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An Emotional and Political Issue Continued from Page 3

    Officer J. McCormick
Officer J. McCormick of the 5th District stood near the body of a homicide victim last week. Police did not fire shots. Some police officers suggest that police shootings are high in the District because the homicide rate is high.
(Rick Bowmer - The Washington Post)
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 2½ 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.


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