The District police department, whose officers shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large U.S. city police force, reduced the number of police shootings in 1999 by nearly 66 percent, compared with 1998.
Since January 1999, D.C. police have shot 11 people--four fatally--compared with 32 shootings--12 fatal--in 1998. Although District police killed fewer people in shootings in 1999, the percentage of those shot by police who ultimately died remained about the same.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey credited a new lethal-force policy, expanded, more-intensive training and supervision for the reduction.
"The department's past problems with use of force . . . have primarily been problems with policies, training, equipment and supervision, not problems with the quality of our officers," Ramsey said. "We have worked very hard to provide our members with clear policies on the use of force and to support those policies with better equipment, training and supervisory oversight. These latest statistics indicate that our approach is beginning to have an impact."
But some police officers question whether the additional training and new policy are major factors in the decline in police shootings.
"Some years are more violent than others," said Detective Frank A. Tracy, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police/Metropolitan Police Department Labor Committee, which has about 3,200 members. "You can have all the training in the world, but if you have people coming at you using deadly force, the numbers are going to be different."
Officials expanded training for police officers and revamped department policy after a Washington Post examination found D.C. police officers had shot and killed more people per capita during the last 10 years than any other major city police department and fired their weapons at more than double the rate of officers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. The newspaper's investigation found examples of reckless gunplay by poorly trained officers and reported the department often ruled such shootings justified despite evidence contradicting the official accounts.
The Post examination and the community's perception that the department couldn't investigate itself properly prompted Ramsey to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to review every fatal shooting by officers in the past decade. The review is still being conducted, and the Justice Department recently held public hearings to elicit testimony from city residents about their experiences with police and the excessive use of force.
The police department's revised use-of-force policy calls for officers to use "only that force that is reasonably necessary to effectively bring an incident under control, while protecting the lives of the officer and others."
The policy spells out a four-part "use-of-force continuum" that includes presence and verbal persuasion, hand-control procedures, protective weapons such as a tactical baton and deadly force. Officers are allowed to "apply escalating levels of force" depending on the situation.
"You don't have to go through these things in order," said Terrance W. Gainer, executive assistant police chief. "You might have to go from presence to deadly force."
Since October, about a third of the department's 3,482 officers have completed eight hours of tactical training that includes weapons qualification and role-playing, a department spokesman said.
In 10 of 1999's shooting cases, preliminary police investigations found officers used appropriate force. None of those officers was disciplined, according to Gainer.
The other case was a domestic dispute involving Officer Milton Downing. In that incident, Downing was charged with assault after shooting at his girlfriend. He pleaded guilty and resigned from the department in October, Gainer said.
The department's policy changes followed highly publicized incidents including the January death of Joseph Robert Durant Jr., 42. Durant was shot after he allegedly lunged at officers with knives as he stood in the doorway of his parents' home in the Petworth section of Northwest Washington. He had been drinking, and his parents called police to help calm him.
His mother, Alice Durant, 70, spoke between sobs recently as she recalled the morning when three D.C. police officers pumped eight bullets into her son.
"The fifth of January," said Durant, her voice quivering. "I can't even talk about it because I start crying. Can you imagine every time I go out the door I think I'm stepping over him? They didn't have to kill him. They need to learn how to apprehend people without killing them."
After The Post's investigation, officers were reluctant to shoot for fear of disciplinary action, Gainer said. But since the mandatory training, they are more comfortable with the "new approach."
The department also created a Force Investigation Team in the Office of Professional Responsibility to respond to all police shootings. It was created in January and began handling cases in April.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said that he is pleased with the decline in police-involved shootings but that the number of cases in 1999 still troubles him. "Eleven is far too many," Graham said. "I suppose you could take an attitude of progress, not perfection, but the goal has got to be zero."
Graham cited a November incident involving Xicara Julio Ceasar Pascual. The 29-year-old Guatemalan immigrant was shot four times and killed by an officer after Pascual allegedly lunged at him with a broken beer bottle. Pascual had used the broken bottle to cut himself behind Cardozo High School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.
"Why did the officer feel the need to fire four shots?" Graham asked. "Why didn't the officer retreat to his car and call for help? I'm not an expert, but I do have common sense. Common sense would say to me not to approach this guy."
But Gainer said it's difficult for anyone other than the officer involved to understand why deadly force is used. The Pascual case "unfolded rather quickly for there to be an alternative at that moment," Gainer said.
Lt. Frank Hill, of the 6th Police District, which covers Northeast and Southeast Washington, said that improved training is always helpful but that the rules regarding use of deadly force and police procedure didn't change much.
In October, Hill suffered minor injuries when a naked man claiming to be God tried to climb into Hill's patrol car and attacked him, police said. Police said Hill feared for his safety and fired a shot that grazed the man, who later was charged with violent assault on a police officer.
On the same day, also in the 6th District, officers discovered a man sexually assaulting a woman in Northeast Washington. They gave chase and shot the suspect fatally when he appeared to reach for a weapon, police said.
"The fundamental rules remain the same," Hill said. "You can use your gun to save your life or save someone else's life."
He said it would be difficult to draw conclusions from the 1999 statistics on police shootings.
"The overall crime rate is down. The homicide rate is down," he said. "From looking at those numbers, the instances in which you would have to use deadly force is down. . . .
"In any given year, you don't know how many people are going to attack police officers like I got attacked. We don't set the pace for the shootings. It depends on people who attack us or people attacking other people that we witness."
There has been at least one instance in which officers did not shoot to subdue someone, although the outcome was fatal. Alvin Maurice Headspeth, 43, died in December during an arrest in which police officers used newly issued metal batons.
"The officers clearly responded with their guns drawn, and when they confronted the guy, they made a decision to holster their weapons and take a different approach," Gainer said.
Headspeth died of cocaine use, according to D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden, who listed the official cause of death as agitated delirium due to acute cocaine intoxication.
CAPTION: "These latest statistics indicate that our approach is beginning to have an impact," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. Other police officials questioned whether the additional training and new policy are major factors in the decline in police shootings.