When Officers Go Too Far
Confrontations Lead to Beatings, Complaints, Lawsuits
Last of five articles
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.
"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.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company