District Police Lead Nation in Shootings
Lack of Training, Supervision Implicated as Key Factors
By Jeff Leen, Jo Craven, David Jackson and Sari Horwitz
The District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department have shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large American city police force.
Many shootings by Washington police officers were acts of courage and even heroism. But internal police files and court records reveal a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight, an eight-month Washington Post investigation has found.
Washington's officers fire their weapons at more than double the rate of police in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami. Deaths and injuries in D.C. police shooting cases have resulted in nearly $8 million in court settlements and judgments against the District in the last six months alone.
"We shoot too often, and we shoot too much when we do shoot," said Executive Assistant Chief of Police Terrance W. Gainer, who became the department's second in command in May.
The shootings involve a small proportion of the District's 3,550 officers. But the details of individual cases can be chilling even to police veterans: An off-duty police officer out walking his dog in August 1995 fired 11 times while trying to stop an unarmed motorist who had hit a utility pole and left the scene of the accident. An off-duty police officer fishing in May 1995 shot an unarmed man three times after arguing with him on the banks of Rock Creek. In August, an officer ended a police chase of an irrational truck driver who had rammed several cars by firing 38 times into the truck's cab, killing the unarmed driver.
The extent and pattern of police shootings have been obscured from public view. Police officials investigate incidents in secret, producing reports that become public only when a judge intercedes. In a small hearing room closed to the public, nine of every 10 shootings are ruled justified by department officials who read the reports filed by investigating officers but generally hear no witnesses.
The spate of police shootings in the District this decade is closely tied to the training and supervision of officers and the way the department investigates cases and holds officers accountable, records and interviews show.
Police shootings began to rise at the beginning of the decade with a huge infusion of new, ill-prepared recruits and the adoption of the light-trigger, highly advanced Glock 9mm handgun as the department's service weapon. By the mid-1990s, shootings by officers had doubled to record levels even as a succession of police administrations failed to accurately track shooting patterns or correct acknowledged deficiencies in firearm skills.
Among the findings of The Post's investigation:
In the last five years, D.C. officers shot and killed 57 people -- three more than police reported in Chicago, which has three times the police force and five times the population. During that period, D.C. officers were involved in 640 shooting incidents -- 40 more than the Los Angeles Police Department, which has more than double the officers and serves six times the population. Since 1990, Washington police have shot and killed 85 people.
District officers in the last five years shot at 54 cars they said drove at them or others in "vehicular attacks." The shootings have killed nine people -- all of them unarmed -- and wounded 19. Police officers in the District and elsewhere are instructed to get out of the way and not shoot at moving cars, except in the gravest circumstances, because bullets can ricochet and because cars with wounded drivers can become unguided missiles. In New York City -- with 10 times the number of officers and 14 times the population -- officers shot at only 11 cars in vehicular attacks in the last three years.
In addition to the incidents in which officers fired into cars, D.C. police in the last five years shot nine unarmed men on foot, killing two. Five of the surviving men were charged with assaulting a police officer, but the charges were dropped in all but one case.
In 11 cases from 1992 to 1997, D.C. police ruled shootings justified despite eyewitness accounts or forensic evidence that contradicted officers, an examination of internal investigative records showed. Investigations were sometimes marked by errors, omissions and internal inconsistencies.
Nearly 75 percent of the District officers who used their weapons in 1996 failed to meet the District's basic firearms standards for using the Glock semiautomatic handgun, a weapon that requires a high degree of training and skill. There have been more than 120 unintentional discharges of the gun in the past decade; 19 officers have shot themselves or other officers accidentally.
In the internal records used to track shooting trends, D.C. police undercounted by nearly one-third the number of people they killed from 1994 to 1997, tallying only 29 fatal police shootings. The Post investigation confirmed 43 fatal police shootings in that period. Seven fatal shootings were missing from police shooting trend records, and seven other fatal shootings were mislabeled as nonfatal.
Police shootings during the 1990s already have left a costly legacy: more than 70 lawsuits filed against the District. In June, a D.C. Superior Court jury awarded a $6.1 million judgment against police in a case in which a man with a knife was shot 12 times in the back by SWAT team members.
"Some of them just got gun-happy," one juror, William P. McLaurin, later told The Post.
That same month, the District quietly paid a $797,500 settlement in a lawsuit brought by the roommate of a D.C. police officer. The officer, who had not been to the firing range to qualify with his weapon for 26 months, accidentally shot and wounded his roommate. Department regulations require firearms training every six months.
A City of Shootings
No one disputes that D.C. police have had ample reason to draw their weapons in many cases, and there have been many dangerous incidents in which officers displayed restraint and discipline. The District has had one of the nation's highest rates of homicide and violent crime. Some police officers suggest that police shootings are high in the District because the homicide rate is high.
"At a time when there were an unprecedented number of murders, we were out to protect the public," said Donald Gossage, a former D.C. lieutenant who retired in 1996. "And there were people who were pulling weapons on the police. They ended up paying the price."
Indeed, eight District police officers were killed in Washington from 1990 to 1997 -- a number surpassed by only a half-dozen other U.S. cities, each much bigger than the District. "Washington is unique in its wave of unprovoked violence against the police," said former D.C. police captain William L. Hennessy, who retired last year. "It has put people on the edge."
Criminologists say no single factor fully explains police shooting trends. The Post considered five factors for Washington and 26 other large cities -- population, violent crime, homicide, size of the force and violent crime arrests. By each of these measures, Washington is above the average for large cities in the number of police shootings -- often far above; only when measured by homicide rates is Washington close to the average in police shootings.
Still, the District's violent streets do not entirely explain the rise of police shootings in this decade. Fatal shootings by Washington police officers surged in the mid-1990s, more than doubling from 1992 to 1995, while homicides dropped from the record peak in 1991.
While the numbers of D.C. police shootings climbed, troubling cases surfaced in civil lawsuits and within the department itself. Police investigators found these three shootings to be unjustified:
Officer Julius Dancy said he shot Michael Rutledge when Rutledge grabbed Dancy's gun while they struggled after a chase in December 1994. But Rutledge said Dancy shot him in the back while he ran. Rutledge was unarmed and was not charged with any crime.
Officer Vernell Tanner said he shot and killed 16-year-old Kedemah Dorsey in May 1995 because the youth tried to run him down with a car. But an eyewitness said the officer was not in danger and fired while trotting beside the slow-moving vehicle.
Officer Terrence Shepherd said he shot and killed Eric Anderson, an unarmed 18-year-old sitting in a car at a traffic stop in June 1996, because he feared the man was both reaching for a weapon and getting ready to run him over. But evidence shows the officer fired while he stood behind a police lieutenant. Shepherd's captain said Shepherd told him that his finger was on the trigger and that his gun "went off."
"Things happened so fast," Shepherd said in a recent interview. "My only priority is to stop the threat. I've been in that situation. I know. You've got to have that police instinct."
A Hidden Problem
The rise in police shootings in the mid-1990s went largely unnoticed among the top officials charged with policing the police.
"I'm not really sure I discerned any patterns -- at least none I remember," said Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who as the U.S. attorney in the District from 1993 to 1997 reviewed all fatal police shootings.
"No one said there was a problem with shootings," said Stephen D. Harlan, former vice chairman of the D.C. financial control board. Former D.C. chief Larry D. Soulsby, who presided over the department from 1995 to 1997, said the rise in shootings "was not a hot topic among police officials."
Shooting incidents and trends are supposed to be closely watched by the department's Use of Service Weapon Review Board, a body composed of three high-ranking officers that is supposed to review every shooting to determine whether it was justified and advise the department on firearms training. But The Post found that the board was unaware of seven fatal shootings that occurred between 1994 and 1997.
"We're uncertain how that happened," Assistant Chief Gainer said. Although the board failed to review the shootings, Gainer noted that they had been investigated by the homicide branch and referred to the chief to determine whether disciplinary action was warranted.
"That baffles me," said Washington lawyer Robert Deso, who served as chairman of the Use of Service Weapon Review Board in the 1970s when the board included civilians. "The board was meant to keep a pulse on the uses of force."
Charles H. Ramsey, who became Washington's police chief in April, said it was "disturbing" that the District lacks a central repository of information on police shootings. "There is nothing more important for us to do than to monitor and keep track of the use of deadly force," said Ramsey, who as a young officer in Chicago fatally shot a suspect during a drug bust in an incident ruled justified.
Moving Toward Gunfire
Washington police officers did not always shoot so often. "The D.C. rate was very, very low" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said James Fyfe, a Temple University criminologist and former New York City police lieutenant who has studied police shooting patterns for two decades. "It was down at the bottom with New York."
From 1975 to 1983, New York averaged 1.36 fatal shootings annually by police per 1,000 officers, and Washington's rate was nearly identical at 1.44, according to a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. By 1995, New York's rate had dropped below 1 and Washington's had risen to nearly 4.
The surge in shootings in the District coincided with the arrival in the department of the Glock 9mm and a huge wave of new recruits as violence rose in the streets.
In 1989, before the full effect of the new handgun and the new officers could be felt, D.C. police shot and killed four people; by 1995, the number had climbed to 16. The Post found no other large city with a similar increase during that period.
The remaking of the Washington police force began in the summer of 1989 and continued through 1990. The District added 1,500 officers in 18 months -- 35 percent of the force -- in a crash hiring program mandated by Congress. The new officers were inadequately screened, trained and supervised, police officials acknowledge.
"A lot of them weren't given leadership and guidance when they first came out of the academy," Gossage said. "The more time an officer has on [duty] and the more maturity he has, the less likely he will act quickly to use his service weapon."
An instructor at the police academy in the early 1990s, Detective Michael Hubbard, told a reporter at the time that some of the new officers were "20 lawsuits on the street waiting to happen."
The Post's analysis shows that the Classes of 1989 and 1990 are disproportionately represented in police shootings from 1994 to mid-1998. For example, officers from those classes now make up less than one-third of the force but were involved in more than half of the shootings, according to police firearm discharge records.
At the same time the rookies were coming on the force in mid-1989, Washington adopted the Glock handgun to serve as an equalizer for police confronting crack cocaine gangs armed with machine guns. The Austrian-made Glock 17 is known for its lack of an external manual safety, making it easier to fire quickly. The pistol carries 17 bullets in its magazine and one in the chamber, tripling the firepower of an ordinary police revolver. And the trigger is much easier to squeeze.
"You don't have to make a conscious effort to pull it back like with a revolver," said Jeff Green, a retired homicide detective. "You just jerk it a little bit and you will fire a round."
Such a lethal gun demands extensive training. D.C. officers have long been required to report to the firearms shooting range and qualify with their handguns at least every six months. Throughout the 1990s, most officers ignored the rule, as did supervisors.
In the summer of 1994, Chief Fred Thomas vowed to set a "drop-dead date" by which time officers would have to retrain or face losing their weapons. "If we don't do that, we may as well open up the bank accounts because lawyers will have a field day," Thomas told The Post at the time. But Thomas retired a year later, and the crackdown never occurred.
By 1995, as police shootings hit a record high, a new chief, Soulsby, lamented inadequate training. "If you look at it, overnight, we've gotten a very young force that's received very little training," Soulsby told The Post. The next year, Soulsby announced a massive retraining program -- "I have no choice," he said at the time -- but officials say the effort fizzled.
"The commanding officers didn't want to give up officers to training. They needed them in the field," said former lieutenant Lowell Duckett, who retired last year.
This year, as Ramsey became the fifth chief in six years, a D.C. Council special committee investigation showed that 50 to 60 percent of the force had not properly qualified with their firearms.
The Post found that the training deficiency was even higher among officers who fired their weapons on the street -- nearly three-quarters of the officers involved in shooting incidents in 1996 had not qualified, according to internal police documents obtained by The Post. In a report released in October, the special committee found "there was no budgetary-related reason for the failure -- only poor management."
Ramsey has enacted a crash firearms qualification program. "We're a hundred percent better than what we were last year," said Lt. Nicholas Mudrezow, the department's specialized training commander.
Gaps in Training Show
The number of fatal shootings has dropped as crime has declined in recent years, but the department still shoots far more than it did in the late 1980s, when it was a more mature, revolver-toting force. In 1988, the year before the Glock and the flood of new officers arrived, D.C. police fired their revolvers on 76 occasions. In 1995, they fired 154 times, even though the force was the same size and the city had slightly fewer homicides.
D.C. officers also shoot far more often than their counterparts in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles or Miami, The Post found in comparing firearms discharge totals per officer in those cities. For example, the 40,000-officer New York City police force fired at cars engaged in "vehicle attacks" against police only twice in 1997, compared with 10 such shootings that year for the 3,550-officer D.C. police force.
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, reviewed summaries prepared by The Post of a dozen D.C. police car-shooting cases. He found that officers often used ill-advised approaches to the vehicle, placing themselves in harm's way and leading to shootings that may have been unnecessary.
"Reading some of these [cases] makes me wonder if a police officer couldn't sue his own department for failure to train," said Alpert, who advises police departments on policies on the use of force.
D.C. police trainers said they have recently addressed problems with car shootings. Sgt. H.J. Rubolotta, who works at the D.C. police academy, said, "We tell the officers: Don't put yourself in front of a car."
In the Wake of a Bullet
Whenever a District police officer fires a weapon, a review process starts. If the officer wounds someone, the supervisors in that police district undertake a shooting investigation. If an officer kills someone, homicide detectives investigate, and prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office review the case to determine whether criminal law was violated.
In either event, the department determines whether the shooting was justified. Under city regulations, an officer is justified in firing if the officer "has reasonable cause to believe" that an attacker could cause "death or serious bodily injury." Reasonable cause to shoot can be based on an officer seeing a suspect make a "furtive movement" as if to pull a gun, experts said.
Unjustified rulings typically result in some form of discipline against the officer -- ranging from counseling to dismissal from the force.
So far in the 1990s, eight officers involved in six shootings have been charged with crimes for shooting people or allegedly falsifying statements afterward. Two were acquitted, three are awaiting trial and three have been convicted. In five of the six incidents, the officers were off duty. In 422 incidents between 1994 and mid-1998, the department ruled 87 percent were justified.
Police shootings are emotionally and politically charged events, fraught with forensic and legal difficulties. Officers say civilians cannot fathom what it is like to be in a shooting. Eyewitnesses contradict each other. Officers often can't remember how many times they fired. Top District officials must balance law and policy against the imperative that police officers not feel intimidated in using their weapons to protect themselves or others.
"Anybody can second-guess you on this stuff," said Officer John Diehl, who shot and wounded two men in a 1994 incident ruled justified, and wounded another man last month in an incident still under investigation. "You second-guess yourself a lot."
Said lawyer Arthur Burger, who defended police in the corporation counsel's office in the late 1980s: "The lawyers sit in air-conditioned courtrooms and go over jury instructions, and we debate these things and parse the words, and the cop had two seconds to shoot or not shoot. On some dark night when all our heads were on our pillows, this guy had to make a snap decision."
The investigations can grind on for years. Prosecutors took 2 1/2 years to charge Officers Roosevelt Askew and William Middleton with lying about a fatal 1994 car shooting -- even though Askew in his first interview with a prosecutor had acknowledged to telling a false story about why he shot and killed an unarmed driver. The U.S. attorney's office took four years to decide not to charge Officer Daniel Hall in a fatal 1993 car shooting. Hall still has not been restored to full duty status while the department decides what to do with his case, according to police officials.
But despite the time the investigations take, The Post found several cases that cast doubt on how thoroughly and impartially police investigate shooting cases. All these shootings were ruled justified:
Police regulations say fatal shootings should be sent to the homicide branch for an independent review. But two investigations into 1993 fatal shootings involving Officers Lawrence Walker and Dwayne Mitchell were overseen by the officers' supervisor, then-Sgt. Donald Gossage, according to police records and an interview with Gossage. After the officers were involved in the first shooting, Gossage signed papers allowing them to carry their guns while on administrative leave. Two months later, the officers shot 23 bullets at a panhandler, Nathaniel Mitchell, hitting him four times.
Officer Kristopher Payne said he shot Antonio Williams seven times in February 1995 because Williams pointed a gun at him during a chase. But an eyewitness said that he saw Payne stand over Williams and shoot him in the head while Williams was defenseless on the ground. A "muzzle-to-garment" test done five months after the shooting showed that at least one shot to Williams's head was fired from 24 to 30 inches away. Police investigators, noting that Williams had been armed and that Payne had feared for his life, declared the shooting justified. Payne declined comment.
"For the muzzle-to-garment not to be done until months later -- and they knew they had a high-profile case -- that is a very serious problem," said William O. Ritchie, a former homicide commander who retired in 1994.
A day after Lt. Elliott Gibson shot an unarmed man in a car during a drug bust in June 1996, Officer Anthony McGee said in a sworn court document that Gibson fired because James T. Willis's car was driving toward a group of children. A day later, McGee gave a statement to police investigators making no mention of children and indicating that he heard but did not see the shooting. Police investigators never addressed the discrepancy in the final investigative report.
Each shooting carries a personal cost. Alvin Wells grieves for his 21-year-old son, Roland Wells, was killed by off-duty Officer Melvin Key when Wells was carrying a BB gun in January 1995. "I had my son shot because he listened to the police," Wells said.
Key said Wells pointed the gun at him, but Alvin Wells believes his son was surrendering. As part of a $67,500 settlement with the District in July 1998, Wells insisted on meeting Key. "I asked him if he have a son, to make sure he kiss his son every day and hope he don't do a thoughtless thing," Wells said.
None of the police shootings of civilians has occurred in the more affluent areas west of Rock Creek Park, according to police records from 1994 through May 1998.
The incidents in the 1990s have sparked little public outrage, either in individual cases or as a broader issue.
Yet police shootings have managed to roil the department itself. Three times in the last three years, police have shot fellow officers, killing two and wounding the third. In all three instances, white officers shot black officers in civilian clothes, including a pregnant female officer, after mistaking them for criminals.
One officer and the family of a second have filed lawsuits saying the officer-on-officer shootings happened because the department did not properly train and monitor its recruits, an accusation the District denies. The most recent of the three "friendly fire" incidents came in July, when off-duty Officer William F. Hyatt Jr. shot and killed off-duty Officer Thomas F. Hamlette Jr. during a disturbance at a nightclub owned by Hamlette's family.
Off-duty shootings like the one involving Hamlette have added to the total of District police shootings in the 1990s. When shooting incidents peaked in 1995, 36 percent of the shootings occurred while officers were off duty, considerably more than the 17 percent to 22 percent that various studies over the years have found in other large cities. Even more striking, more than half of the District's 16 fatal shootings in 1995 happened off duty -- compared with a national average that ranges from 9 percent to 16 percent, according to a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Many experts consider off-duty shootings problematic for several reasons: The officers are not readily identifiable; they may have been drinking; and they are usually acting alone without backup officers, making them more vulnerable and fearful.
The lawsuits that often follow off-duty police shootings have been costly to District taxpayers.
In November 1992, Brian Butler stopped to urinate in an alley behind a sporting goods store owned in part by off-duty Officer Clarence B. Johnson. Johnson shot and seriously wounded Butler, who was unarmed. The case was never reviewed by the Use of Service Weapon Review Board, and therefore was never ruled justified or unjustified.
In 1995, the District paid Butler $100,000 to settle a lawsuit over the shooting. Johnson remains on paid disability leave because of stresses related to the shooting, according to a police spokesman. Johnson did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Changes From the Top
On Friday, four days after meeting with Post reporters to discuss their findings, Chief Ramsey issued a tighter policy on use of force for the department.
"This new policy is designed to help our officers carefully balance the safety and protection of the public with their authority to use force in dangerous situations," Ramsey said.
Among other things, the new policy prohibits officers from putting "themselves in a position with a vehicle where the use of deadly force would be the likely outcome."
Ramsey also announced that in January, the department will begin additional training for all officers in firearms and alternatives to deadly force.
Whether that will suffice for a force that has been forged in a culture of mayhem and sudden death remains to be seen. The violence infesting the city for more than a decade has left a residue of fear among police officers and among private citizens, eroding trust and making it harder for the officer on the beat to do his job, many observers say.
"The chances of going out and getting shot at today are much greater than they were 20 years ago," said lawyer Deso, who has represented police in Washington for two decades. "It's the sheer dangerousness of being a cop out there. The pucker factor is up."
The confluence of violence in the streets, weapons training lapses, inexperienced officers and a sophisticated weapon has led to the rise in shootings, Deso said. "Changing one of them is not going to make the problem go away," he added.
The department's new leadership vows to address the most fundamental part of the equation.
"There is a contract between the officers and us: We have to provide them with the skills and tools and philosophy to make the best decision, and frankly, we've failed," Gainer said. "The command has failed, not some poor police officer out there on the street. The command has failed."
Computer-assisted reporting director Ira Chinoy, researcher Alice Crites and Metro Research Director Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company