Holes in the Files
Investigations of Police Shootings Often Leave Questions Unanswered
Third of five articles
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.
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