D.C. Police Step Up Firearms Training
By Sari Horwitz and Jeff Leen
To address problems with firearms training and police shootings, D.C. police are launching a massive retraining effort for the entire 3,550-officer department and improving the system for tracking incidents in which officers use their weapons.
Starting early next year, officers will be required to double their hours of firearms instruction and to attend a three-day "refresher" course designed to teach street survival skills and alternatives to deadly force.
Officials hope the moves will address weaknesses outlined in a recent series of stories in The Washington Post showing that District officers have shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large city police force in the United States.
Chief Charles H. Ramsey said in an interview, "Use of force is a priority, and we've just got to do better."
Ramsey's top lieutenant detailed the initiatives to Post reporters in a recent interview. "The failure in our training and getting the word out was demonstrated in a lot of shootings," said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, who joined the department in May. He said that if officers had been properly trained in the use of force, "a lot of those shootings might not have occurred."
The Post series also revealed deficiencies in the department's investigations of shooting incidents involving its officers. Some investigations dragged on indefinitely, The Post found, while in others, rulings were issued after shoddy investigations.
Police shootings also were undercounted, a problem officials blamed on a lack of coordination within the department. D.C. police undercounted by nearly one-third the number of people killed from 1994 to 1997, tallying only 29 fatal police shootings instead of the 43 confirmed by The Post. Seven fatalities were missing from police shooting trend records, and seven others were mislabeled as nonfatal.
To strengthen its oversight, Gainer said, the department for the first time has shifted responsibility for tracking the cases to a central place the Office of Professional Responsibility.
"You need responsibility for overseeing the studying and investigating and the getting of the information and tracking of what goes on in one place," Gainer said.
After a fatal shooting involving an officer, the department will dispatch a "shooting team" to oversee and coordinate criminal investigations and to determine whether discipline is warranted against the officer.
The team which will be supervised by OPR's Inspector Dwight Williams will include a homicide lieutenant, several homicide branch sergeants and six to eight detectives.
After an incident, the shooting team will be required to produce a preliminary investigative report for the chief by the close of the business day, Gainer said.
The U.S. attorney's office, which reviews police shooting incidents to determine whether criminal laws have been broken, also is taking steps to improve its ability to probe police shooting cases. The Post found that several investigations of police shootings by the U.S. attorney's office took more than two years to complete.
U.S. Attorney Wilma A. Lewis said in an interview yesterday that she is creating a civil rights unit to target police shooting and excessive force cases.
"We can do a better job of moving the cases more quickly through the office," Lewis said. "One of the reasons for creating a special unit was to give it more of a priority."
Lewis said the two-attorney unit will be housed in the office's Transnational/Major Crimes Section, headed by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Blier.
Blier said the separate unit will avoid "interpersonal issues" that might arise when prosecutors are forced to investigate police officers who might also serve as their witnesses in other criminal cases.
"We'll be able to improve the quality and the time it takes to do these probes," Blier said.
Gainer described the police training initiatives as "a work-in-progress." A key component of the retraining effort, he said, will be emphasizing the standard known as the "use of force continuum," which guides officers in the amount of force appropriate in various situations. For example, if a suspect is simply unresponsive and non-threatening, officers are advised under the continuum to use verbal commands rather than physical force.
Ramsey said, "We have to make sure we have a force well trained not just in deadly force they must use only appropriate and necessary force."
Ramsey will send officers to a "refresher" course on the use of force at the police academy in Southwest Washington. "Over the next 12 months, we intend to get the majority of the work force especially the street guys to this three-day course," Gainer said.
Among other things, the officers will be given instructions on Ramsey's new policy governing when police may shoot at cars. Ramsey's policy prohibits officers from putting "themselves in a position with a vehicle where the use of deadly force would be the likely outcome."
Since mid-1993, D.C. police officers have fired their weapons at cars 54 times in response to alleged vehicular attacks, killing nine people and wounding 19, an eight-month Post investigation found.
In the overwhelming majority of those cases and in all of the fatal shootings the driver was unarmed. In several cases, experts consulted by The Post said the officers had put themselves "in harm's way" before shootings.
Ramsey is boosting the officers' regular firearms training from eight to 16 hours a year. During the mandatory training, officers will take courses on street survival using non-lethal force, such as pepper spray and expandable batons.
Gainer said that officials have distributed pepper spray to 70 percent of the force. Nearly 10 percent of the force has been equipped with a new, expandable baton to replace wooden nightsticks, he said.
The chief eventually wants to prohibit the use of blackjacks, the leather-covered lead bludgeons now carried by some officers. But, for now, top police officials have decided to phase out the use of blackjacks, rather than prohibit them immediately.
"We are trying to balance our changes with the officers' sense of safety," Gainer said. "Until we train officers with an appropriate 21st-century law enforcement tool, we don't want to send them into shock. Change has to be done conscientiously, gently. People can't handle too much change at once."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company