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"Fatal Flaws: The District's Homicide Crisis" series.
With Post reporters Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson
Transcript from Thursday, Dec. 7, 2000;

Fifteen hundred murders have gone unsolved over the past decade. Nearly two-thirds of the homicides that occurred in 1999 remained unsolved at that year's end, the poorest performance in the last 10 years.

A year-long Washington Post investigation has found that in D.C. more and more murders are going unsolved, and many cases have fundamental flaws.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Welcome to our live discussion with Post reporters Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson about the Fatal Flaws series.

Washington, D.C.: How do closure rate for cases and reason for closure (i.e., administrative, conviction, etc.) compare to other local jurisdictions?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: The D.C. numbers are too fluid and different police departments count their closure rates differently. There are generally two ways to count them; cases closed within the year the homicide happened and the Uniformed Crime Report to the FBI, that is, all cases closed to date.

Downtown D.C.: How do you get updated investigation information about an open, unsolved murder case in the local area? This particular case received media attention for one day, and since then little if nothing has been mentioned in the paper or on television. Are there simply too many new cases opening up each day that make it impossible for the media to relay follow-up to the public? Any suggestions would help. Thanks.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Unsolved cases are not public information. What is the case?

Washington, D.C.: Did you look at the spillover effect into/from Pr. George's County? How would that have affected your net numbers?


Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: We did not look at the spillover into Prince George's County. Obviously, crime does spill over District lines, but because police records are kept only within jurisdictions, it would have required records from both the District and Prince George's to see those connections.

washingtonpost.com: In some of the cases talked about in the series, the family members had not been kept updated on the progress of their cases. How would a family member go about finding the status of a case?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: You can call Chief Ramsey's office at 727-4218. If you know the name of the detective, it might be quicker to call that person. If you have the name of the detective, let me know, I may know where he/she is assigned.

D.C.: I hate to sound cold, but it sounds like from your articles that most of the unsolved murders are unsolved because the neighbors and families want them unsolved, i.e. won't cooperate with the police.

Also, I get the distinct impression that most of the murders in D.C. are caused by gang members killing each other, so that the "real" murder rate, i.e. victim and murderer do not know each other, is much lower than reported. This actually makes me feel a lot safer, as I do not hang out in drug and gang infested neighborhoods and I am not a member of a gang nor am friends with gang members.

Perhaps if it were innocents being killed, the public would be more concerned, but criminals killing criminals?... sounds like the neighborhoods with gang members need to get off this "he's a good boy - he wouldn't hurt nobody" kick they get on every time someone is arrested and realize that their "good boys" are murderers.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: While it is true that many murders in the District are related to drug turf or are retaliatory, there are also many in which "innocent" victims are killed by strangers. Also, the District police are hampered by unwilling witnesses, but most families of victims are very eager to have their cases solved.

washingtonpost.com: Do you think Chief Ramsey's new review team will help improve the closure rate? How long before that team can be considered a success or failure?

New Team To Review District Homicides

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: The point of the team, according to the chief, is to make sure that cases are investigated and closed on solid evidence. In theory, that could lower the closure rate.

The team isn't in place yet, but we'll be watching...

Washington, DC: The murder rate in DC appeared to decline with the improving economy (especially during the late 90's). With what appears to be at the very least an economic slowdown, if not a prelude to a recession, do you think the murder rate may increase?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Crime rates are lower across the country and there may be a connection to the improved economy, but cause and effect is difficult to prove. So it's impossible to predict what may happen to the murder rate in the District.

NW: It seems like every time the police department's disarray is exposed, Ramsey grandstands and promises reform, and then... nothing. Do you think this time will be different? If he implements reforms, how long will it take for them to be effective?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: It's difficult to say what exactly will happen, but the Chief knows that he is being watched by local lawmakers and citizens. The problems appear to run deep, so it could take years.

Washington, DC: According to the articles, more than 1500 people walked away from Halfway houses. How does an indicted murderer remain in a halfway house? If repeat offenders are a significant part of the problem, it sounds as though mandatory minimum prison sentences ought to be considered.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Defendants have been placed in half-way houses in some cases when prosecutors have taken many months to secure an indictment and judges have refused to keep the accused in jail. Some states have adopted tough mandatory minimum prison sentences because of this problem.

Washington, DC: In today's story, Chief Ramsey said that he was "surprised" by the issues raised. Is this spin at all believable? Homicide problems have been high profile issues in the media for 5 years.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: It is possible that the Chief didn't know the extent of the problem. We were able to analyze data over a decade that the chief probably hadn't seen.

Richmond, VA: How did talking to the families of murder victims affect you personally, especially in instances when they were finding new information about their cases from you?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: We were moved by the number of families who had clearly wondered for years what had happened to their loved one's homicide investigation. In some cases, mothers had assumed the killer had never been caught when the case was closed years earlier.

Baltimore: What are your favorite true crime books? How do you feel about reporters writing books about their beats (like Homicide)?

washingtonpost.com: The book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," was written by David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun. The TV show of the same name was also based on the book.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: I don't read them, probably because I write about true crimes.

Washington: If a case is reopened by this new review team, what are the odds it will correctly closed and solved in the future?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: It's tough to say. It depends on the witnesses that can be located, evidence, etc. The longer a case remains open, the harder it is to solve.

Washington, DC: Do you think there is a public apathy towards both the number of murders in DC and the closure rate?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Many neighborhoods in the District are not affected by the high homicide rate, and there may be apathy among those residents. At the same time, in the city's poorer communities, homicide is common -- many go unsolved -- and those residents are far from apathetic. But they also have a less powerful political voice.

DC: How long has Charles Ramsey been the chief? At what point should the city tell him that he's run out of chances to fix things, and get someone else?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Ramsey's been chief since April 1998. He has a five-year contract. Any chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor and/or D.C. financial control board.

Rockville,MD: In one of your articles, someone said that people are afraid to cooperate with the police because the police let the "street" know who's cooperating. Is this true?

Based on your articles, it seems that much of the problem is related to the a poor processing system for these cases. For example, some detectives didn't know their cases had been closed, detectives were not responsible for taking cases from start to finish, etc. Do you think this is true? If so, is the department addressing this?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Police officers assure us they do not pass along information they receive or let others know who is cooperating.

We did find that many of the problems were related to poor record keeping: missing files and documents, for example. The chief said yesterday he would address those problems

Capitol Hill: What a great series of articles! The Post has been doing some really quality reporting!

Can the lack of competence of some of the detectives, as described in your series, be traced to the Barry years, or is the problem more recent than that?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Many of the detectives were on the force during Barry's tenures.

Washington: It appears that the Mayor is unwilling to challenge the Chief, and the City Council gets a continuous ration of "PR" from the Chief that hides the department's problems. Who can bring accountability to the top of the MPD. No one seems to care.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: The citizens can force accountability by going through their city council members.

DC: I live in Virginia, but work in DC, therefore I do not travel much around the city except for commuting and going out on the weekends, so I don't see the projects. Your series sounds like there is a "Boyz in the Hood" type atmosphere in poorer neighborhoods.

Is the gang situation really as bad as it is in LA? If not, what type of prevention can be done to prevent the escalation of kids killing kids over petty arguments?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: I don't think the District's gang problem is comparable to that in Los Angeles. Here the gangs are more loosely organized, smaller groups. That has not lessened the problem of young men killing each other over disagreements or in retaliation.
As for prevention, Boston initiated a very successful program when police and other leaders approached gangs directly and successfully lowered the homicide.

College Park, MD: Isn't the root of the problem here that this police department is out of control, like so many other large city departments? I mean, how many cops have shot other cops in the past 18 months? How many complaints about police misconduct have been filed? What about other incidents (such as the on-duty officers attending an appearance by a porn star a year or so ago) that illustrate that there is no discipline or accountability for members of this police department?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Clearly, this department has problems, like most big-city police departments. The department used to have a citizen complaint review board, but that was disbanded several years ago by the D.C. City Council.

Burlington, Vt.: What other stories do you plan on doing?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: We plan to follow up on the series by watching how the department implements reforms.

Germantown, Md.: Did you encounter any trends with regard to closure rate based on race or ethnicity?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Most of the victims were people of color, either African American or Hispanic.

Gaithersburg MD: Have you talked to US States Attorneys and asked them if they have lost cases for DC victims because evidence was not tested or transferred for testing when requested? I know it happens often.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: No, we did not.

Capitol Hill: It seems like there is a need for more administrative oversight on homicide cases, right? Is there enough money to fund more people?

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: Unlike other city agencies, the police department appears to have the money it needs for program, training, etc.

Cleveland Park: How does someone become a homicide detective? Isn't there some sort of training required to in detective work and record keeping, etc.? It's scary that all these files mysteriously went missing.

Barbara Vobejda and Cheryl Thompson: It used to be that detectives worked their way up from the streets. I'm not sure what how they're chosen now, but the training is minimal.

washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have. Thanks to Barbara and Cheryl for spending the last hour with us.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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