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.
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.
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