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New Recruits, and a New Weapon Continued from Page 2

   
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."


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