Holes in the Files
Investigations of Police Shootings Often Leave Questions Unanswered
By David Jackson
In case after case when a District police officer shot a citizen during the 1990s, the Metropolitan Police Department's investigations were riddled with errors and omissions that make it impossible to sort out why the officer fired and whether the shooting was legitimate.
The poorly documented investigations protected officers who may have wrongly shot citizens or lied about the incidents, while making it difficult for blameless officers to clear their names in the civil lawsuits that often follow police shootings, an examination by The Washington Post found.
Because shootings by police may have enormous human consequences and put the department's integrity on the line, regulations call for every gunshot fired by an officer to undergo a rigorous, multilayered review. But from 1990 to the present, when shootings by D.C. officers reached record levels, that process was repeatedly short-circuited, The Post's investigation showed.
Bullet wounds were undercounted. Witness statements disappeared. Basic forensic tests were not conducted. Officers were allowed to shift their accounts or submit vague statements. And investigations of fatal shootings sometimes were conducted by direct supervisors instead of an independent unit, department records and interviews show.
In each of Officer Lawrence D. Walker's five shootings in a 10-month stretch in 1992 and 1993, Walker's supervisor participated in the investigation. In three cases, Walker and his partners shot people in the back; two died and one was severely injured.
When Lt. Elliott Gibson shot a 38-year-old deliveryman in the face during a June 1996 curbside drug bust, Gibson and the 10 other officers at the scene were not interviewed separately by detectives; instead, they composed written accounts of the shooting at the station house. Their typed statements -- some submitted as long as a week after the shooting -- contain some passages that match word for word.
When Officer Melvin Key shot a 21-year-old who was holding a BB gun, two witnesses were not interviewed until weeks later, after a lawyer for the young man's family brought the witnesses to the attention of federal prosecutors.
On the night Officer Christopher Jack Yezzi killed a Maryland man, Yezzi's squad mates gave statements that described a righteous, by-the-book shooting. One of the officers later expressed misgivings about the episode and changed his account, but the shooting was ruled justified, police records show.
When Officer Kristopher Payne shot and killed an armed 18-year-old in 1995, police officials waited five months before conducting basic ballistics tests that would measure how far Payne was from the teenager when he fired. Those tests showed that one and possibly two shots to Antonio Williams's head came from a gun muzzle held only 24 to 30 inches away, corroborating a statement from a witness who said Payne shot the youth from close range as he lay defenseless.
The department declared all of these shootings justified on the grounds that the officers fired to protect their lives or the lives of others, and the officers or their attorneys said in interviews that police acted properly in each instance.
"What jumps out at me is the tendency to take the officer's account and build the investigation around that account," said Michael Cosgrove, a former Miami assistant chief who testifies in police shooting lawsuits and who reviewed summaries prepared by The Post of several cases.
Under police rules, if an officer wounds a civilian, his or her district commander supervises the investigation. If the citizen is killed, the case is entrusted to homicide detectives.
Once the internal investigations are complete, prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office review the case and consider whether criminal law has been violated. Then the department's three-member Use of Service Weapon Review Board examines the case file to see whether the shooting violated weapons-use regulations and warrants disciplinary action against the officer.
Although some investigations by police and federal prosecutors in the 1990s have been models of clarity and thoroughness, a small but troubling number drifted for years before authorities decided whether to clear or charge the officers, The Post's review showed.
The department's last level of oversight -- the weapon review board -- failed to examine at all seven fatal shootings that occurred between January 1994 and May 1998, police records show. Police officials said they could not explain why certain cases were not reviewed; they acknowledged that those and other lapses hampered their ability to track shooting patterns and to hold individual officers accountable.
Records for 422 police shootings the review board examined during those 4 1/2 years show that 87 percent were declared justified. Fifty-three firearms discharges were ruled improper. Thirty-three of those were accidents, domestic altercations, suicides or shots fired at animals. Only two shootings resulted in criminal charges against officers. One of those criminal cases is pending. In the other case, two officers were convicted of making false statements about a shooting. One officer was sentenced to 15 days in jail; the other officer received probation.
Among the shootings during that period were nine incidents in which D.C. police shot unarmed people, wounding seven and killing two. A police investigation into one of the shootings of unarmed people is pending; another shooting was ruled not justified.
Seven of the shootings were declared justified because the unarmed person allegedly attacked the officer or appeared to reach for a weapon. But only one of the unarmed citizens was ultimately convicted of assaulting an officer. Charges brought against four others were dropped.
Police officials and federal prosecutors said in recent interviews that they hope to revamp and strengthen procedures for reviewing shooting investigations.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who took over the department in April, said he wants a multi-agency review team dispatched to the scene of every civilian shooting by an officer.
"We owe it to the officer and the citizen that these cases are investigated quickly and thoroughly," Ramsey said.
J. Ramsey Johnson, special counsel to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said his office is studying whether to establish a special unit of prosecutors who would focus exclusively on police shootings and use of force. "We believe these types of cases deserve very special and expeditious treatment," Johnson said.
As for the 1990s cases now making their way through the legal system, District and federal law enforcement officials declined to discuss specific incidents or to make records available, citing privacy concerns and other legal constraints.
But from other sources, The Post obtained internal police files that illuminate an investigative process often hidden from public view.
A 10-Time Shooter
Most police officers go years without firing a weapon, some their entire careers. But from 1992 to 1994, Officer Lawrence D. Walker used his pistol six times. During those incidents, he and other officers shot three people in the back, killing two and wounding a third. Police declared all six shootings justified.
Citizens filed five lawsuits over shootings involving Walker. The District paid $186,701 in settlements and judgments to resolve the cases, court records show. Walker did not respond to phone calls and letters seeking comment.
Five of Walker's shootings -- all in a 10-month period in 1992 and 1993 -- were investigated by his supervisor, then-Sgt. Donald Gossage. In two of those shootings, citizens died.
Police regulations say fatal shootings should be investigated independently by the homicide branch. Gossage said in an interview that police officials dispatched him to the scene of both fatal shootings involving Walker. Gossage said he subsequently spoke with the homicide detectives about the physical evidence and the witness statements they were gathering, and about the status of the cases. Gossage said his role was limited to examining whether the officers had violated department policy, not whether they had violated criminal laws.
Two years after those shootings, when Walker and his partners had been cleared by U.S. attorneys, Gossage wrote the department's final investigative reports on the cases and recommended that the shootings be declared justified, police records show. Gossage said that his reports were impartial and followed department policy but that supervisors generally should be barred from investigating their own officers.
"I think the people who complete the investigative report should not be the people who work with the officer on a day-to-day basis," he added.
In another, nonfatal shooting by Walker, Gossage investigated the episode although he had been at the crime scene directing Walker's activities; in another nonfatal shooting, Gossage helped develop the criminal case against the man Walker shot, then conducted the department's investigation.
"It would have been nice to have an independent party do the investigation. I would have welcomed it," said Gossage, who retired in 1996 and is now chief of the Hancock, Md., police department.
Walker was assigned to a rapid deployment squad whose dozen members made more than 300 drug and gun arrests a year, police records show.
Placed on routine administrative leave after the March 1993 fatal shooting of an armed 19-year-old drug suspect, Walker and his friend and partner, Officer Dwayne Mitchell, received permission from superiors to continue carrying guns for protection. Mitchell declined to comment for this report.
About midnight on May 18, 1993, Walker and Mitchell met at Walker's apartment. In later statements to police, they acknowledged drinking one beer apiece. Then they set out to get more. On the way, they parked in a crime-ridden section of Marshall Heights.
Nearby stood Nathaniel "Bud" Mitchell, 38, an unemployed sometime panhandler who had served time for robbery in the 1980s. He was carrying a toy gun, and the officers said they saw him threaten his drinking partner, then run as they approached. As the officers chased him up a hill, Bud Mitchell turned and extended the toy gun as if to shoot them, Walker said in a police statement.
Walker and Mitchell fired 23 bullets, striking Bud Mitchell with four, including three from behind.
Still carrying the toy gun, Bud Mitchell fled into a relative's apartment and collapsed on the couch, where he died.
Walker and Mitchell picked up and passed around his toy gun, despite department regulations about preserving evidence, court records show.
Police investigators did not test the officers' blood alcohol levels after the shooting. In a deposition for a lawsuit brought by Mitchell's family, Walker added detail to the account he had given initially to police. He said that Bud Mitchell pointed his toy gun at them while they were in the car. "He walked to the rear of the car, pointed the gun at my head," Walker said. He did not mention this earlier, he said, because "I forgot, I guess."
Walker still patrols the 7th District. A May 1998 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court said he battered a woman he arrested in Southeast. The woman was charged with assaulting Walker but acquitted. Lawyers for the District have denied wrongdoing on Walker's part.
In a deposition for that lawsuit, Walker said last week that he has been involved in four more shootings since 1994, for a total of 10 during the 1990s, according to attorney Gregory Lattimer, who took the deposition.
On May 26, 1995, Officer Michelle Bullard began her Memorial Day weekend at the police academy shooting range, requalifying to use her Glock 9mm pistol. It was her first time there in nearly four years, despite police orders that officers train with their weapons at least twice a year. Then Bullard took her teenage daughter fishing in Rock Creek, near the Watergate Hotel. There, she used her Glock again.
The man she shot at 7:10 p.m., 47-year-old Jamaican-born handyman Rudyard Beaverbrook Bradshaw, also had been fishing. Bradshaw got off work about noon, drank two 16-ounce cans of beer, then headed by subway for the fishing spot, according to his subsequent sworn testimony.
Bradshaw since 1994 had been convicted three times for misdemeanors -- disturbing the peace, assault and trespassing, according to court records in Maryland and the District. When he asked Bullard how the fishing was, she first told him to mind his own business, according to a deposition he gave later. He said that he cursed at her and that she told him she was an officer and would lock him up.
In her statement to police, Bullard said Bradshaw was belligerent and harassing, telling her he liked aggressive women. She flagged a U.S. Park Police officer, who got Bradshaw's assurance that he was leaving. Soon afterward, Bradshaw returned "and continued with the foul language," Bullard said.
Bradshaw said in his deposition that he moved downstream after the Park Police officer intervened. But having no luck in his new location, he said, he rolled in his line, removed his sinkers and tried skimming his hook across the top of the water, using a chunk of herring as bait. Suddenly his line was pulling. "I felt I had a big one, then. I was happy. I yanked it and started winding it and discovered -- it was just that her line was crossed mine."
They argued and Bullard displayed her Glock, according to both of their accounts. Bradshaw advanced, telling her "he had a .357 and he would kill me," Bullard told police investigators. She said that when Bradshaw reached toward his waist as if to grab a gun, "I fired my weapon and he fell to the ground."
Bradshaw said in his deposition that he never claimed to have a gun and was incredulous when Bullard pulled hers. "What . . . you going to do with that? Shoot me?" he said he asked.
"All I heard," Bradshaw added, "was 'pow!' "
Police reports said Bullard shot Bradshaw twice -- in the stomach and buttocks. But Washington Hospital Center records show that another bullet hit Bradshaw's neck just below his left ear. The bullet traveled to his right shoulder blade, where it remains lodged.
The department's final report was written a month after the shooting by Bullard's 1st District supervisor, Lt. Beverly Medlock, who left the department in March after 26 years. Medlock's report, based on the police statements of Bullard and a woman who heard shots from a distance, stated flatly that Bullard fired only two rounds. Two spent shell casings were found at the site. But police reports give conflicting descriptions of what model gun Bullard carried -- and therefore how many bullets it held and how many she fired.
Medlock said in an interview that she did not have access to medical reports and did not interview Bullard. "I went by the information that was available," she said.
After reviewing the police reports on the incident for The Post, Medlock said the conflicting descriptions of Bullard's gun, the number of bullets fired and the location of Bradshaw's injuries did not affect her judgment that the shooting was justified.
"This is all we're concerned about: You felt your life or the life of another person was in danger. And the only person able to articulate that is the officer," Medlock said. "I'm surprised she didn't empty her gun, to tell you the truth, no matter where [the bullets] landed."
Police officials declared the shooting justified four months after the incident. Police charged Bradshaw with a felony count of making threats, but for undisclosed reasons, prosecutors dropped the charge in August 1995.
Bradshaw has filed a D.C. Superior Court lawsuit alleging he was wrongly shot and falsely arrested. Bradshaw's medical treatment has cost more than $80,000, said his attorney, Mary Beth Gowen.
Bullard, 38, has won several police commendations. In October 1997, she was suspended from the department after being charged with felony assault of a neighbor. The charges were reduced, and she was reinstated after a federal judge acquitted her.
She declined to discuss the incident at Rock Creek. "I really have nothing to say as far as the shooting I was involved in," Bullard told The Post.
'I Did See a Gun'
On May 26, 1994, four D.C officers from the 7th District made a traffic stop that turned into a foot chase and ended when Officer Christopher Jack Yezzi shot Maryland resident Dion Hinnant in the back, killing him.
Two days later, in the station's brick-walled basement, Officer Terrence McClain pulled aside his partner, Rodney Williams Jr., and loosed a string of obscenities. McClain thought the shooting by Yezzi was "messed up," Williams later told police investigators.
"It was a white man finally got a chance to shoot, shoot -- well, shoot a nigger. That's what he said," Williams told internal affairs investigators in a taped interview 14 months later.
Yezzi said he fired to protect himself and his partners when Hinnant aimed a gun at them.
Over the next two years, three overlapping investigations by the police, the U.S. attorney's office and the department's Office of Internal Affairs would unearth conflicting physical evidence and changing statements by officers. In the end, no official action was taken and police declared the shooting justified. Yezzi, who has received numerous commendations, was subsequently promoted to sergeant and now serves in the 4th District.
Yezzi declined to comment, citing a pending lawsuit, but he said, "As far as I know, [there] was nothing questionable about the shooting." Taking a life "is certainly nothing anybody comes on this job to do," he said. "The people who make comments have never been in a shooting. A lot of things get taken out of context."
The shooting incident began at 7:05 p.m., according to police reports, as the last hour of sunlight slanted through the low-income Atlantic Terrace housing complex on Fourth Street SE. Plainclothes officers Yezzi, McClain, Williams and Seth Holmes patrolled in an unmarked 1979 Chevy Malibu. The officers had a sketchy, day-old tip that someone in a gold Acura was carrying drugs into the area.
When they spotted Hinnant's gold Acura, the officers tailed him and his 23-year-old passenger into a parking lot. Hinnant had been convicted a year earlier of a misdemeanor charge of carrying a pistol without a license and was still on probation. In the car with him was a loaded Colt .45-caliber pistol.
Police reports filed later that night by the four officers describe the next few seconds as a deftly choreographed display of law enforcement. McClain's first official account of the incident gave no indication that he questioned the legitimacy of the shooting.
Hinnant stepped out of the Acura, reached back inside for the gun, then took off running, according to the reports. Holmes dealt with the passenger while the three other officers chased Hinnant.
"I yelled 'Police!' and 'Drop the weapon!' several times," Yezzi said in his statement that night. Hinnant kept running, twisting his torso to the left, lifting his left arm and curling his right hand beneath it, so the gun was pointed at the officers, their reports state.
Yezzi again ordered him to stop, then fired. Hinnant dropped the gun, staggered "about four more steps and fell on his stomach," according to Yezzi's account. Yezzi said he "immediately ran a couple of feet up to where I saw the weapon drop, stood over it and secured the weapon."
Flown by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, Hinnant was pronounced dead 3 1/2 hours later.
No drugs were found on or near Hinnant or in his car. His passenger told police that Hinnant was giving him a ride home from a pickup basketball game.
Homicide detectives opened an investigation that night, interviewing two witnesses who saw the incident from the housing complex courtyard. Neither corroborated the police account. One said Hinnant had dropped his gun before Yezzi fired, and the other, who saw only part of the chase, said she never saw a gun in Hinnant's hand. A third witness told The Post that night that she saw Hinnant drop the gun as he was running, before he was shot. She was not contacted by police, records show.
The officers said Hinnant was twisting his left shoulder toward Yezzi as Yezzi fired. Medical records show the bullet's trajectory was slightly from the right to left -- it hit Hinnant a half inch to the right of his spine and traveled to the front of his chest, where it mushroomed just beneath the skin.
Hinnant's gun was not found near him, as if he had dropped it upon being shot and staggered four steps, as the officers stated. Instead, it was recovered 31 feet behind his body.
The locations of Yezzi's spent shell casings also are difficult to square with the police account. One of Yezzi's shells was recovered about a foot past Hinnant's gun and the other was six feet in front of it, raising the possibility that Yezzi may have run past Hinnant's gun while he fired. Although Glock shells can land in unpredictable ways, they generally eject up and to the right, not forward, police say.
The department's preliminary report, sent the next morning to then-Chief Fred Thomas, said a Colt .45 was "recovered from Mr. Hinnant," but it did not explain that the gun was actually found 31 feet from his body. It said Hinnant was stopped for "possible narcotics violations," yet did not mention that police found no drugs.
Immediately after the shooting, Yezzi's squad leader alerted Officer Don Monroe, who previously had been through a police shooting investigation. He called Yezzi at home that evening to offer support. Monroe also called at least two other members of Yezzi's team, and they met at the police union cafeteria to discuss the incident. Law enforcement officials generally prohibit officers from discussing a shooting while it is under investigation.
In the cafeteria conversation, McClain called Yezzi a "murderous [expletive]" to his face and "said [Yezzi] didn't have to shoot the guy," Monroe later told police internal affairs investigators.
The discussion was apparently overheard by others, and the Office of Internal Affairs opened an inquiry into whether the officers coordinated their stories. That inquiry was closed with no discipline taken against the officers. In taped interviews with the internal affairs investigators, two officers made substantial revisions in their accounts of the shooting.
Williams originally said Hinnant dropped his gun when he was shot. But he told internal affairs investigators he saw Hinnant "fling the gun" backward over his right shoulder as he ran.
McClain originally said he saw Hinnant pointing a weapon at them. But he told internal affairs investigators, "I don't remember seeing [Hinnant's] gun" after the chase began. McClain also said he could offer no explanation for the fact that Yezzi's shell casings were found past Hinnant's dropped gun.
In May 1995, Hinnant's relatives filed suit against the police in Superior Court. That suit is pending. McClain gave a deposition in December 1996, this time insisting, "I did see a gun." He said he did not remember giving a different account to internal affairs investigators.
A 12-year police veteran, McClain left the force this year. He declined to comment on the Hinnant case, except to say that he did not recall changing his testimony. He said his description of Yezzi as "murderous" in a conversation with other officers was friendly ribbing taken out of context.
Monroe also declined to comment on his involvement in the investigation, citing the pending lawsuit. But he said: "You are hired to protect and serve, and if you don't protect yourself, you can't protect nobody else. The police officer, he wants to go home just like he came to work -- in one piece."
'I Felt I Had to Fire'
The 1995 shooting of a black plainclothes detective by a white uniformed officer stirred racial tensions within the force. Rank-and-file officers demanded information at roll calls. From within the ranks and outside, the department's ability to investigate a police shooting came under scrutiny.
Plainclothes Detective Lani Jackson-Pinkney was shot in the back and severely wounded by a fellow officer who mistook her for a robber as she stopped a carjacking in a heavy rain.
The patrolman who shot her, 5th District Officer Robbie Sean Dykes, resigned from the force in October 1997 because he felt the shooting investigation contained errors and misstatements. Dykes said in an interview that the errors rattled his confidence in the department and made him feel he would be in legal peril should he use his gun again.
Jackson-Pinkney has filed a Superior Court lawsuit alleging that department-wide training failures led to the shooting and put officers at risk. The District has denied her allegations, and Dykes has filed court papers saying his training and conduct during the incident were proper.
At 1:15 p.m. Dec. 19, 1995, Detectives Jackson-Pinkney and LaJuan Lynch were on their lunch break at the D.C. Farmer's Market when someone reported that two men had forced a video salesman into his van at gunpoint.
The detectives radioed for backup, then broke up the carjacking. One robber fled with Lynch in pursuit while Jackson-Pinkney forced the other to the ground. She was standing over him with her pistol drawn when Dykes ran up.
As the crowd parted, Dykes saw the back of a person in a bulky winter coat pointing a gun at a man seated on the sidewalk. He figured the seated man was a crime victim about to get shot.
"I said, 'Police!' " Dykes would later testify. When the person holding the gun did not respond, "I felt I had to fire."
Struck in the back by two bullets, Jackson-Pinkney collapsed on the pavement and looked up at her assailant.
"Dykes," she said, "I'm pregnant."
Jackson-Pinkney gave birth to a healthy daughter four months later, but she remains partly paralyzed and unable to work.
Lt. Rodney T. Parks sent top officials a four-page report the day of the shooting, summarizing the statements of several witnesses, including a bystander who said he heard Dykes yell, "Police, drop the weapon," before he fired.
Ten months later, in October 1996, when homicide branch detectives forwarded the final investigative packet to the U.S. attorney's office for review, that witness statement and several others could not be located and were not included in the packet, a report by 5th District Lt. Melvin E. Gresham said.
"Attempts to obtain these statements from the homicide branch were unsuccessful," and the witnesses could not be found, Gresham wrote. Without the statements, no witness corroborated Dykes's account that he warned Jackson-Pinkney before shooting. It was for that reason the department declared the shooting not justified, a police spokesman said.
Police reports differ in their accounts of the numbers of bullets fired. Two bullets hit Jackson-Pinkney, while carjacker Gregory Gary took a bullet in his left shoulder and a bystander was struck in the knee. Gresham's February 1997 report stated that Dykes fired all four shots.
But other police reports show only three bullets at most were missing from Dykes's gun. Jackson-Pinkney's gun was two rounds short of its capacity, an evidence report shows, raising the possibility that she also fired -- although she said she didn't. It is not clear from police reports whether Lynch fired. Her gun was not confiscated at the scene as required by police regulations, but was turned over later to fellow officers who discussed the shooting with her before she made her official statement, a police report shows. Lynch said her gun jammed when she tried to fire it.
From a hospital room two days after the shooting, Jackson-Pinkney gave her statement to two detectives from her own 5th District, as well as a homicide branch investigator.
Jackson-Pinkney's partners took a close interest in her answers, police reports show. When Jackson-Pinkney stated that she was tussling with Gary for "three to five minutes" before Dykes arrived, for example, Detective James O. Johnson asked, "Was it actually that long? . . . I'm not trying to change your time, I'm just trying to say, think about -- three to five minutes is a long time. Think about that again."
Dykes, by contrast, was asked to give only a cursory statement on the day of the shooting, and that statement's lack of detail would be used to attack his credibility during the July 1997 deposition he gave in Jackson-Pinkney's lawsuit against him and the District.
Last March, five months after he resigned and more than two years after the shooting, police officials ruled that Dykes's use of his gun was not justified.
Dykes now works as a Maryland school security officer. As the pending lawsuit swirled around them, Dykes and Jackson-Pinkney reconciled in telephone conversations and at a meeting in her Prince George's County church. She has forgiven him.
Staff writers Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz, computer-assisted reporting director Ira Chinoy and database specialist Jo Craven contributed to this report.
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