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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 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."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company