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Nineteen months ago, DeOnté Rawlings, a teen suspected of stealing a minibike, was killed in an exchange of gunfire. The off-duty D.C. police officers involved were investigated and cleared. But did the reports add up?

Review of DeOnte Rawlings Case

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Cheryl Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009; 12:00 PM

On Sept. 17, 2007, 14-year-old DeOnte Rawlings found himself in the middle of a 5.5-second gunfight that left him dying in an alley in Southeast Washington. Rawlings had been shot in the back of the head by James Haskel, an off-duty D.C. police officer who suspected the youth of stealing a minibike from his home nearby. Haskel, who was not in uniform at the time, claimed that Rawlings shot at him when confronted in the alley and that he then returned fire. Federal prosecutors and D.C. police investigators sided with Haskel a year later, clearing him of any criminal wrongdoing in the incident.

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Though city officials promised a transparent investigation, they refused to release the details supporting their conclusions, leaving a host of unanswered questions in the community: If Rawlings fired, where was his gun? Why did the minibike vanish from the scene, only to reappear days later? What evidence tied the boy to the shooting?

The Washington Post did its own examination of the Rawlings case, obtaining and analyzing previously undisclosed internal police reports, statements of officers at the scene and depositions taken from witnesses. Together, the documents present a much more ambiguous picture, revealing a chain of police missteps and oversights that raise questions about what really happened that evening.

Washington Post Staff Writer Cheryl Thompson was online Monday, April 20 at noon ET to take your questions about the case.

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Cheryl Thompson: Good afternoon. Thanks for joining the discussion.

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Ruther Glen, Va.: I am assuming that Mr. Haskel was saying that Mr. Rawlings was shooting at him face to face, how then did Mr. Haskel shoot Mr. Rawlings in the back of the head and why. Did he have any proof that Mr. Rawlings stole his bike?

Cheryl Thompson: There is no proof that we've seen indicating that DeOnte Rawlings stole the officer's minibike.

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Anonymous: Wasn't the family's suit against the D.C. government and MPD dismissed for lack of evidence? If not, why hasn't the family sued?

Cheryl Thompson: No. The lawsuit against the city and the two officers is pending in U.S. District Court.

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Washington, D.C.: Your article points out several instances where the two police officers and even other officers that assisted them in the aftermath of the shooting, violated the policies, procedures and guidelines of the Department. Did Chief Cathy Lanier impose a sanction or reprimand these officers and those involved in helping them and those that erred in their investigation of the incident prior to allowing them to return to duty?

Cheryl Thompson: The police chief said in September 2008 that the shooting was justified and that Officer Haskel did not violate department policy.

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Washington, D.C.: Was there any gun powder on the young man's hand?

Cheryl Thompson: No.

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Richmond, Calif.: I read yesterday's article. Excellent reporting. Where is the 'transparency' that was promised? Who is accountable for not having this transparency? It seems like there are so many discrepancies and obvious violations. In a situation where police are involved there should be a higher scrutiny of what happened and those involved held to a higher standard. The misuse of their powers seems to be blatant.

Cheryl Thompson: Thank you. Yes, both Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chief Cathy Lanier promised and open and thorough investigation. Lanier reports to the mayor.

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Silver Spring, Md.: As the Post seems determined to smear James Haskel, I feel compelled to say a few words on his behalf. I know James personally, and have worked alongside him for years. I call him Speedy. Speedy is a family man; a church-going father of two and stalwart husband to a strong wife.

The Rawlings case is not the first time Speedy and his family have been victimized by their own community. Yet he has chosen to live and raise his family in the same neighborhood where he himself grew up, mere blocks from his mother's home, despite having the means, and clear incentive, to vacate to the suburbs.

This principled stand is the very foundation of community policing, the model of policing the city's leadership claims to support and expect from the department. The constant refrain from community leaders and the Post's own editors is that the police do not do enough, are not connected to the community they serve, or simply do not care.

Yet when an honest, hard-working veteran officer living within the community is attacked by the people he serves, the Post launches a smear campaign with blinding dispatch.

This "investigation" by the Post is nothing more than a transparent attempt to bring back relevance to a rapidly fading medium. It has revealed nothing which would contradict what the official investigation has concluded.

Why would you, Cheryl Thompson, think that reviewing a few documents and notes would outweigh the findings of the US Attorney's Office, the FBI and the Metropolitan Police Department among others? There is nothing "ambiguous" about the investigation. There are simple explanations for all the supposed "missteps and oversights" during the event and subsequent investigation. Unless you have been in a situation such as the one Speedy found himself in that night, you could never know the stress and situational overload he was under. But you know that and you slander him anyway. You and your paper are truly shameless.

Cheryl Thompson: Thanks for your comments.

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Silver Spring: There seems to be no doubt that the officers involved violated many policies and their actions certainly cast serious doubt on the truthfulness of their account. Are they still employed by the police force? Leaving the scene of a shooting is a very serious matter.

Cheryl Thompson: Yes, they remain on the force.

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Washington, D.C.: Have the officers been at least reprimanded for leaving the scene? And why did they leave the scene of a crime, they should have know better.

Cheryl Thompson: Chief Lanier declined to discuss the case. When they announced the outcome of the department's administrative review in September 2008, she said that they didn't violate department policy.

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Arlington, VA: You're not helping, Ms. Thompson. When you publicize internal police reports, you give defense lawyers ideas. When you talk about police failures, you tell drug dealers that, you know, the Police aren't as effective as you might think. When you share facts about the Police as not being diligent and even lazy, it makes people more likely to drive dangerously as they think the Police are hanging out at Dunkin Donuts. So please, Ms. Thompson, try working WITH the Police Public Relations officers and think of our larger society before you go off just reporting facts.

Cheryl Thompson: This was a case where the police department, after announcing it would do a thorough investigation and keep the public informed, released very few details about its investigation, leaving many questions in the public mind. We sought not to hurt the police but to answer those questions.

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Washington, DC: If there is a federal grand jury still sitting and hearing evidence, then why is it so hard for everyone to realize that all of the facts have not been made public yet? Even you have a quote in your article that quotes Chief Lanier as saying that 80% of the facts are sealed.

Cheryl Thompson: The grand jury is no longer sitting and hearing evidence. Its work is done in this case.

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Washington, DC: The actions of both officers are unexcusable. There is no procedural command that authorizes off-duty officers to investigate their own crimes. The officers should have assumed the position of an average citizen and notified police.

If no action is taken against those officers for their conduct, it would be safe to say that we should be concerned about DCMPD when they choose to take the law in their own hands. This will prove that they will go unpunished and on payroll.

Cheryl Thompson: Thank you for you comments.

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Anonymous: Between incidents like this, the Prince Jones shooting from a few years back, and seemingly monthly acts of excessive force from the PG county police (e.g., the raid on that mayor's house and shooting of his dogs), I feel I have more to fear from the police than I do criminals. Seriously, what can we citizen activists do to get the police chiefs to take this seriously and throw these bad actors off the force?

Cheryl Thompson: Both D.C. police and police in Prince George's County have been under Justice Department monitoring for their police shootings. Both have made strides under the monitoring but police work is incredibly difficult and incidents occur from time to time that raise questions. This case was thoroughly reviewed by D.C. police, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI. Our goal was to explain what that investigation showed and answer the questions the public has continued to have about it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Chief Lanier and numerous forensic experts have stated repeatedly that the test for gunpowder residue on hands and clothing is seldom conducted due to its being highly unreliable. Why do you refuse to mention this in your article?

Cheryl Thompson: Gunshot residue tests have been controversial in court cases because they can show false positives where residue gets on the hands of people entering the crime scene who had nothing to do with the shooting. This was not a case of a false positive. There was no evidence of residue. In this case, investigators chose to test Rawlings's hands and clothing and included it in two reports. We reported on what they found.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you know if there has been any type of retaliation, threats, etc. against the officers?

Cheryl Thompson: We do not know of any. We do know that being in a police shooting is a traumatic and difficult experience for the officers involved.

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Maryland: What are Haskel and Clay's positions today in the police dept.?

Cheryl Thompson: I believe Officer Haskel remains in the Special Operations Division and Officer Clay remains at the Police/Training Academy.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why is the post still investigating a shooting that has been closed by those in authority? If this young man didn't steal the bike, have a gun or be a criminal, there would be no need for any investigation at all.

Cheryl Thompson: We chose to investigate this case because those in authority have released so little information about it. Both the U.S. Attorney's Office and D.C. police quoted the same 13 words in explaining their decisions. We felt that the public deserved a longer explanation.

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Alexandria, Va.: You did a brilliant job of reporting. How long did it take you to gather all of the facts and then put the piece together?

Cheryl Thompson: Thank you. It was about three months.

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Arlington, Va.: It's hard for me to reconcile the irregularities you report and the fact that the FBI was involved. Do you believe that the FBI was less than fully objective?

Cheryl Thompson: The FBI hasn't released its reports on the matter. We plan to continue our reporting on the FBI's role.

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Maryland: If I understood everything I read...there is no proof Deonte stole the bike or was even on the bike!

Cheryl Thompson: There's nothing we've seen that indicates DeOnte stole the bike from Officer Haskel's open garage or that he was on the bike. The boy's fingerprints were not on the bike when police recovered it two days later from the Prince George's County home of a friend of Officer Haskel's.

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Maryland: Hi Ms. Thompson. Won't say I enjoyed the article, considering the subject matter, but I appreciated the article. I have been waiting some time for more info on this episode. Will The Post continue to follow this? The shooting aside, from the very start this appears to be a case of "vigilante" justice gone awry. For that alone, wouldn't the officers be in line for some type of reprimand?

Thanks for keeping up with it...

Cheryl Thompson: Hi. Yes, we will continue to follow this story. Again, Chief Lanier said at the end of the department's administrative investigation that Officer Haskel didn't violate department policy.

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Question about DeOnte: When this story first came out, the father was quoted in The Washington Post saying DeOnte was out of control. Staying out late at night, skipping school, running with a bad crowd. It was also reported that DeOnte was interrogated about a homicide. How come this information was not in your article yesterday? Also, the father has 16 children, not 12.

washingtonpost.com: 'I Failed Him. I Failed My Baby.' Man Sought Help for Son Weeks Before D.C. Police Killed Him

Cheryl Thompson: Actually, that information was in the sidebar to yesterday's story. "As DeOnte grew older, he started running with a rougher crowd and his father found him harder to control. He sometimes cut class to roam the hallways at Ballou Senior High School." Mr. Rawlings told me in an interview last month that he has 12 children.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the article. I understand that no evidence ties Rawlings to the bike. While there are obviously a lot of aspects that don't make sense, I'm wondering what other possible explanation there could be for the initial confrontation if he wasn't on a bike? Is it possible he was on a different bike?

Cheryl Thompson: The family's lawyer was quoted in the story as saying he believes someone other than DeOnte was on the bike and that someone else fired at the SUV that Officers Haskel and Clay were in.

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SE Washington, DC: Why aren't more people upset at how the Mayor is covering for the (Gang style) hunt these officers went on. Just because your an officer doesn't mean that you can evenwhen victimized take your service weapon and go looking for the perp.

Cheryl Thompson: Thanks for your comments.

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Maryland (again): No offense to Chief Lanier, but if none of these actions was against Department policy, that merely indicate another issue to be addressed.

Has she said anything about the poor judgment employed by the officers. No one is perfect, but this simply was bound to not end well the way it was handled. We don't want normal citizens resolving these types of crimes on their own. My feeling is it would have been wiser for the victimized officer to involve other officers with no direct relation to the issue. My question is (sorry), due you believe the use of a grand jury was intentional as a way to provide cover for an investigation that may have been flawed, or was it a sincere way to try and get this resolved properly?

Thanks again.

Cheryl Thompson: The FBI and grand jury had been brought in to ensure an impartial investigation.

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Cheryl Thompson: Well, that's all the time we have. Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this matter.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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