Judge orders probe of records in Pershing Park mass arrests

Lawyers for protesters say evidence was possibly altered to obscure D.C. police actions during the Pershing Park mass arrests in 2002.
Lawyers for protesters say evidence was possibly altered to obscure D.C. police actions during the Pershing Park mass arrests in 2002. (Lucian Perkins/the Washington Post)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

A federal judge ordered an independent examination of District government records to determine whether they were altered to cover up police actions during a controversial mass arrest at a World Bank protest.

The order by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan came in two lawsuits brought by almost 400 people arrested by D.C. police Sept. 27, 2002. Many were hogtied and held for more than 24 hours.

Authorities made the arrests without warning, and then-Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has apologized for the roundup, which occurred in Pershing Park.

The District has recently come under scrutiny for losing critical pieces of evidence: a running log of police actions and sections of radio dispatch tapes. Lawyers for the protesters and bystanders say the documents and tapes were destroyed or altered to obscure police misconduct.

The tapes and the log could help determine who ordered the mass arrests and undermine statements by top police commanders. Assistant Chief Peter Newsham has said he ordered the roundup. Ramsey has said he agreed with Newsham's decision. Lawyers for the protesters believe Ramsey actually gave the command.

At the request of D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, a retired federal judge launched an investigation of the missing evidence. In his Dec. 4 report, Stanley Sporkin said he was skeptical that the log simply vanished. He could not determine what happened to the dispatch tapes. He urged the city to conduct a forensic examination of the computer and radio systems to find out what happened.

Sporkin's report, in part, prompted Sullivan's decision Thursday to order the independent forensic examination, which would be financed by the city and conducted by a private firm. Nickles said he had no problem with the review. "I have nothing to hide," Nickles told the judge.

Depending on the outcome, Sullivan said he would consider referring the case to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.

The outside review comes as the D.C. government has been racing to settle several mass-arrest cases. On Tuesday, Nickles and the Partnership for Civil Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group, announced that they had reached an $8.25 million settlement in the organization's class-action lawsuit over the Pershing Park roundup. The group represents all but four people suing the D.C. government over the arrests.

Nickles has recently settled two other mass-arrest cases brought by the organization. The three agreements will cost the District more than $20 million.

In the settlements, the District has pledged to improve officer training and to beef up its record retention policies.

However, Nickles said Thursday that the three settlements might be jeopardized if the four remaining Pershing Park plaintiffs seek broader reforms.

He asked Sullivan to bar the four remaining plaintiffs, all former George Washington University students, from taking such action.

Jonathan Turley, an attorney for the students, has said he wants the District to enter into a consent decree to prevent future arrests. Turley and Nickles met briefly Tuesday night but do not appear to be close to a settlement, which would short-circuit a trial scheduled for September.

"We intend to go to trial and present these witnesses and this evidence to a federal jury," Turley said. "This is a transparent attempt to avoid meaningful reforms."

Nickles said it "would be irresponsible" for him to accept Turley's demands.

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