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Problems in D.C. Police Dept. Festered for Decades

By Michael Powell, Sari Horwitz and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 12, 1997; Page A01

A drug lab afloat with boxes of drugs and cash. An unguarded warehouse crowded with guns. Cars missing, computers down, homicide cases unsolved, and crime evidence destroyed and lost.

The picture painted of the District's police department in confidential consultants' reports obtained by The Washington Post last week had some talking of an agency fallen into chaos.

But the department has been on a 20-year descent. Once recognized as a national model of fine policing, the force has endured two decades of political interference by Mayor Marion Barry (D) and the D.C. Council, a persistent lack of fiscal controls, bad hiring practices and poor management.

Indeed, Barry, council leaders and the city's police chiefs, including the current one, Larry D. Soulsby, knew of the worst abuses years ago and did little to remedy the problems, interviews and a dozen audits and reports show.

Barry and police officials also said that problems catalogued in the confidential reports by Booz-Allen & Hamilton, the consulting firm working for the D.C. financial control board, came as no surprise.

"Nothing has come out in the Booz-Allen reports that has not been noted over the years as far back as I've been in the department," said Assistant Chief Rodney D. Monroe. "We led them to these areas."

These are some of the reports that were available to Barry, council leaders and high-ranking police officials over the last 10 years:

In 1993, a police report found that the property warehouse, which is used to store evidence in criminal cases, was administered under an "honor system." It had no management controls or security, was without a tracking system for evidence and presented a "great opportunity for theft" of drugs and guns, the report said.

In 1991, then-City Auditor Otis H. Troupe criticized the "uncontrollable nature" of police overtime. He found that many officers were submitting false overtime claims and warned that abuses "raised questions relating to [homicide's] productivity and effectiveness."

Troupe also found pay and attendance slips open to "manipulation by weak or incompetent" commanders.

A 1995 city audit prefigured the current problems in the management of police vehicles. It found that police officials "did not maintain an accurate inventory" of the fleet and could not find cars, and that thieves routinely stole and stripped seized autos kept in police parking lots.

The same 1995 audit discovered that the mayor's grants office and the corporation counsel had overcharged the police for administering its drug forfeiture money. And it found that the police had not deposited $1 million worth of forfeited drug money in a city bank account, as allowed by law. The cash instead sat in boxes in a police vault.

In 1988, a Police Executive Research Forum report said the department had more officers than it could competently manage. If officials cut 1,000 officers, the report said, the city would still have the nation's largest force per capita and $330 million left over to upgrade the department's computers, cars, holding cells and training programs.

The report from the forum, a law enforcement policy and research group, said that officers regarded overtime pay as an "economic entitlement" while management was "only responsible for seeing that it is distributed equally."

None of those recommendations were heeded. Washington still has more officers, per capita, than any force in the nation, even as its technology and equipment have withered.

"These type of problems are in police departments across the country," said Maurice J. Cullinane, the department's chief from 1974 to 1978. "But we might have let it get to a magnitude that is totally unacceptable."

Barry said that he had heard some of the problems outlined in last week's revelations during his 14 years as mayor and that he personally had seen the guns and drugs piling up in the warehouse years ago.

"The property division has been operating the same way for 20 years," Barry said, noting that he had wanted to turn fleet management over to private companies and have civilians operate police communications.

But he and his appointees didn't push through the reforms. "Some things," Barry said, "just don't get done."

From the advent of home rule to the present day, the relationship between the District's police force and the mayor and D.C. Council members has been an edgy, highly politicized affair.

In the 1970s, Washington's homicide rate had stabilized at about one-third of today's homicide rate. The police department was swollen with new recruits, and many lauded it as a national model.

But that same force, despite a growing number of top-notch black recruits, remained largely white. And the civil rights and anti-war movement veterans who dominated the first home rule governments -- such as Barry and the late council chairman David A. Clarke -- viewed it with profound suspicion.

"There was a basic, understandable distrust of authority," said Dwight Cropp, a professor at George Washington University who once served as a top adviser to Barry. "They saw themselves on the outside, even when they ran the government."

Gary Hankins, the founder of the police union, recalled meeting with Wilhelmina J. Rolark, who chaired the council's Judiciary Committee at the time. "She said her job was to maintain control of my occupying army," Hankins recalled.

Barry, too, favored such rhetoric but exercised his considerable political skills on the department. Any appointment above the rank of captain required his approval. And by 1982, police officers who crossed the mayor -- including several involved in investigating allegations of the mayor's drug use then -- found their careers stalling out.

In 1985, the police department stopped evaluating the performance of officers.

"The mayor let it be known who he wanted, and the effect was devastating," said Stephen D. Harlan, vice chairman of the control board. "There was virtually no one let go because of a lack of performance. People were not rewarded by what they did. It was who you knew that counted."

Hankins spoke of the effect on morale. "If you were headed to captain, the brighter officers realized it didn't pay to attend the FBI academy or get advanced schooling," he said. "You just had to impress someone who had a line to the mayor."

Barry took issue with that.

"Ninety-eight percent of the time I promoted based on recommendations that came from the chief," Barry said. "They point fingers now, but the buck should stop at the chief."

Also, Barry said, he wanted a police force that better reflected the District's black majority, a goal shared by many in the city. In 1982, he suggested hiring officers by lottery, after they passed a basic test. When Congress rejected that, his department devised tests weighted heavily toward city residents and minorities.

In the mid-1980s, Rolark, as head of the council's Judiciary Committee, weighed in on the effort to get more city residents and minorities on the force with a police cadet program that enabled hundreds of District high school graduates to join the department, often with scanty or no background checks.

For a time, the department appeared fine. Homicide rates hit a low of 148 in 1985, and a number of top African American recruits entered the force.

Then use of crack cocaine and the number of homicides exploded in 1986 and 1987, overwhelming the department. From 1985 to 1990, Congress and the D.C. Council pumped up the department's budget from $151 million to $250 million, a 65 percent increase.

But little of that money went for equipment, computers and training. Instead, Congress, acting against Barry's wishes, mandated that the city hire 1,500 recruits in less than two years.

"I agreed with Marion -- he didn't want more officers," said Patrick V. Murphy, the city's former public safety director who now heads the Police Policy Board for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "The problem was they weren't spending and managing it properly."

The river of new recruits had a devastating effect on an already politicized department. Many later were found to have criminal backgrounds. Graduates of the 1989 and 1990 classes accounted for half of the 201 officers arrested in the next three years on charges running from shoplifting to rape and murder.

In 1990, Barry was convicted of a misdemeanor after he was caught smoking crack in a hotel room. After years of whispers and rumors, the conviction rattled the department deeply. "It was common knowledge for years that the mayor was out of control," Hankins said. "And that was our boss."

The aftereffects of all this -- the congressionally mandated hirings, the crack epidemic and Barry's conviction -- reverberated for several years. Also, slayings continued to swarm upward, from 228 in 1987 to more than 400 a year through the early 1990s.

And the fiscal and managerial crisis fell on the city. Barry cut police salaries, and the city's inability to write contracts left many officers without cars and equipment. In 1996, then-U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. wrote in The Post that the department was "in crisis." "Too often," he wrote, "the mediocre is expected and accepted."

In November, Holder and the control board wrested political control of the department from Barry, and a committee chaired by Harlan now oversees the department.

Since then, reported violent crime is down by 18 percent. Equipment is pouring in, and Soulsby is reorganizing the department. Teams of federal agents and detectives are working to close 136 homicide cases that had been marred by lapses in basic police work.

"You see the positive changes that come about when politics are removed," said Harlan, the control board vice chairman. "I liken this time to the first steps of a very long walk."

But critics argue that the pace of change is not fast enough. Homicides in Washington could edge below 300 this year; Boston, a city of similar size and demographics, had 58 slayings last year. The District closed 34 percent of its homicide investigations in the first eight months of this year; New York City closed 90 percent.

Overtime spending remains high, administration is bloated, and hundreds of officers still work in clerical positions. And Friday, police Capt. William Corboy linked Soulsby to some of the worst problems, telling the council that the chief personally authorized unlimited overtime pay for homicide detectives last year and that Soulsby and the control board failed to act for months when told about rampant overtime abuses.

Several national police consultants, former chiefs nationally and in Washington, and congressional and D.C. Council officials now say the control board erred by trying to reform the department from the inside. They say police chiefs in New York City, New Orleans and Boston have brought new thinking and strategies to bear on urban crime, with impressive results.

"Do we need someone from the outside for police chief? On Monday, please," said Murphy, of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "I don't care how badly the chief says his hands were tied. He has a responsibility.

"This department," he said, "is in scandalous shape."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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