Justice Department to Assist D.C. Police
By Roberto Suro and Sari Horwitz
The Justice Department will provide D.C. police with an unprecedented package of assistance and training programs designed to stem the rate of fatal shootings by police and ensure that such incidents are thoroughly investigated, department officials said yesterday.
Attorney General Janet Reno announced the effort yesterday in response to a request from D.C. police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who asked that the Justice Department review every fatal police shooting in the past decade because his department lacks the credibility to investigate itself.
Reno placed in charge of the investigation Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who as the U.S. attorney for the District from 1993 to 1997 had responsibility for determining whether shootings by D.C. officers merited prosecution.
"We are committed to doing everything we can to assist and support Chief Ramsey and the dedicated officers who are trying to do the right thing day in and day out, to understand what the best tools are, how we address the issue when it occurs, what we can do to prevent the unjustified use of force," Reno said at her weekly news conference.
An eight-month investigation by The Washington Post found that D.C. police officers have shot and killed more people per capita over the past 10 years than any other big city police department. The Post investigation found examples of reckless gunplay by inadequately trained officers and showed that the police department often ruled such shootings justified despite evidence contradicting the official accounts.
Ramsey cited The Post series in a letter sent Wednesday to Holder asking the Justice Department to review past cases as well as current policies.
In an interview yesterday, Ramsey said that he sought the Justice Department's help because of community reaction to an incident this week in which a Northwest Washington man was shot by three officers after they said he lunged at them with knives.
The public controversy that erupted afterward "clearly showed me that the public continues to question the police and lacks confidence in us," Ramsey said. "I realized that no matter what I did, people would not be comfortable. I take that very seriously. The whole relationship between the police and the public has to be based on trust."
Top officials from several branches of the Justice Department will begin meeting early next week to design a special package of programs for the D.C. police that will be unlike anything developed for any other police department in the nation, officials said. Rather than concentrate on investigating past shootings by D.C. officers, Reno wants to focus on developing programs that will improve the department's future performance.
The Civil Rights Division, which brings both criminal and civil actions against police when excessive force cases rise to a violation of constitutional rights, will be involved along with the Office of Justice Programs and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which conduct a variety of research, technical assistance and grant programs.
Although the assistance package planned for the District would be the most extensive in the country, New York, Houston and other cities recently have asked the Justice Department to investigate specific cases of alleged police brutality. And, like Ramsey, officials in those cities have sought to reassure the public that the department's involvement will ensure an impartial review of police actions.
"We are not out encouraging it, but when big cities come to us with these kinds of problems in law enforcement, we can't turn our backs," said a senior Justice Department official. Reno praised Ramsey's "forward-looking attitude" in her comments yesterday and said the assistance program for D.C. police could serve "as a model for what could be done in departments across the country."
Ramsey said he is not concerned that Holder was the District's U.S. attorney during the years when there were many questionable police shootings and investigations of those shootings filled with omissions, errors and internal inconsistencies.
"There is no one I can think of who has as much integrity as he does," Ramsey said. "I'm not accusing the U.S. attorney's office of doing anything wrong. I'm looking at the Metropolitan Police Department."
"My belief was that we owed it to the public to take a look at these cases," Ramsey said, referring to cases highlighted in The Post series. "But it struck me that no matter what conclusions we came to, we would not have the confidence of the public."
"I had only one course of action to ask for a review from an impartial third party," Ramsey said. He concluded the Justice Department was the one agency that had sufficient credibility.
The chief yesterday videotaped remarks to his police force, explaining why he was asking the department to step in, and sent the video to all his commanders to show at roll call. He also sent each police unit a copy of the letter he sent to Holder so there would be no questions or rumors about what he said.
"There is no secret here," Ramsey said. "I want to communicate the best I can with the rank-and-file."
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