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  • Deadly Force series

  •   Police Credibility on Trial in D.C. Courts

    Law and Disorder
    Day One
    D.C. Police Paying for Forced Hiring Binge
    Pride in Badge Keeps Officers on Beat

    Day Two
    Standards Eased in Rush to Expand Force
    After Rookie Got Role Model, He Lost Job

    Day Three
    Police Credibility on Trial in D.C. Courts

    Day Four
    Police Efforts to Clean House Hit Snags
    Some Supervisors Not Affected by Missteps


    By Mary Pat Flaherty and
    Keith A. Harriston

    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, August 30, 1994; Page A01

    The failings that stem from the District's rush to hire and field nearly 1,500 police officers in less than two years don't surface only on the streets. They seep into the courtrooms, where cases have been lost and dropped because of bad training.

    Courtroom work demands precision, yet many younger officers are careless – mishandling evidence at the crime scene and testifying inconsistently about such basics as a suspect's height.

    It demands a professional demeanor, yet some younger officers have seen nothing wrong with wearing sunglasses with their uniforms when they take the witness stand.

    It demands integrity, yet younger officers are being arrested at such a pace that the U.S. attorney's office has a list of tainted officers it won't use in court. There are 185 names, half of them officers hired in 1989 or 1990, the two years in which the department brought on board the glut of recruits.

    Police academy officials maintain that when they cut the hours of academy instruction during the department's hiring spree, it didn't diminish the quality of new officers. But judges and lawyers who have read the officers' arrest reports and heard their courtroom testimony take a different view.

    "Doesn't anyone in the police department get any training?" U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth asked before dismissing a 1991 case against two brothers arrested with 121 bags of crack cocaine and a loaded revolver in their car. The two principal officers in the case, a 1990 rookie and a veteran of 10 years, had failed to preserve statements taken from defendants on the night of the arrest.

    "It's beyond negligence," Lamberth complained, "and I don't know if it's beyond stupidity too."

    The U.S. attorney's office has begun tutoring police in some of the areas in which training was curtailed at the academy – how to investigate a crime, do the paperwork and present testimony.

    Enduring Consequences

    If the arrests of 104 officers are a spectacular consequence of the hurried hiring and training of recruits in 1989 and 1990, the shortcomings of ill-prepared officers are an enduring effect.

    Bad officers make bad witnesses, and whether officers are bad because they broke the law or bad because they are poorly trained, they are a handicap that prosecutors don't need. That is especially so in D.C. courtrooms, where, U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said, "the government already starts a little behind because police aren't viewed in a positive way here."

    Holder said the spectacle of officers being arrested, their poor presentation on the stand and the actions jurors have seen outside court that they perceive as police misconduct contribute to "a significanct loss of public confidence" in law enforcement.

    And, he said, in a system in which "juries have to make credibility decisions about witnesses, that ultimately affects our ability to get a verdict."

    Police Chief Fred Thomas said prosecutors share the blame. "We accept responsibility that sometimes our officers might not be as prepared as they should be. But sometimes prosecutors lose cases because they fail to properly prepare for court."

    Thomas said if prosecutors notify his office when officers have trouble testifying or don't prepare for court, the officers will get remedial training. "Since I've been chief, I haven't received one note from the U.S. attorney's office about that happening," Thomas said.

    Since last December's arrest of 12 officers in an undercover FBI drug sting, the U.S. attorney has dropped 10 cases that were pending in court because the irreplaceable witness in each was one of the so-called Dirty Dozen officers. (Nine of the 12 have pleaded guilty, and three others have trials pending.)

    Most of those 10 cases involved alleged street-level drug buys witnessed by the officers, including sales of crack cocaine and PCP. Under court rules, if an officer's personal conduct might impugn his testimony, the defense must be told.

    The existence of a list of officers who can't be used as witnesses suggests the degree of the problem facing the District and its 4,240-member force. Prosecutors in Wayne County – which includes Detroit, with its force of 4,000 officers – and Cook County – which includes Chicago, with its 13,000 officers – don't have such a list.

    "We might get 10 or 15 felony cases a year that involve an officer we can't use, but nowhere near the number you're talking about in Washington. We can keep track of our people case by case," said Richard Padzieski, of the Wayne County prosecuting attorney's office.

    The Alternatives

    Rather than put an officer on the stand who might do more harm than good, prosecutors who discover their arresting officer on the dishonor roll will try to use another officer as the main witness. That's easier in some crimes – robbery, homicide, major drug cases – because older, more experienced detectives often play a role in the investigation.

    When that can't be done, the case is dropped.

    Suspects also have walked free after judges tired of officers' mistakes – some of which judges linked to training problems.

    Transcripts from the 1991 drug case before Lamberth show the officers had discussed whether they might later need the statements taken from the defendants on the night of the arrests. It was never made clear in court whether the statements were lost or destroyed – just that they didn't make it into the files kept for the court case.

    A year after Lamberth scolded the department, U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson also questioned police training during a 1992 crack cocaine case against three defendants.

    Johnson dismissed the case after an officer hired in 1989 – who had given one account of events before a grand jury and a different version in the courtroom – told the judge he had made a "mistake" in his grand jury statements.

    The biggest discrepancy in the case involved the sequence of events leading to a drug arrest. The order of events is important to the court in determining whether police had a legitimate reason to make an arrest.

    In the grand jury, the officer testified that he had ordered suspects to get out of a car when he suspected they might be carrying drugs. In court, he testified that another officer had taken those actions.

    Johnson said she wasn't sure whether the officer made a mistake, lied or wasn't "mature enough to review his materials" before going to court, according to hearing transcripts. But, she added, "I would think that's the first thing a police officer is taught, that you must be scrupulously honest at all times."

    Gamely trying to defend the officer – who earlier in his career had been made part of the aggressive Rapid Deployment Unit that responds to violent crime areas – the federal prosecutor in the case cited his youth and high-pressure job.

    Young officers, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Zlotnick said, are "not good yet at writing either detailed {police forms} or taking enough notes to remember the facts that are of importance to the attorneys and the court, and they need to work harder at remembering."

    Johnson barely abided the explanation. Of the young officers appearing in her court, she said, "Not only were they not trained observers, but they don't know the law. ... It hurts the entire administration of justice."

    As pointed as Johnson's lecture was, the judge was merely confirming what prosecutors say has been a pattern of careless paperwork, inattention to detail and unrefined courtroom demeanor.

    Her reaction, along with the impatience of other judges, prompted the U.S. attorney's office to take to the road with a "how-to" class for police.

    Remedial Work

    The police department hasn't made the classes mandatory, Thomas said, because he would have to pay officers overtime to attend while off duty and because the department hasn't approved the course syllabus. "If we control it, we can document it better in case we have to go to court" to defend it, Thomas said.

    Rather, prosecutors offer to run sessions in district police stations on all shifts, then go to any station that accepts the help.

    "I don't know what was left out of the training, but the paperwork from the younger guys was atrocious," said Nancy Luque, deputy chief of the U.S. attorney's grand jury division in 1989. "And they had no sense, a lot of them, that careless paperwork could screw up a beautiful arrest."

    Any inconsistency – no matter how innocent – gives a good defense lawyer a chance to make an officer look foolish or, even worse, deceptive.

    Defense lawyer Bernard Grimm recalled a case in which an officer had written on his arrest report that a suspect was 5 feet 6 inches tall but estimated from the stand that the suspect was several inches taller.

    Drawing the jury's attention to such a discrepancy – by having an officer read aloud from his arrest report – gives a defense lawyer an opening to explore whether the officer might have been wrong about other important facts, Grimm said.

    "On cross-examination, the only thing you have to corroborate what you tell a court happened is the paperwork, so it has to be terrific to win a case," Luque said.

    The decision on whether to go forward to a grand jury after an arrest can swing on whether the officer's original report contains a clear account of what prompted him to make the arrest and what occurred during the arrest.

    "It's not good enough that the officer may be able to talk about what made him act. He has to have it down on paper, and it has to be understandable," Luque said.

    The drastic variations in instruction given to police recruits in 1989 and 1990 occurred in a department that historically hasn't stressed or provided much money for in-service training, such as attendance at seminars.

    The total budget for in-service training held at roughly $40,000 a year until 1993, when Chief Thomas raised it to $500,000.

    The lack of emphasis on training affected front-line supervisors as well as patrol officers, spawning situations such as one described by a lieutenant in the 6th Police District in far Northeast and Southeast Washington.

    The lieutenant, who was giving a deposition in a 1993 civil suit unrelated to misconduct by young officers, said he had not received a refresher course in search and seizure since becoming a supervisor in 1986.

    Yet his job required giving guidance to subordinate officers in what constitutes a legal search. By his own estimate, the lieutenant said he had been asked "maybe 100" times to guide arresting officers on whether a search they planned would stand up in court as legal.

    The basic training course offered by prosecutors comes at a time when officers hired in the 1989-90 rush would be expected to be journeymen in their profession.

    Getting Convictions

    Charles Harkins, who organizes the sessions as deputy chief of the narcotics section of the U.S. attorney's office, said, "We try to get across the message that what we all want – the officers and prosecutors – are prosecutable cases as opposed to arrests."

    To get from arrest to conviction, though, officers need to be made aware of all of the elements that come into play in court, Harkins said. A court case is built from the moment officers arrive at a crime scene, and every bit of paperwork they generate, every statement they make or take might be exploited by the defense.

    "After a warrant is obtained, we want them to think about the organization that's required to do a good job," Harkins said. Appointing one officer as the crime scene search officer is a start. Having another officer draw a diagram of the scene is the next step.

    But even those simple instructions run headlong into cherished practices at the department, practices that are passed on to recruits – including building up overtime pay by maximizing, rather than minimizing, the number of officers who will be needed in court to testify.

    "We've found that one officer may come through {a crime scene} and picks up some evidence, and another makes the arrest, and a third comes in and picks up the few remaining pieces of evidence," Harkins said. "And the reason for all of that can be that the more officers in on the critical part of the search and arrest, the more who have to come to court, which boosts their overtime pay."

    Overtime 'Out of Control'

    Overtime costs for court appearances grew so large that in March 1991, the D.C. auditor, the investigative arm of the D.C. Council, reported that the situation was "out of control."

    For prosecutors, that practice not only creates problems "because it's killing the {police} department financially, but it makes it harder on us when the case comes up {for trial} because you have that many more people to schedule and to put on the stand for the defense to pick apart," Harkins said.

    Testifying effectively is an acquired skill, but too many officers weren't being prepared, said Holder and former U.S. attorney Jay B. Stephens. During the peak of the hiring rush, police academy officials dropped a mock courtroom course. As a result, Holder said, some officers are easily trapped into saying things they didn't intend to say.

    Among the lessons now being delivered to officers by prosecutors are: Look at jurors. Enunciate. Speak up. Don't laugh. Don't get angry. Admit it when you don't know something. Answer precisely.

    At times, "we were almost scolds about the importance of attention to detail," said Alan Strasser, chief of the felony trial division at the U.S. attorney's office until 1991.

    The way an officer looks on the stand, the delivery of his testimony – not just the facts themselves – affect the outcome of a case.

    Officers are supposed to wear business clothes to court. Yet Holder said he often has seen officers take the stand sporting sunglasses, and he saw one wearing shorts and lots of gold chains. Outfitted like that, "the officer is not as effective a witness," Holder said.

    Staff writer Tracy Thompson contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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