'Here's Someone Getting Murdered' Continued from Page 4
Shortly before 9 a.m. on May 15, 1995, Officer Vernell R. Tanner was outside Banneker Senior High School at 800 Euclid St. NW, where he was assigned as a beat officer. Tanner saw a white Hyundai heading the wrong way up a one-way street, doing about 50 in a 15-mph zone, he later said in a sworn deposition. Two girls told Tanner the car had almost hit them. Tanner, 47, a 26-year veteran of the force, drove after the Hyundai in his private car, a Toyota Camry. Because he was working on foot at the school, he was not required to have a patrol car.
After unsuccessfully trying to stop the Hyundai without the benefit of a siren or a police light, Tanner radioed that he was pursuing a car that had nearly struck two pedestrians. He later said in a sworn deposition that he was told to break off the pursuit; D.C. police permit officers to chase suspects only when they believe a felony has been committed and the suspects are dangerous. Moreover, officers must be in a marked patrol car to participate in a chase.
Despite the dispatcher's instructions, Tanner continued the pursuit. His intent, he said later, was to keep the car in sight until a marked police car arrived. He eventually pulled up behind the Hyundai, blocking it behind a line of rush-hour traffic on Florida Avenue. Climbing from his car, Tanner confronted the driver. Tanner said he pulled his gun when the Hyundai backed up and rammed his car.
Lawyer Doug Sparks, sitting in traffic a few cars behind Tanner's and the Hyundai, said he saw Tanner standing next to the Hyundai driver's door talking to the driver. Tanner had his back to Sparks, who did not know he was a police officer.
Sparks heard a shot as the Hyundai began to pull out of the line of traffic. A few seconds later, Tanner fired a second shot as he "sidestepped," hopping with his gun pointed into the car, to keep up with the Hyundai as it moved across the oncoming lane of traffic, Sparks said in an interview.
"It was basically at point-blank range," Sparks added. "I thought, here's someone getting murdered in front of me. I thought it was some kind of drug shooting."
The first shot hit the driver in the chest at close range, a police investigation later concluded. The second shot hit the driver in the back. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward.
Tanner said later he fired the first shot because he feared that the Hyundai was about to run him over. "He turned the wheel to a hard left and then he accelerated, and I discharged my weapon," Tanner testified in a civil suit brought after the shooting.
In a recent interview, Tanner said he did not remember firing the second shot that hit the driver in the back. "I was not conscious of the second shot, which is common in most police shootings," Tanner said.
After the shooting, eyewitness Sparks said he saw Tanner pick his hand-held radio off the ground and heard him shout into it: "The guy tried to run me down!" Sparks told The Post: "That's not what I saw. That kid didn't have to die."
The dead driver was Kedemah Dorsey, 16, a Bladensburg High School dropout who worked at a Roy Rogers restaurant. He was scheduled to be at work two hours after he was killed, his father said after the shooting.
"I want someone to explain to me how an officer walks up to a car for a traffic violation and a child gets killed," Dorsey's father, Joseph, told The Post at the time.
"My reaction was out of fear fear that he was either going to crush my leg or run me over," Tanner said in a recent interview.
A lawyer hired by the Dorsey family disputed that.
"It's somewhat difficult to use the car as a weapon when it is wedged in rush-hour traffic and the officer is standing to the side of it, not in front of it," said attorney Michael Morganstern, who sued the police on behalf of the Dorseys. The District settled the case for $150,000.
The car technically was stolen, but Tanner did not know that. Dorsey had borrowed the car without permission from his older brother, a Marine stationed in Italy. Dorsey's mother had reported it stolen to "scare" the boy, according to his father.
Tanner, a Marine veteran himself, was put on administrative leave with pay, pending an investigation. He had previously fired his weapon twice in his police career, he later testified. One of those shootings also involved a car and was ruled justified.
After two years and seven months, the U.S. attorney's office decided not to bring charges against Tanner.
"You can't prosecute the officer for putting himself in the wrong spot where he becomes vulnerable and then has to react," Ramsey Johnson, special counsel to the U.S. attorney, said of car-shooting cases in general. Training and supervision deficiencies, Johnson said, are not relevant to the making of a criminal case.
But a department administrative investigation, not bound by the standards of a criminal prosecution, found the shooting unjustified. The District is now attempting to fire Tanner through police trial board hearings scheduled to resume Dec. 7.
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