District Asks U.S. to Review Shootings
By Sari Horwitz and Jeff Leen
In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Ramsey asked for the Justice Department's civil rights division to investigate the police department's policies and practices regarding both deadly and non-lethal force, the methods used to investigate use-of-force cases, the practices for keeping records on such cases, the disciplinary process after shooting cases and all fatal police shootings since 1988.
"People keep telling me, 'If you need help, ask,' " Ramsey said in an interview yesterday. "Hell, I just asked."
An eight-month investigation by The Washington Post found that D.C. police officers have shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large U.S. city police force. Internal police files and court records showed that several of the shootings involved reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight.
The Post found that D.C. officers fired their weapons at more than double the rate of police officers in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami.
Citing The Post's series, Ramsey said in his letter to Holder that the department's policies and practices on deadly force "did not meet the high standards that I expected" on becoming chief in April last year.
"If something is wrong, we need to get to the bottom of it," Ramsey said at a news conference yesterday announcing his action. "If not, we need to move on."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams sent a separate letter yesterday to Attorney General Janet Reno, supporting Ramsey's request. Ramsey said that he did not speak to Holder yesterday but that he informed Holder's deputy of his request before sending it over.
"I recognize that this is an unusual step: to ask the Justice Department to step in and examine our department rather than the federal government deciding it needs to investigate a local agency, which is the way the process usually works," Ramsey said.
"But a cloud exists over this department that will not be and cannot be lifted until we have a third-party review," Ramsey said. "My putting my head in the sand won't make it go away. If we have a failing, what can we do to correct it?"
In his letter to Reno, Williams wrote, "I believe this action will ultimately identify the systemic weaknesses that put all of our officers at risk, while at the same time affirming the excellent performance and commitment of our officers who are doing their job professionally, day in and day out."
Justice Department spokeswoman Christine DiBartolo said, "We just received the letter, and at this point, we are determining what appropriate action is warranted."
The requests from Williams and Ramsey come a day after three more D.C. officers were put on administrative leave pending the investigation of another police shooting.
Police say Joseph R. Durant Jr., 40, a Northwest Washington man, lunged at them with knives from the doorway of his parents' home. Autopsy results revealed Durant died of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest, according to the D.C. medical examiner's office.
In a rare show of anger after a police shooting, community leaders have organized a protest for noon today at Judiciary Square.
The Post's series found D.C. police shootings rose sharply after 1989, when the department added large classes of ill-prepared recruits and switched from .38-caliber revolvers to the Glock 9mm semiautomatic handgun. Since 1990, D.C. police have shot and killed 87 people.
In 11 cases from 1992 to 1997, D.C. police ruled shootings justified despite eyewitness accounts or forensic evidence that contradicted officers, The Post's examination of internal investigative records showed.
Last year, Chief Ramsey made firearms retraining a top priority after a D.C. Council special committee investigation showed that 50 percent to 60 percent of the police force had not properly requalified with their firearms. In November, Ramsey issued a clarified use-of-force policy.
Last month, Ramsey announced a massive retraining effort that doubled the number of hours officers spend requalifying with their handguns, adding more than 100,000 officer-hours of use-of-force training. Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer announced that the department would review a 1995 police shooting in which evidence at the scene raised questions about the police version of events.
"But even with these critical changes, I still do not have the full confidence that our department currently possesses the resources needed to address these complex and difficult issues to the exacting standards that I expect and which the community demands," Ramsey said yesterday.
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