Officers Go Too Far
Confrontations Lead to Beatings, Complaints, Lawsuits
By Sari Horwitz
During a decade when fatal shootings by D.C. police rose to the highest levels in the nation, hundreds of city residents took legal action to charge officers with brutal force that stopped short of gunfire.
The allegations detailed in more than 750 civil lawsuits filed since 1990 sound common themes: short-fused officers who either provoked confrontations or allowed routine encounters to escalate; men and women, young and old, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, jailed on flimsy charges that were promptly dropped; hostility between officers and residents that touched every geographic quadrant and socioeconomic level -- from Georgetown to Anacostia, from Spring Valley to Shaw -- and sometimes involved brutal beatings with fists, nightsticks or blackjacks.
Like police shootings, brutality allegations have cost the District. The city paid settlements and judgments in more than 300 civil cases -- nearly half of the lawsuits filed in the 1990s -- for an average cost of $1 million a year, a review of court documents by The Washington Post showed. Corporation Counsel John M. Ferren, whose office handles civil litigation against the police, said settling a case is a "business decision" that takes into account the city's probability of winning in court.
Lapses in training and supervision frequently are at the root of both excessive-force and questionable shooting incidents, according to criminologists and police officials.
"You can't talk about deadly force unless you talk about the whole continuum of force," Chief Charles H. Ramsey said in an interview.
Police officials say that most of the city's 3,550 officers regularly demonstrate an ability to defuse tensions on the street without using force, and that only a small number of the 40,000 to 50,000 arrests made in the District each year result in complaints from citizens. Officers involved in brutality incidents tarnish the badges of officers who regularly use restraint, officials add.
"Suspects have rights, too," Ramsey said. "We are not allowed to use excessive force or verbally abuse people, nor should we."
Yet, court files and internal city documents reveal hundreds of incidents in which tensions led to violence:
A jury awarded $79,326 in 1993 to Quentin Porter, a 73-year-old retired postal worker who was mistaken for a criminal suspect, pulled from a park bench, beaten and arrested by an officer who broke Porter's arm.
The city paid Annie L. Brockett $45,000 in 1994 after the 56-year-old Columbia Heights woman said she was beaten with a nightstick on Christmas when she questioned officers who were involved in an altercation with two of her sons in front of her home.
The city paid Rose Pitt $250,000 in 1996 after her 31-year-old son, Frankie Murphy, a deaf Southeast Washington man, died in police custody. He stopped breathing after D.C. officers used a choke hold on him, according to court papers.
The city paid Leslie Howard and three relatives $130,000 last year after officers allegedly struck, cursed and maced them during a disturbance outside their Jamaican carryout restaurant on Georgia Avenue NW.
Of more than 400 lawsuits filed in the 1990s that have not been settled, some have been dismissed as groundless but many are still pending. In most of the settled cases reviewed by The Post, D.C. officers named in complaints and lawsuits faced little departmental discipline, even when they cost the city large financial judgments. One officer has amassed at least 18 citizen complaints, each ruled groundless.
There is no meaningful way to compare police brutality allegations among American cities because there are no uniform federal standards for reporting such allegations, criminologists say. Cities collect citizen complaints differently, some through independent civilian boards and others through the police themselves.
But the city of Pittsburgh offers one base of comparison. The Justice Department intervened in 1996 to restructure that city's police department and its citizen complaint system, after a class-action lawsuit by community activists. Pittsburgh had been sued more than 100 times for police civil rights violations during the 1990s, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in an interview. Justice officials said they are studying several other cities for possible intervention, but not the District.
Justice Department officials said it was the content and pattern of suits in Pittsburgh -- not the quantity -- that prompted federal intervention.
District residents filed many times the number of police brutality suits that Pittsburgh residents did during roughly the same period, and some Washington lawyers and criminologists involved in litigation against District police assert that the hundreds of suits here suggest a pattern of abuse.
Ronald E. Hampton, who heads the National Black Police Association and who was a D.C. officer until 1994, blames a "rip and run" culture that developed among police here as violent crime soared in the late 1980s. Police brass encouraged aggressiveness, reasoning that with crime rampant "we ought to let the officers do what they say they have to do," Hampton said.
D.C. law requires officers to use "only the minimum amount of force" necessary to make an arrest. But that is often a judgment call. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court said that an officer's use of force must be judged "from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene."
Law enforcement experts say excessive force often indicates officer behavior that can spiral into confrontational, even deadly conduct.
"When I look at officers involved in bad shootings, quite often they have a history of unchecked bad behavior that usually begins with minor, nickel-and-dime violations, continues to escalate to serious abuses of citizens' rights and dignity and keeps growing," said Temple University criminal justice professor James Fyfe, a former New York City police lieutenant who has studied the D.C. police.
Many of the complaints and lawsuits in the District are directed at D.C. police academy graduates in the Classes of 1989 and 1990. In those years, city officials acknowledge, many recruits were not adequately screened in a crash program mandated by Congress to hire 1,500 officers to do battle against crack-related violence.
Training problems, however, have not been limited to those classes. A committee scrutinizing police misconduct for the D.C. Council reported last month that the department has continued to put "the lives of the new recruits, as well as the citizens, in jeopardy by placing untrained officers in potentially dangerous situations."
One recent police academy graduate complained in an internal evaluation of training obtained by The Post: "I don't think they should have put us out in districts when we weren't prepared. . . . We didn't have proper training." Another wrote: "I felt I was not prepared to be sent out, but thank God nothing happened."
Complaints and lawsuits citing officers come from a wide swath of the city's population, from habitual criminals and pregnant women, homeless drifters and well-heeled business travelers. Their allegations, as told in court and internal police files, describe officers who resorted to profanity, threats and physical attacks when challenged.
Citizens were left with little recourse short of litigation. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent panel that investigated grievances, was disbanded in 1995 after becoming fatally backlogged with more than 800 complaints. Now complaints must be filed at the district station where the offending officer works. Civil rights lawyers say they believe many victims are too intimidated to go to the station.
Police say the frayed trust between officers and citizens goes both ways.
"There is no reason for people to fear assaulting a police officer in the District of Columbia," said Sgt. Garret Baxter. "There's no penalty in fighting us or assaulting us. There's nothing to support us as far as the criminal justice system goes."
But Ramsey Johnson, special counsel to the U.S. attorney, said that 64 percent of the almost 1,700 people arrested for assaulting a police officer since June 1996 have been charged with either felony assault or misdemeanor simple assault.
Tension on District streets reveals itself in unexpected ways.
Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, earlier this year found himself explaining to a D.C. Superior Court judge why he could not sit on a jury for a case involving a shooting by D.C. officers.
Bond told the judge that a decade ago, his 87-year-old uncle, J. Max Bond, a distinguished educator and diplomat, had been knocked to the ground outside his Capitol Hill home by an officer. Max Bond had gone outside to look into a disturbance, according to his subsequent account in court papers. When one officer after another refused to answer his questions and kept referring him to other officers, Bond muttered, "Another dictionary case: Donkey -- see jackass. Jackass -- see donkey."
Bond was immediately struck in the head and shoulders, then arrested for disorderly conduct, according to court papers. No charges were filed. Police say that anyone who verbally abuses an officer is subject to arrest.
"There was no excuse for striking an old man," Julian Bond said of his uncle, who has since died.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a friend of Max Bond who witnessed the incident while jogging, said she was horrified.
"This was an old man of great intelligence, vigor and dignity," Norton said. "He had never been disrespectful to anyone. Nobody would have found an elderly gentleman of this kind a danger to the police."
'Something Is Wrong Here' From his corner market across the street from Dunbar High School, Korean immigrant King An often served D.C. police officers a free cup of coffee as they made their rounds. An said he was always happy to see them.
Then, on Feb. 22, 1995, according to court records, Officer Johnnie Ben Walker Jr. appeared in the store at Third and P streets NW. Walker, a 10-year police veteran with a history of citizen complaints, was investigating a Dunbar student's charge that An had shortchanged her on the $10 she paid for a package of cigarettes.
An had sent the student away, asking her to come back after he checked his daily register totals, according to An's account in interviews and court records. Walker appeared soon afterward.
Walker ordered the grocer to step from the register booth and show identification, according to An. "It seemed like he was saying, 'You're a bad person. You're a cheater,' " An said.
As he started to retrieve an ID from his upstairs apartment, An said, Walker grabbed him by the neck and threw him into the shelves. "I thought, 'Something is wrong here,' " An told The Post. "He couldn't be a police officer. He was too wild."
After being shoved, An said he erred by warning Walker, "I'll sue you."
Walker grabbed the grocer, shoved his face against the front door and pinned his arms behind him, according to An's complaint.
Several more police cars arrived. An was arrested, charged with assault and theft, and spent a night in jail. A judge dismissed the charges the next day.
An sued in February 1996, saying in his lawsuit that Walker caused permanent injuries to his shoulder and accusing the city of failing to "properly and adequately train, discipline, supervise or retrain" its officers.
District lawyers contended that An pushed Walker first, and a department investigation cleared Walker of any wrongdoing in October 1995, according to court papers. But the city settled with An last year for $50,000. Walker declined to be interviewed.
It was not the first time an excessive-force complaint had been lodged against Walker.
In 1988, while socializing at the East Side Club in Southwest Washington, Walker shot a man four times. Walker said he shot Kenneth Agnew, 24, after Agnew ignored an order to drop a gun he was carrying and aimed it at Walker, according to court papers.
Agnew survived and was charged with assaulting a police officer, but those charges were later dropped. He sued the District, saying that he did not have a gun and that Walker had never identified himself before shooting him. Although a gun was found near the scene, it did not have Agnew's fingerprints on it, court papers say. The city settled for $49,669. The department later found the shooting justified and cleared Walker.
Three years later, on Aug. 18, 1991, Walker shot at another man outside the East Side Club, where he was off duty and working as a security guard, according to police officials. The man ran away, apparently unharmed.
Three other citizens filed complaints with the Civilian Complaint Review Board from 1989 to 1991, alleging that Walker used excessive force and abusive language. But these matters were dropped because the citizens did not pursue them, records show.
In June 1993, Walker was charged with assault with a deadly weapon in the District after his girlfriend accused him of kicking her in the head and stabbing her in the arm, according to court papers. Charges were dropped the next day. Walker was suspended for five days for bringing "discredit to the department," police documents show.
A month later, Walker was suspended for 20 days for giving false statements, according to police documents. The circumstances surrounding the suspension are unclear.
On March 24, 1997, Walker's wife at the time pressed charges against him for destruction of property in Prince George's County; she later dropped the charges.
Two months later, the police department suspended Walker for 30 days for "conduct unbecoming" an officer, according to police officials. A month after that, Walker, who is 6 feet 3 and weighs 245 pounds, was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly striking his wife in the face. He was placed on administrative leave for a year with pay, police documents show. The charges were dropped last March.
Walker recently returned to patrol in the 1st Police District, which encompasses Capitol Hill. A spokesman for the department's executive assistant chief said no charges were pending against Walker and "our hands are tied."
"Johnnie Walker was a hell of a street cop," said former police lieutenant Lowell Duckett. "He came on during a violent time, and he showed a tremendous amount of courage. If he had been given the proper guidance, he would be an excellent police officer."
Meanwhile, An's encounter with Walker changed his life. He sold his market and moved his family to another neighborhood.
"When I saw police officers pass by for about a year afterward, I prayed," said An, now 40. "I worried they would hurt my family."
'Slow Night' The largest award this decade involving brutality allegations against D.C. police came after a four-year legal battle waged by printing salesman James Douglas Cox.
Cox won a $460,000 judgment in 1992 against two officers, and a separate $165,000 award from the city in 1993 after a judge found that the District had shown "deliberate indifference" to citizens complaining of police brutality.
Cox, a 28-year-old former Marine, was driving home to Bowie from Dupont Circle at 3 a.m. on Dec. 30, 1990, when he changed lanes without signaling. Officers Barry Goodwin and William Brady pulled him over.
During his two years on the force, Goodwin had already accumulated three review board complaints. In 1989, a Bethesda account executive accused Goodwin and others of throwing him into a plate-glass window in Georgetown and handcuffing him so tightly his wrists bled. In 1990, a motorist said Goodwin and other officers kicked and shoved him, according to the motorist's lawsuit. The city eventually settled the case. A student also filed an excessive-force complaint, naming Goodwin, in December 1990.
Goodwin denied all the accusations, according to court papers. All three complaints were still pending when Goodwin and Brady stopped Cox.
Goodwin was immediately confrontational and, after an unpleasant exchange, grabbed Cox's car keys and threw them into a parking lot, Cox said in a recent interview. Cox said Goodwin threatened to beat or shoot him if he came out of the car, then wrote a traffic ticket and tossed it into the passenger's seat.
Emerging from the car to retrieve his keys and driver's license, Cox said he tried to read Goodwin's badge number. Goodwin then "hit me in the head with his nightstick," Cox said.
Goodwin slammed him against the police car, Cox said. "The next thing I knew, a bunch of officers were on me," he added. Cox was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct, placed in a police wagon and driven around for about 30 minutes before the officers returned to the 2nd District station.
"This was the scariest part," he said. "Nothing made any sense. . . . I feared they would kill me."
During a subsequent review board inquiry, Goodwin said Cox had resisted arrest. Goodwin declined requests from The Post for comment; Brady did not respond to messages requesting an interview.
Cox had bruises and a six-inch gash above his left eye, according to court records. He paid a $25 fine and was released just before noon on Dec. 30 -- nine hours after the traffic stop. According to Cox's account to the court, when he asked the officers why he had been assaulted, Brady replied, "Slow night." Charges against Cox were dismissed six months later, when the officers failed to show up in court.
Cox filed a review board complaint, then sued the District and Officers Goodwin and Brady. For more than a year, Cox waited -- while Goodwin accumulated more citizen complaints.
A Philadelphia man said Goodwin beat him outside a Georgetown club in June 1991. The city paid the man $10,000 after a city attorney withdrew from the case, saying that Goodwin would not cooperate with her efforts to defend him.
Cox's lawsuit came before U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green in February 1992, when national attention was focused on the Rodney King brutality case in Los Angeles. Goodwin and Brady failed to appear in court. Green found that Cox had "persuasive" evidence of a "mauling" by Goodwin, which Brady did nothing to stop. She held Goodwin liable for $350,000 and Brady for $110,000.
Cox also sought damages from the city for what he called a "pattern and practice" of police excessive force. His complaint focused on the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which took an average of 33 months to resolve a complaint, according to documents from the board. The seven-member board, which began operating in 1982, had the authority to recommend to the police chief that individual officers be disciplined.
The long delays had consequences for citizens and police. Officers despised the review board because it often took years to clear their names in frivolous complaints. Citizens complained that problem officers remained on duty while cases languished. At least 44 D.C. officers had three or more complaints pending against them when Cox filed his grievance, according to review board documents.
In Cox's lawsuit, Green found that the District "made a conscious choice" to ignore complaints and had failed to properly train and supervise officers. Her decision was upheld by the D.C. Circuit Court in 1994, and the District paid Cox $165,000.
The review board set its hearing on the Cox complaint for Jan. 18, 1995 -- four years after the original traffic stop. Goodwin appeared in his own defense, and the panel said he exhibited a "disturbing pattern of behavior" and concluded that his testimony was "evasive, filled with inconsistencies and embellishments."
Still, the board found most of Cox's complaint unfounded, saying it could not assess the degree of force necessary to subdue him. The board found Goodwin guilty only of using "demeaning language" and recommended a 10-day suspension and counseling. The department temporarily removed Goodwin from patrol in 1992. He is now back on duty in the 2nd Police District, which encompasses Georgetown and Upper Northwest Washington.
After the review board disbanded three years ago, more than 800 pending complaints were forwarded to the police districts for investigation. Duckett, the former police lieutenant, said no one in the department had time to deal with them. "The system fell apart," Duckett said. "Not one person was found guilty of anything."
City officials, acknowledging the shortcomings of requiring citizens to file grievances directly with the police, said they plan to create a new civilian complaint board.
Cox said he still has not collected the judgment against the officers. But money was never the central issue, Cox added. Rather, he said, he wanted to show that beating citizens is "not what the police are supposed to be doing."
'They Are Putting People at Risk' In 1991, a year after the Cox incident, a study by the D.C. police union concluded that training of officers -- including instruction in the use of force -- was inadequate in the District.
Allegations about systemic training deficiencies became increasingly common in police brutality lawsuits against the District. Gregory Lattimer, then a corporation counsel lawyer, visited the police academy in 1989 to observe baton training while he was handling a case involving a citizen who had been hit in the eye with an officer's nightstick. Lattimer, who now often represents clients in cases against the city, said in an interview that he was appalled by the skimpy instruction and reported back to a supervisor, who urged him to write a memo but not complain publicly.
Martin Grossman, deputy corporation counsel, said in an interview that he cannot recall the case and that the office's internal files cannot be located. The city settled that lawsuit for $50,000, according to corporation counsel figures. Two years later, the city paid $45,000 to a woman allegedly hit over the head with a baton by another officer, the figures show.
"This has been going on for years," Lattimer said. "We all knew about it. No one did anything."
Two years ago, then-Police Chief Larry D. Soulsby vowed to send three-quarters of the force back to the academy for retraining. But the effort failed for lack of a committed follow-up, according to police officials.
With a new police administration in place, training is again being emphasized. Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer said he was surprised to arrive in Washington from Chicago last spring and discover that many officers were unfamiliar with what law enforcement experts call the "force continuum."
The continuum is a written standard to guide officers in deciding how much force is appropriate in various situations; one intent of the standard is to prevent ordinary encounters with citizens from escalating to violence.
"Officers are not being taught this adequately," Gainer said in an interview. "They are not practicing these skills and they are putting people at risk."
Ramsey said he plans to send the entire force back through the academy, beginning in January. The chief said he will equip officers with an effective pepper spray to use as an alternative to clubs and will prohibit the use of blackjacks, the leather-covered lead bludgeons now carried by some officers.
"Most departments have discarded the use of those," Ramsey said. "They're difficult to control without serious injury."
Officers are permitted to use the "carotid artery hold," a technique of applying pressure or force to the carotid artery or jugular vein. But, under D.C. law, they must be certified in CPR in case the suspect becomes unconscious. Training instructors and police officials, however, acknowledge that a substantial portion of the force is not certified.
"Half to three-quarters of the department had not even qualified with their weapons," Gainer said. "So you can't expect that they were trained in the use of force."
The District, which a decade ago stopped requiring performance evaluations of officers by their superiors, is also the only jurisdiction in the nation that does not require annual in-service training for police officers, according to a report last month by a D.C. Council special investigative committee.
"You bring in a kid and put him through recruit school and then they get on the street and they're told, 'We do it this way, not by the book,' " said Robert Klotz, a former D.C. deputy chief. "So training needs to be continuously reemphasized."
Some recent trainees wrote in their training evaluations that they feel ill-prepared.
"My class was sent out to work without the needed life saving techniques to work the streets. We didn't receive our scheduled street survival classes or civil disturbance training," one recruit wrote. "I wonder how am I to serve and protect the citizens of the District of Columbia when the department that I believed in and work for puts my life and well being in danger."
'Contempt of Cop' Criminologists and civil rights lawyers see similarities in many police beating incidents. The triggering offenses are typically minor, but the officer often perceives a challenge to authority and acts to regain control.
Klotz, who frequently testifies against police departments as an expert witness in brutality cases, said officers may regard a citizen's questions or refusal to fully cooperate as an offense known informally among police as "contempt of cop" -- a sign of disrespect that could escalate into trouble.
Inez B. Vecchietti, a 70-year-old Bethesda woman, was accused of stealing two grapes at a Northwest supermarket by an off-duty officer working as a security guard. When she protested, Vecchietti alleged in court papers, she was dragged down the aisle, arrested and handcuffed. Charges against her were dropped. The lawsuit she filed was settled last spring by the store for an undisclosed amount, court documents show.
"These are petty incidents, not serious crimes," said Joseph Hart, a former corporation counsel lawyer who now represents clients suing for alleged brutality. "Seasoned criminals rarely are on the receiving end of police brutality. They know how to deal with the police and not provoke them. It's mostly your law-abiding citizens who have never encountered the police [and] who say, 'I've never been arrested before. Why is this happening?' "
That, law enforcement experts say, is where training comes into play. A well-trained officer learns to absorb verbal aggressiveness and not take confrontations personally, according to former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. Officers must understand, Fulwood added, that residents are angry not at the officer but at "the uniform."
"The overwhelming majority of police officers do a good job," added Fulwood, who was chief from 1989 to 1992. "They never use force, never fire their guns, never hit anyone."
But some D.C. officers are what is known in police jargon as "repeaters" -- cited again and again in citizen complaints and lawsuits.
Officer James T. "Jay" Effler is a 1989 academy graduate who, by 1995, had accumulated 18 citizen complaints, including allegations of using racial epithets, profanity and excessive force, according to internal records obtained by The Post. None of the 18 complaints was sustained by either the Civilian Complaint Review Board or the department. Effler declined to be interviewed.
Effler also was named in three brutality lawsuits against the District. One was settled last year for $10,400; two others were settled for $60,000 and $31,000. In responding to the suits, Effler denied any wrongdoing and said his actions were warranted.
Effler was reprimanded in 1992 after he and several other officers entered Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium the week of the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins football game and carved figure-eights into the field with their police cruisers, according to internal police documents.
"The potential embarrassment that this city could have been saddled with is unprecedented," then-Deputy Chief Donald H. Christian wrote in a letter of reprimand obtained by The Post.
In 1991, Effler was charged with assault for allegedly grabbing and threatening a woman, but the charge was dropped, according to court records. In March 1993, he was placed on administrative leave without pay after being charged with battery and a misdemeanor sex offense in Prince George's County for allegedly running his hand between the legs of a waitress, according to court papers.
Effler, who denied wrongdoing, was convicted of the sex offense in Prince George's, but the matter was dropped when Effler appealed. The waitress told The Post that she agreed to drop charges if Effler performed community service.
In January 1997, Effler was assigned to drive a police official on the day of President Clinton's inaugural parade. At one point before the parade started, a Secret Service agent blocked the path of Effler's car. Effler jumped out of his vehicle, yelled at the agent and got into a scuffle. The Secret Service did not bring a formal complaint, but a Washington Post reporter was in the car and witnessed the incident.
Stephen T. Colo, of the Secret Service inaugural committee, said in an interview that the agent was not at fault. "He was pushed by a D.C. police officer," Colo said. "It was a physical scuffle. I never remember an officer and an agent pushing one another."
Former deputy chief Claude Beheler called Effler, who had served under him on two assignments, "a very good, aggressive officer . . . who liked to go out and lock people up and recover drugs and guns."
Effler accumulated citizen complaints, Beheler said, because he "wasn't real sophisticated. He was the kind of guy who ruffled people's feathers."
Citizen complaints, Beheler said, don't necessarily mean an officer was in the wrong. The most effective officers, who make a disproportionate share of arrests, also tend to generate a disproportionate share of citizen complaints, he added.
But Beheler and several other former police officials said the department for years has had a cumbersome disciplinary system often referred to as "the Bermuda Triangle," where investigations into officer misconduct languish and even vanish.
No one in the department has protected Effler, Beheler said: "The system protects him."
Staff writers Jeff Leen and David Jackson, director of computer-assisted reporting Ira Chinoy, database specialist Jo Craven, researcher Alice Crites and Metro Resource Director Margot Williams contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company