The failure of Saturday's massive Operation Caribbean Cruise drug raids, in which D.C. police netted only a small quantity of drugs and not a single one of the 75 suspected major drug dealers they were after, was set in motion by bureaucratic pressures that included the cost of overtime pay for officers and a heavy drain on police funds for drug purchases, according to sources.
Police officials are investigating the investigation, and are withholding on-the-record comment -- "We are all muzzled," said Assistant Chief Isaac Fulwood, one of the operation's architects. But privately, officials involved concur that news of the operation certainly leaked out, giving suspects plenty of time to flee.
The operation was the culmination of a 16-month investigation. At 5 a.m. Saturday, 540 city and federal officers began simultaneous raids at 69 addresses in Northwest and Northeast Washington, expecting to find a well-armed violent gang of Rastafarian drug dealers and large amounts of marijuana.
But when it was over later that day, police had confiscated only about $20,000 worth of drugs, $13,000 in cash and nine weapons, and had arrested just 27 persons -- including none of the suspected major dealers they had been seeking.
Some police officers involved with the raids, asking not to be named, described an operation that had problems from the beginning and held enormous potential for leaks.
The problems started as soon as the operation was planned, said several of the sources. In similar but smaller-scale raids, the secrets of where and when have been kept by a few planners who then called in the needed officers on overtime a few hours before the operation, brought them to a central location, locked the doors and briefed them. Then they conducted their raids with little chance of a leak.
Saturday's operation was originally planned for January, but high-ranking officials decided that Operation Caribbean Cruise, because of its size, was not to be done on overtime. Under the police union contract, that meant that officers had to be given 30 days' notice of a change in shift.
The result was several hundred officers curious about why their schedules had been changed to such strange hours. According to a source close to the operation, many found out.
The operation was then scheduled for last Thursday, and the more than 500 officers involved knew they were to report to the police training academy in far Southwest at 1 a.m.
But the day before the scheduled operation, it was canceled because of a "major leak," according to a police official. Sources said that high-ranking police officials, including Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. and Fulwood, argued about canceling the operation, with Fulwood reportedly urging the chief to go ahead with the Thursday date but failing to persuade him.
One official told The Washington Post at that time, "It is just as well we canceled it because every drug dealer in town knew what we were doing. You can't trust the snitches who make the drug buys to keep quiet, and you most certainly cannot count on 500 cops to keep their mouths shut."
The operation was officially called off. But on Thursday, an unusual order was given to refuse any officer's leave request for last Saturday, leading officers to assume this was a new date for the operation. "When they restricted leave on Saturday, it was like a tidal wave," said an official in the 4th District. "Everyone knew what it meant."
On Friday, hundreds of officers were called at home and told to report to the training academy at 1 a.m. Saturday -- this time on overtime.
The operation had been designed to root out what Washington area officials say is a growing crime problem involving some Rastafarians, who they say have moved beyond a traditional involvement in the marijuana trade -- adherents to the Rastafarian religion, founded in Jamaica, consider marijuana a sacrament -- to commerce in cocaine, PCP and illegal arms. District, Montgomery County, Prince George's County and U.S. Park Police formed a task force on the problem more than a year ago, and authorities say they believe a series of 18 area homicides is linked to the Rastafarian crime element.
One official said that the operation was rescheduled -- rather than canceled outright once a leak was suspected -- because the "task force doing the drug investigation was under a lot of implied pressure to close out the case."
"There wasn't going to be any more money" for the operation, the official said. "They had planned this one last operation to conclusively close out the Rasta problem. And they felt they had to conduct the raids."
If the police had let the search warrants for the operation expire after 10 days, they would have had to make a whole new round of drug buys to get a new set of warrants.
By the morning before the rescheduled operation, the press was asking questions and the police department's public information office was forced to create a pool of reporters and TV camera crews to cover the event. If they didn't do that, they feared, press members would cruise the area and perhaps happen on a raid in progress.
After lengthy negoiations, public information chief William White was able to create two pools for the press covering the raids and extract a promise from other press members to stay out of the area.
But television crews showed up in the operation area anyway. And a Post reporter had obtained a copy of the command manual, as well as a partial list of the addresses to be raided.
The aftermath, among police officials, is obvious disappointment.
Said one official: "Never have so many gathered together to confiscate so little for so much overtime."