report that they did not because they worried about the fact that they would be off for so long," he said.
Last month, 12 county officers were added to the list of those on leave or desk duty after they fatally shot an armed man outside a bar in Temple Hills. Largely because officers fired so many rounds -- about 90 -- clearing up who shot when and whether every shot was justified will mean the 12 will remain away from patrol for months, police and prosecutors said.
"There has to be a balance between what's good for the community, the agency and the police officer, and it would be hard to say that this is it," said Doug Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University Division of Public Safety Leadership, which teaches best practices to law enforcement agencies.
Ward said that, although there's no national standard for when to return officers to work after shootings, "I don't know of any other jurisdiction where it's this strict."
The District, Baltimore and Prince George's have each recorded dozens of officer-involved shootings in the past year, but Baltimore and the District have no officers on leave or desk duty because of the ongoing investigations, officials said.
In the District, police supervisors make a preliminary decision after three days about whether a shooting by an officer was, in police parlance, "good." If it was, the officer returns to full-duty status while a criminal review churns along in the background.
In Baltimore and Montgomery County, officers are sidelined as they are in Prince George's while prosecutors review shootings. But the process moves more quickly in those jurisdictions, and neither requires officers to remain off patrol during a subsequent internal review. One Montgomery officer, whose review was delayed because he was injured, has been out since Feb. 29.
Most Washington area law enforcement agencies don't wait for state prosecutors to completely finish reviewing shootings. Such is the case in Prince William County, where two officers have been sidelined since a shooting a week ago but are expected to return to full duty this week.
The remaining three Washington area officers on leave or desk duty -- two from the Maryland National Park Police and one from the Prince George's sheriff's office -- also fired weapons in the Temple Hills incident last month. County police are investigating, and those agencies will wait for clearance from Ivey before returning the officers to duty.
"There's a number [of shootings] we still have to take through an extended process to make sure every 't' is crossed and 'i' is dotted," Ivey said.
Two years ago, to speed his part of the process, Ivey dropped a requirement that every police shooting be reviewed by a grand jury. Jurors had told him that the reviews were unnecessary, especially when officers did not hit anyone, he said.
Still, Ivey said he presents evidence to grand juries from most shootings in which officers wound or kill someone.
In recent years, police officials instituted the subsequent internal review to win approval from a federal monitor examining the department's use-of-force policies. The department decided on its own not to return officers to full duty until those reviews are completed.
In rare cases, the chief chooses not to return an officer to full duty until the shooting undergoes a third level of review, this time by a citizen oversight panel.
The multilayered process means officers from Prince George's can remain away from their duties long after their counterparts elsewhere, even if they were involved in the same incident.
After officers from Howard and Prince George's counties fired at suspected bank robbers in November, for example, the Howard officers were cleared by their internal affairs division and returned to full-duty status the next month. Two Prince George's officers remain on administrative duty.
The department did get good news this month about one of the 31 officers. An officer who shot a suspect in the leg while working as a security guard 13 months ago in Oxon Hill was cleared by a grand jury, officials said.
The department's internal review of the shooting is underway.