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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.
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