D.C. police testify about 2002 World Bank arrests
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 7:12 PM
Former D.C. police chief Charles H. Ramsey and other top officials have been summoned to federal court this week to account for the loss of key evidence in a case of possible police misconduct more than eight years after the unfounded arrests of hundreds of protesters roiled the city.
Fifteen top police officials and lawyers have paraded through the courthouse since Tuesday in hearings that could lead to a criminal probe. They have tried to explain under oath how the city's preeminent law enforcement agency could mishandle evidence of its own conduct.
The hearings before U.S. Magistrate John F. Facciola, which will continue this week, underscore how the mass arrests of World Bank and IMF protesters in 2002 are still reverberating in the city.
Lawsuits related to the arrests have cost taxpayers more than $10 million in settlements of complaints that police officers, without warning, swept up demonstrators, commuters and tourists three blocks from the White House, leaving some hogtied wrist-to-ankle or detained for up to a day.
The most authoritative police evidence - video surveillance tapes, radio recordings and a master log of police command actions of the day's chaotic events at Pershing Park - disappeared or were mysteriously edited, according to evidence uncovered in civil suits.
The hearings have not been flattering. The officials who then managed the District's command center, Stephen J. Gaffigan and Neil L. Trugman, denied testimony by a subordinate that they had received 13 paper copies and the location of a computer file logging police actions during the protests. Those vanished.
Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham, who said he ordered the arrests with Ramsey's approval, said he felt no obligation to preserve any records other than his own.
Longtime police general counsel Terrence D. Ryan and his deputy, Ronald B. Harris, said they never explicitly told officials to preserve potential evidence, saying that they assumed it was common practice or that standing policies would suffice - deviating from typical legal practice.
In his turn on the stand, Ramsey, who left the District at the end of 2006 and who is now police commissioner in Philadelphia, said that "the ultimate responsibility for everything in the department falls under the chief's office."
Still, he said, he never asked anyone to preserve evidence. "There are hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits, so the general counsel is the one who I turned to to handle complaints when they come in," Ramsey said.
For Ramsey, the extraordinary judicial proceedings may threaten to dim the luster of his eight-year tenure as chief. When the arrests happened, he gave conflicting statements about whether he had ordered them before stepping forward with a public apology.
Trust in government
In ordering Facciola to conduct the special inquiry, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said the District and its lawyers could face "painful" financial, professional or legal sanctions.