D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner said yesterday he would investigate allegations that police officers assigned to an inner city antidrug unit are using excessive force against suspects and violating the rights of innocent bystanders on the street.
Turner said he has already ordered police in the 3rd District's 7th and T street area in Northeast to stop one unusual tactic: the use of a city water truck to wash down streets where drug dealers and buyers congregate. cHe said he had received reports that some bystanders were being squirted by the truck.
"Innocent people use those sidewalks, too," Turner said, adding that he has recieved complaints that officers on scooters are riding them on the sidewalks "against traffic regulations. They are supposed to be ridden on the street.
"We're not up there to harass people," said Turner, who has made a crackdown on drugs a major priority since becoming chief two weeks ago. "It's unfortunate that the drug addicts utilize the area, but we're not going to resort to illegal tactics."
Turner said the drug enforcement program, begun in November and called Operation Burbank because of its use of surveillance cameras, has been warmly praised by local residents and business owners swamped with drug traffickers. Police antidrug details have pushed the dealers and buyers back and forth between the 14th and U streets and 7th and T street areas in a see-saw battle that has netted more than 1,000 arrests, according to 3rd District Sgt. Claude Malcomb.
However, one officer familiar with the operation said this week that some officers are being abusive, striking suspects without provocation and illegally searching persons "without probable cause" just because it is an area of heavy drug dealing and some people might look suspicious.
Recently, he said, for example, officers observed a man and a woman in a car purchase suspected illicit drugs from a curbside dealer. One of the officers rushed up to the car, he said, started beating on the windshield and screamed, "I hate junkies. I hate junkies," breaking the windshield.
"Sometimes you need . . . overt agression," said another officer, who asked not to be named, "because when you are kind they [junkies] take it for weakness, [but] you can be aggressive without losing control."
Some officers "by themselves could start a riot," he said. "How a situation turns out is how you approach it. . . . You can defuse it or enflame it."
Although many residents and business owners in the area confirmed yesterday that the police are welcome, one businesswoman said she was concerned about what appears to be an increasing use of force.
Katherine Lewis, owner of the Joe Caplan liquor store on 7th Street at T, said the use of the water truck recently "was terrible." It was "treating them like animals," she said. "They should treat them with respect."
Sgt. Malcomb, head of Operation Burbank, denied his officers are ussng excessive force. "There's some fine people" in the community, he said. "They're glad to see what you're doing." He said anyone in the way of the water truck had enough time to get out of the way.
Malcomb acknowledged that officers have driven scooters and squad cars on the sidewalks. "I have done it," he said. "You get 1,500 people standing on the corner and people can't get to the bus stop. It's not a thing where we run up on the sidewalk 90 miles an hour."
Malcomb, a plain clothes officer nicknamed "Cowboy" for his ever-present cowboy hat, said he had "never seen" any officer hit a suspect unnecessarily. "Sometimes you have to tackle them," he said of suspects who try to get away.
"I'm hated on the streets, but they respect me," Malcomb said yesterday, confirming reports that someone has "put a contract" on him for $1,000 and 52 packets of heroin.
Police officers involved in the alleged abuses are careful to "have excuses" for any violence, according to one officer. "A lot of things they so out there are wrong." The people, guilty or innocent, he said, "are treated like they have no rights."