"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.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company