Police officer Arthur P. Snyder was shot on Monday evening. He died eight hours later. Our report on the matter said the man being hunted for the shooting had been freed by the court system in June of 1979 -- "because of a bureaucratic mistake."
When I read items of this kind I get a little unhinged. Must policemen pay with their lives because other public servants are so casual about the performance of their duties? What's going on in Our Town? Can't we do anything right?
Shortly after Snyder was gunned down, police began a massive search for Bruce Wazon Griffith. We assigned staff writer Mike Sager to that story. Two other reporters, Laura Kiernan and Joann Stevens, began to dig into Griffith's background.
What they turned up took my mind back to the day Casey Stengel lost his temper with the New York Mets and shouted at them, "Can't anybody here play this game?" It's unfair to ask that question of city employees in general, because thousands of them are dedicated and diligent people.Nevertheless, the question must be asked.
Why do so many things get fouled up in Washington? If everybody in the District government is doing such a great job, why is the end result so poor?
The information available as this column is written is mostly the result of Laura's skillful and persistent work. It runs like this:
On June 6, Griffith was charged with the possession of heroin. Previously, he had pleaded guilty to a charge of robbery. At the time of his arrest on the drug offense, he was on parole on the robbery conviction.
When Griffith was brought into court on the drug charge, the District's computer could have revealed within seconds that this guy was bad news; there was cause to revoke his parole on the robbery conviction.
Alas, the computer was "down" at that moment. Computers are often "down," usually for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour or more.
But computers do not stay down for long. Most malfunctions are repaired quickly. Griffith should therefore have been held for another few minutes or hours until that "down" computer became an "up" computer capable of warning the judge of Griffith's record. Instead, the prisoner was released.
Why? Laura learned that a folder containing Griffith's police record had been compiled by the District's Pretrial Services (bail) Agency the night before his appearance on the drug charge. That file should have been placed before the judge at the drug hearing. It should have been a "backup" to the computer. But the file was never delivered. Nobody could explain why it was not delivered.
With the computer down and the backup file missing, the bail agency knew nothing about Griffith. The agency had several choices.
It could ask the judge to hold Griffith until information became available.
It could tell the judge that the computer was down, and that for this reason it was making no recommendation about bail. Or it could recommend that the prisoner be released.
The agency recommended that Griffith be released. The judge turned Griffith loose on condition that he appear on July 9 for a hearing.
The next development is just going to surprise the pants off you. Griffith did not appear on July 9!
When Griffith failed to appear in court, the judge issued a warrant for his arrest. It was never served.
Seven months later, Officer Snyder atempted to make a drug arrest near 14th and U and was fatally shot. Several witnesses told police what they had seen, and the manhunt for Griffith began.
Meanwhile Laura found out what had happened to the file that was never delivered to the judge. She also learned how the file had later been discovered, almost accidentally, at the bail agency. I'm sure you read the disheartening details.
When it was all over, I said to Mike Sager, "When I ask how a warrant can remain outstanding for seven months, they just shrug and say, 'Man, we have thousands of warrants that ain't been served.' How can this be?"
"It's true," Mike said. "Everybody in town knows about it except you. They have a room filled with file cabinets of warrants that have been outstanding for years. But every time there's a budget squeeze, they trim a few more jobs and add another file cabinet. Give Laura credit for digging up the background on this story, but what it boils down to is that this is the way the system works. Every so often an innocent person gets shot down by a guy who should have been locked up in jail, and the newspapers make a fuss about it. But the rest of the time, nobody seems to care much."
Many of us care, Mike, including thousands of employees of the District of Columbia. But the question remains: If so many of us think the system is not working well, why can't we make it work better?