By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Sullivan said the department's conduct raised the question of "when, if ever, can anyone trust their government?" And Facciola said that witnesses could face criminal investigation by the Justice Department for perjury, obstruction of justice or destruction of evidence.
Carl Messineo, founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, called the case an important example of court oversight of the $500 million-a-year D.C. police department and its 4,000-plus officers.
"This is a proceeding about restoring personal accountability and making clear if there are persons identifiable as being individually culpable for the loss of evidence, that they be made to answer for that misconduct," said Messineo, who has secured a separate $8.25 million class-action settlement for 386 plaintiffs.
He added, "If this is occurring in this case, when they know everyone is watching, what is going on unearthed, undiscovered in all the other cases - which are perhaps low-profile but life-altering cases - for people entering the justice system?"New technology
In Facciola's second-floor courtroom in U.S. District Court, witnesses have cast a window back to the anxious days of fall 2002, when memories of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the anthrax scare and protests aimed at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were fresh and police in Washington took aggressive steps to maintain order. Police infiltrated protest groups, ramped up the use of closed-circuit TV cameras and bridled at Internet boasts by anarchists that they would shut down the capital.
But they also struggled to introduce new technology and provide resources to a three-lawyer shop facing 200 cases at any given time.
Sgt. Douglas A. Jones said Trugman asked him to provide - by written note and not e-mail, which would have left an electronic trail - the computer address of the master log. He said that one version of the log might have accidentally been overwritten during the D.C. area sniper case, which erupted days later.
But Jones said that he found it inexplicable that it did not remain on a back-up server and that he told technical employees to store all data on it before it was replaced years later.
Then-police inspector James O. Crane has given contradictory explanations of gaps in police radio recordings at critical moments during arrests. And police officials have struggled to explain how one of the few videotapes they did produce jumps back and forth in time, given their account that it was unedited.
On Friday, Harris said that it "was a mistake on my part" that Ramsey and top city lawyers misled the D.C. Council in November 2003 in response to a subpoena, saying that a less-detailed report was the master police log, which Harris knew was missing.
Police did not report the error or launch a deeper computer forensic search because, Harris said, he did not realize the mistake until a council investigation was over. Thomas L. Koger, the D.C. assistant attorney general who was assigned off the case because of breakdowns in turning over evidence, is set to appear Monday.
The D.C. Council approved new limits on police practices in 2005, ending "trap and detain" tactics in demonstrations and requiring training to protect free speech rights and retain related evidence.