'My Partner's Down'
One Officer's Painful Story of Courage Under Fire
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 1998; Page A25 As he drove across the bridge toward his home in Maryland on a crisp October afternoon three years ago, it occurred to police officer Keith DeVille that his life from that day forward would be divided into two halves.
There would be the days before DeVille watched his young partner, Scot S. Lewis, being shot on the street. And there would be all the days that came after.
Early that morning, after DeVille and Lewis had responded to a call on H Street in Northeast Washington and then stopped to help someone, a stranger stepped out of his car and, without warning, fatally shot Lewis point-blank in the back of the head. What happened next was mostly instinct: DeVille, for the first time in his police career, drew his weapon and killed a man.
DeVille's actions on Oct. 6, 1995, made him a hero to his 3,550 colleagues in the Metropolitan Police Department. His shooting of gunman Melvin Darnell Pate was seen not just as a righteous and courageous act but also as a broader illustration of the dangers all officers face as they patrol neighborhoods in which every stranger is a potential killer.
When an officer goes down, as Lewis did that night in a flash of gunfire, the ripple effects within a police department are far-reaching. A heightened sense of vulnerability filters through the ranks and often takes months to subside.
The tensions on Washington's streets in the 1990s came at a time of numerous shootings of civilians by District police. But another way to consider the District's high rate of civilian shootings is to look instead at a different set of numbers the list of officers killed by civilians in the 1990s. Lewis and six other officers were killed in Washington from 1990 to 1997, a number surpassed by only six other U.S. cities, each much bigger than the District. Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit research group, calls it "an inordinately large number" that can be fully grasped only by those who put their lives on the line.
"We make a decision in split seconds," DeVille said later. "Do or die. React to the perceived threat or it's over."
Five years on the District's rough-and-tumble streets had exposed DeVille to the grim side of policing. Dozens of hours of training had taught him to use his Glock service weapon with expert skill. Then, in a split second, he faced a choice to take the killer's life or forfeit his own.
In his story can be seen the predicament faced by hundreds of diligent District officers assigned to the front lines of the city's drug wars during the last decade. Most never had to pull a trigger, but all of them understood how capricious the life of a street officer could be.
"Some people say this is our shield. It is no shield at all. It's a magnet for trouble," DeVille said recently, pointing to his silver badge. "I was absolutely shocked to find that somebody would strike a police officer. The amount of disrespect I have encountered in Washington is beyond my belief. It's a lack of respect for everything and everybody, especially authority."
One minute, he and Lewis were laughing in their cruiser at the end of a 10-hour shift at 2:23 a.m. as they stopped to help a colleague with a traffic stop. The next minute, a promising young officer lay dying in a puddle of blood.
There was only an instant to react as Melvin Pate aimed the barrel, then turned toward DeVille with a cold gaze. As Pate's gun went off again, DeVille remembers thinking, "Oh, my God. He killed Scot. He's going to kill me now. Keith, calm down and shoot this guy. Calm down and shoot him."
Instinctively, DeVille dropped to his knees and aimed his weapon. As Pate kept firing his .380 semiautomatic, DeVille fired back, a fusillade of 24 bullets, pausing only once to reload.
The entire episode lasted only seconds. In the end, Pate lay dead, his body riddled with 16 bullets from DeVille's semiautomatic. Pate, 30, had a long criminal record; an autopsy later showed he was high on cocaine, marijuana and PCP.
With Pate down, DeVille sprinted to the police radio, using his numerical call sign to contact the dispatcher.
"One six four!" he shouted.
Then, louder, "10-33!" The code is the most desperate an officer can use, the signal that an officer is in trouble and needs help.
"Fourteenth and H!" he screamed. "My partner's down. He's been shot! Send me an ambulance!"
The next few hours were a blur of sirens and statements and shocked reaction from his fellow officers at 5D, the department's 5th District headquarters.
DeVille held up through it all, made the long journey home and finally, late that afternoon, opened his bedroom door. His legs collapsed beneath him. On the floor, he started to cry. And the tears wouldn't stop.
To this day, DeVille can't talk of the shootings without choking back tears. He shares his memories reluctantly, only to show that police officers usually have legitimate reasons to shoot civilians.
The Death Watch
For three days, doctors at D.C. General Hospital kept Scot Lewis alive, hooked to a battery of machines. On the first night, an officer told DeVille that Lewis might make it, but DeVille suspected otherwise. He had seen his partner's injuries.
They had been partners for four months, at the request of DeVille, an Army veteran who saw in his friend Lewis the potential to be a great officer. Lewis, 28, jokingly called DeVille, who was 31, the "old man." DeVille already had been awarded the prestigious Silver Medal of Valor in 1992 for his heroic rescue of nine people trapped in a burning building.
By shooting Pate, DeVille distinguished himself again in the eyes of his fellow officers. Former deputy chief Claude Beheler, then the 5D commander, later observed that as officers kept vigil over Lewis, "the one light at the end of the tunnel was that Keith killed that guy. We were just so glad that at least the guy who had done this to Scot was dead."
Finally, Lewis's mother decided it was time to turn off her son's life support. DeVille stepped into the intensive care unit to say goodbye.
"It was a hell of a thing," he recalled. "I went out in the hallway and all I asked was that as soon as it's over, please somebody tell me."
Half a minute later, Sgt. Dale Southerland left Lewis's bedside and put his arms around DeVille. It's over, he said.
"We put Scot's police jacket and hat on his chest and carried him out on a stretcher to the medical examiner's van," DeVille recalled.
It was shortly after noon. In the brilliant sunshine, three dozen officers waited in the hospital parking lot. Some were in jeans and T-shirts, others in full uniform. Their police radios suddenly crackled.
"All units, stand by," a dispatcher said. "We'd like to have one minute of silence for Officer Scot Lewis, who just died at D.C. General Hospital." Lewis was the second D.C. police officer slain in the line of duty that year, the fourth since December 1993.
"I remember that eerie silence," DeVille said. "Police radios never go silent for a minute." Some officers wept and embraced.
"Then, all of a sudden, the group broke up," DeVille said. "Officers went back to work. They got back in their police cars. They were saying, 'Damn, I got to run.' They were going to [respond to] some man with a gun or something like that. They're leaving. They've just stood there and said a prayer. There was Scot, dead, shot in the head. And I remember thinking, 'They're going back to work?' I was afraid for myself. And I was afraid for them that before we buried Scot, somebody else was going to get killed or hurt."
DeVille returned to his car and pulled away, consumed not just by guilt and fear but by a paralyzing sense of failure. He was the only person who might have saved Lewis, he told himself.
"I probably passed two bars," DeVille said. "But I assure you this: I didn't pass the third bar. I did not pass the third one."
DeVille was placed on administrative leave while the police investigated whether his killing of Pate was, in police jargon, a "good" shooting justified by circumstances, or a "bad" one that could lead to discipline and even criminal charges.
DeVille's life began to unravel. He slept badly. He called officers in other cities who had seen partners killed. He started drinking. But nothing could keep away the ghosts of that October night.
"I would be driving down the road and it would be like a sledgehammer," DeVille said. "I could see it all happening again."
DeVille was experiencing what therapists say are common reactions to trauma: anxiety, depression, mood swings and flashbacks.
"As soon as my feet touched the ground in the morning, I thought about it," DeVille said. "Not a day went by when I didn't think about Scot."
DeVille hammered himself with the same futile questions: Why couldn't he tell there was something wrong with Melvin Pate when Pate drove up in the Honda? Could he have saved his partner if he had been faster, sharper? Why was Lewis dead and he still alive?
One day, DeVille was summoned to the U.S. attorney's office, a trip he had made many times before as an arresting officer. This time was different.
"As police officers, we just get buzzed right into the back office. Well, I got buzzed in, showed my ID folder and went back into the attorney's office. And she said, 'I'm sorry, you're going to have to wait outside,' " he recalled.
DeVille knew that the prosecutor's office was following standard procedure. He had even brought his own attorney to sit with him during questioning. But in that moment, the fact that he was now under investigation hit him.
"That was the first time I thought, 'My God, do they think I did something wrong? What the hell is this about?' " DeVille said. "And I felt like, what am I a suspect? But then it occurred to me I had killed someone. And this was a homicide investigation."
When D.C. officers shoot someone, they are required to attend "debriefing groups," some run by Beverly J. Anderson, a psychologist hired by the police union 10 years ago. As president of the American Academy of Police Psychology, Anderson is a recognized expert on "police trauma syndrome."
DeVille attended the sessions reluctantly. But Anderson called DeVille daily, trying to persuade him to confront the trauma of seeing his partner executed, surviving a threat to his life and killing a man. He resisted, saying he didn't need psychobabble.
Instead, DeVille sought escape. Once, Anderson tracked him down by phone in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
"It's great, it's beautiful up here," DeVille recalled telling her.
"New Hampshire, New Mexico, Florida," she replied. "You know, Keith, the biggest problem is, wherever you go, you'll be there."
"She was right," DeVille said later. "I couldn't get away from myself."
In April 1996, six months after the shooting, DeVille learned that Eric Smith, the man he and Lewis had been trying to help on H Street when they were ambushed, had moved to Illinois and was shot and killed in a scuffle with police.
"Eric Smith not only got killed, but he got killed by a police officer," DeVille said. "What are the chances of that happening?
"When I found out he was dead, I said to Dr. Anderson, 'You know, four people came together that night. Three of them have been killed violently. I'm next,' " DeVille said. "I figured, hey, my days were numbered. When I go back to work on the streets of Washington, I will be killed. It is fate."
Training for Life
The U.S. attorney's office ruled in 1996 that the shooting of Melvin Pate was justified, clearing DeVille to return to duty. He was assigned as a firearms instructor at the D.C. police academy in Southwest Washington, where he teaches recruits to fire the Glock and coaches veteran officers who come to sharpen their skills.
DeVille hopes to devote the rest of his career to training his colleagues. "I take these officers' ability to defend themselves very, very seriously," he said.
"In a life-threatening situation, officers don't have time to think about drawing their weapons," he said. "They have one second to pull their gun. And two seconds after that to survive."
A wall outside DeVille's office is lined with a row of eight photographs of officers killed since 1993. Most died in unprovoked attacks by gunmen. A photo of a ninth officer, killed in July, will soon join them.
Fear at Work
"Officers have more fear out there now," DeVille said. "You wonder: What call will it be? Which shift? A citizen might approach a police vehicle quickly or a tourist might pull up close to a police car and might simply want to ask directions to the Mayflower Hotel. But quite honestly, they could possibly be met by an officer with a firearm in his hand."
The felony charge of "assault on a police officer" rarely sticks, he said. "We are spit on, elbowed in the face, kicked, hit and those charges are dropped. The U.S. attorney says they can't win in court, and the charges are dropped. So a message is sent to criminals: It's okay to punch these police officers. And it escalates from there."
In the background, the booming sound of rapid gunfire from the indoor firing range punctuated DeVille's sentences. It didn't sound like that on H Street that night, he said. It was more of a "pop." Sounds were distorted in those seconds, similar to soldiers' experience in combat. He saw the gunman through tunnel vision, swirling in slow motion.
DeVille and Anderson now debrief officers together. DeVille wants to help them recover from their shooting experiences, but he has no interest in second-guessing their actions.
"Our officers use an extreme amount of restraint. Shootings would be triple or quadruple what they are now if we shot everyone we legally could," he said.
After Lewis's slaying, Anderson sent DeVille a newspaper story about an Alexandria police officer who also saw his partner killed. Four years later, the officer killed himself. She sent it as a warning: Be careful. Don't let this happen to you.
For his "courage and conviction under fire" on Oct. 6, 1995, DeVille was awarded his second Medal of Valor, a commendation also given posthumously to Lewis. DeVille is in line for promotion to sergeant.
He is determined to go on, partly as a tribute to Lewis, partly as a message to the killer who shattered his life on that autumn morning.
"If I don't make a life for myself, Melvin Pate will have gotten both of us out there that night," DeVille said. "He will have killed us both."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company