Armed and Unready
City Pays for Failure to Train Officers With Sophisticated Weapon
Fourth of five articles
By Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz
A decade ago, the District's Metropolitan Police Department placed one of the most advanced pistols in the world into the hands of hundreds of ill-prepared, undertrained police recruits.
The results have been unfortunate, according to police reports and internal department records examined by The Washington Post.
In the 10 years since D.C. police adopted the Glock 9mm to combat the growing firepower of drug dealers, there have been more than 120 accidental discharges of the handgun. Police officers have killed at least one citizen they didn't intend to kill and have wounded at least nine citizens they didn't intend to wound. Nineteen officers have shot themselves or other officers accidentally. At least eight victims or surviving relatives have sued the District alleging injuries from accidental discharges.
In an extraordinary sequence over the last six months, the District has settled three lawsuits for more than $1.4 million. The District admitted no wrongdoing in the suits, but the cases highlight the chronic neglect of Glock training by the D.C. police.
Last month, the District paid $250,000 to settle a case brought by the family of an unarmed teenager shot and killed at a traffic roadblock in 1996. The family's attorney argued that the officer's gun had discharged accidentally.
In August, the District paid $375,000 to settle another case in which a D.C. officer accidentally shot and killed an unarmed driver at a traffic stop in 1994.
In June, the District paid almost $800,000 to settle a case from 1994, when a D.C. officer accidentally shot his roommate. The officer had not been to the firing range to train with his weapon in more than two years 20 months out of compliance with regulations.
"That's just poor on the department's part to allow that to happen, and poor on the individual's part," Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who took over the D.C. police in April, said in an interview. "No wonder they settled."
Ramsey's recent efforts to bolster lax training already have yielded significant improvements, police officials say. But as the recent legal settlements show, the bill for past shortcomings is still coming due.
The string of accidental shootings by D.C. officers came amid 10 years of warnings from firearms experts about the Glock's light trigger and propensity to fire an unintentional shot when handled incorrectly. Such a sensitive gun was designed for highly trained users.
Yet the department stinted on training for recruits and failed to keep veteran officers to a twice-yearly retraining schedule that experts consider the bare minimum for firearms competence. A Washington Post investigation found that 75 percent of all D.C. officers involved in shootings during 1996 failed to comply with the retraining regulation. One officer waited so long to come to the range that firearms instructors found a spider nest growing inside his Glock.
Several factors contributed to this neglect, including the reluctance of hard-pressed commanders to spare officers from street duty, lapses on the part of officers themselves, problems with lead contamination that shut down the shooting range in the early 1990s and poor management, according to interviews with officials and independent studies of the department.
D.C. police officials repeatedly studied the phenomenon of accidental discharges, invariably concluding that there was no fundamental problem with the Glock itself as long as users were properly trained. Officials chose not to modify the Glock trigger, as New York City police did in 1990, to require a more forceful tug to fire the gun. In 1994, D.C. police recorded more accidental discharges than the Chicago or Los Angeles forces, two far bigger departments, according to discharge records from the departments. Last year, the accident rate for D.C. police was 50 percent greater than that of New York police.
Former D.C. police chief Larry D. Soulsby told The Post recently that he had planned to have the department switch from the Glock to another pistol before his retirement last November. Safety, Soulsby said, was "absolutely" a major factor in his thinking. In the past, the police union had pressed for a change of service weapon, Soulsby and former union officials said.
Glock Inc., the Austrian company's U.S. subsidiary, did not respond to repeated phone calls or a letter sent to its headquarters in Smyrna, Ga. A lawyer who has represented the company defended the gun as a safe weapon, citing the pistol's enormous popularity with U.S. police agencies.
"Glock has a market share probably in excess of 50 percent of the law enforcement market out there in the United States," New York lawyer John Renzulli said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company