First of four articles
By any measure, Prince George's County police have shot and killed people at rates that exceed those of nearly any other large police force in the nation.
Since 1990, they have shot 122 people, killing 47 of them.
By one standard -- the number of fatal shootings per officer -- they killed more people than any major city or county police force from 1990 through 2000.
Almost half of those shot were unarmed, and many had committed no crime. Unlike many departments, Prince George's top police officials concluded that every one of the shootings was justified.
Among the shootings ruled justified:
An unarmed construction worker was shot in the back after he was detained in a fast-food restaurant. An unarmed suspect died in a fusillade of 66 bullets as he tried to flee from police in a car. A homeless man was shot when police mistook his portable radio for a gun. And an unarmed man was killed after he pulled off the road to relieve himself.
An investigation by The Washington Post found that during the past decade, Prince George's police miscalculated the threat they faced dozens of times -- mistaking an object for a gun or a sudden movement for an act of aggression. Moreover, the police department defended shootings by issuing reports that were riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and half-truths.
In many cases, official police accounts were at odds with witness statements and facts contained in autopsy reports, court documents and other records.
For example, in 1995, police shot and wounded a man who allegedly tried to run over an officer with a Chevy Blazer. A jury acquitted the man of assault after he and other witnesses testified that the vehicle was not moving and that he had raised his hands to surrender when he was shot.
In 1997, police said they shot and killed a distraught college student because he attacked them with a knife. When his family sued years later, the officers admitted under oath that the dead man never touched the alleged weapon -- which turned out to be a butter knife sitting on a kitchen counter.
In 1998, two officers said they fatally shot a Landover teenager in self-defense after he tried to grab their guns. In fact, records indicate he was shot 13 times in the back while he was unconscious and lying facedown on the floor.
Encounters that result in gunfire often are more dangerous for police officers than they are for civilians. Police routinely put their lives at risk to protect the public, and most Prince George's officers who have resorted to lethal force did so to protect the innocent or themselves.
Officers must make split-second decisions whether to fire, and if they freeze or flinch, they can end up dead. Two Prince George's officers have been shot and killed in the past decade.
But in Prince George's County, many of the same officers shoot again and again. Almost 20 percent of the shootings examined by The Post involved an officer who had wounded or killed someone before. One officer killed three unarmed people and fired at two others.
Police Chief John S. Farrell said he has ordered the entire 1,400-member agency to undergo retraining in the past year to reduce the use of deadly force.
"We're not sitting around here in a cheering section for officers who use excessive force," he said. "We're spending lots of time and lots of money on training. And I think we've turned the corner."
While proper training is critical, law enforcement experts said shooting rates also are shaped by the depth of internal scrutiny and the willingness to discipline officers.
They said it was highly unusual for a police department to have as many shootings as Prince George's and find fault with none of them. Since 1990, no officer has been fired or demoted for shooting someone.
The Prince George's County Police Department has a history of violence that spans four decades, a period in which the county evolved from a rural expanse east of Washington into a densely populated home to more than 800,000 people. County executives and police chiefs have promised reforms, but the problems persist.
The Post began its investigation 15 months ago, after a year in which officers shot 10 people, five of them fatally.
Eight months later, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of the Prince George's Police Department. Federal investigators are studying the use of deadly force, as well as alleged patterns of brutality, racial discrimination and abuses by the canine squad.
The FBI collects statistics on fatal police shootings from each police department in the country, but criminologists consider the figures to be unreliable. The Post conducted its own survey of the nation's 51 largest local law enforcement agencies, which includes the Prince George's Police Department, to determine how many fatal police shootings occurred in those jurisdictions from 1990 through 2000.
The results showed that Prince George's police shot more people to death during those 11 years than their counterparts in Dallas, San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, Nashville, Cleveland, Milwaukee or Boston.
When measured by six standards commonly used to evaluate use of deadly force, the Prince George's police ranked at or near the top in almost every category.
No other police department ranked so high across the board.
Prince George's police led the nation in fatal shootings per officer and fatal shootings per arrest. Based on the number of shootings per resident, only four departments ranked higher: the District, Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans.
Farrell did not dispute the numbers but said shootings have become less frequent since he became police chief in September 1995.
Although the number of fatal shootings has dropped since his arrival, the same thing has happened across the country. From 1996 through 2000, for instance, Prince George's police still shot and killed people at rates as high as four times the national average.
Prince George's officials refused to disclose records about police shootings, saying it would be "contrary to the public interest." County lawyers used the same justification to withhold many other police records.
In reporting this series, The Post interviewed more than 500 people and relied on autopsy reports, workers' compensation files, FBI documents and several thousand pages of court records to find details about people who had been shot or beaten to death by Prince George's police.
Wrong Move Proves Fatal
After a night of drinking May 20, 1998, Gary Leonard Sanford Sr., 42, decided to stop his truck along U.S. 1. He got out of the vehicle next to a closed gas station.
A county police officer pulled up. The officer later said he thought Sanford was reaching for a gun, so he shot him in the stomach and left thigh.
It turned out Sanford was unarmed. He either was reaching for his wallet or pulling up his pants when the officer fired, police investigators later concluded. Sanford bled to death.
The officer, Cpl. Joseph M. Palmieri, was cleared of wrongdoing two months later by police investigators and a grand jury. It was the second time in five years he had shot at an unarmed man who had reached in his pocket for something that turned out to be harmless. Palmieri did not respond to phone calls and letters seeking comment.
"The officer shot my dad for no reason except that he was taking a leak," said Stacy S. Schroth, Sanford's daughter. "Don't they go to training for this?"
Sanford was a casualty of what police call a "waistband" shooting -- an encounter in which officers open fire because they think someone is reaching into a pocket or a belt for a concealed weapon.
The scenario has repeated itself scores of times in Prince George's County. Almost as often as not, the officers were mistaken about the potential threat: Since 1990, 45 percent of the people shot by county officers were unarmed, records show.
Prince George's police are trained on a computerized simulator that tests their reactions to hundreds of lifelike situations. The program teaches officers that they put themselves and others at risk if they do not react quickly and decisively.
But outside experts who have studied the police department's training programs said there is a lack of emphasis on self-restraint.
"What they're doing is almost setting [police] up to shoot people," said Robert W. Klotz, a retired District police commander. "If you teach them they can shoot at a furtive movement and that everybody they deal with is a bad guy who can kill them, then you shouldn't be surprised when they shoot people."
For example, Officer Kendrick Bailey and Cpl. Howard M. Thompson fatally shot Burl Courtney, an ice cream salesman, on June 28, 1991, after they found him hiding in the attic of a house in Largo. Authorities said Courtney, 32, lunged out of a dark corner as though he had a gun.
He did not. An autopsy report shows that he was shot 24 times, with 22 of the bullets striking him from behind. Both officers involved declined to comment.
Marvin Partee, a District man, made the wrong move twice in one encounter with Prince George's police.
Partee, then 35, and a friend were driving a Pontiac station wagon through the Glassmanor section of Oxon Hill early May 23, 1996. Two officers followed them for several blocks before pulling over the car for going 43 mph in a 25 mph zone.
As they stopped, Partee reached for something under his seat and bolted from the car, according to court records. Sgt. Richard Logue picked up the chase on foot.
As they turned a corner, Partee stumbled on a curb and clutched a "glistening black object" in his hand, Logue later testified. The officer said he was sure it was a gun, so he raised his Beretta 9mm semiautomatic pistol and squeezed the trigger once.
The bullet missed. Partee threw away whatever had been in his hand and tried to crawl away on all fours. Logue circled around him and, after watching Partee reach into his pants for another "black object," fired three more shots.
This time, Logue struck Partee in the back of each leg.
The first black object turned out to be an address book with a shiny black cover. The second black object was a small pouch containing heroin and marijuana, according to court records. There was no gun.
"I just saw this shiny object in his hand," Logue testified at Partee's trial. "In my whole heart, the thousands of times I've pulled people over, the thousands of times I've chased people through the woods or streets, the only time I shot was at people that I honestly believed had a weapon in their hand."
Circuit Court Judge Darlene Perry said Logue had no cause to shoot. "There are a lot of black objects that may or may not be guns," the judge said from the bench. "The officers were not threatened at all."
Partee, who declined to comment for this article, was found guilty on drug charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned his conviction, declaring the arrest and shooting "illegal actions."
In numerous cases, police officials attempted to justify shootings by giving explanations that were later undermined or contradicted by eyewitnesses, physical evidence and even the officers' accounts, court records show.
Cpl. Alita V. Robinson was wearing her Prince George's police uniform while moonlighting as a security guard at a Popeyes fried chicken restaurant in Lanham on Nov. 20, 1998. Just before midnight, she said, she saw a customer walk up to the counter with something perched behind his ear that looked like a blunt -- a marijuana-stuffed cigar.
She said she watched the man, Daniel Jose Torres, a 32-year-old construction worker, for about 20 minutes as he waited for an order of french fries, according to court records. When she confronted him, the object behind his ear was gone, she testified later.
Robinson commanded Torres to look on the floor for the alleged contraband, thinking he had dropped it. He complied at first, but when he tried to walk away, Robinson ordered him to his knees.
Torres resisted, the officer said.
"He pushed back toward me -- real hard -- so I sprayed him with pepper spray," she testified. "Then he reached into his waistband, like he had a gun . . . so I shot him. I thought he was going to shoot me and the customers in the store."
Torres was hit by one bullet in his back and another in his buttocks. His lawyer later said he was blinded by the pepper spray and was trying to wipe his eyes with his shirt when Robinson shot him. He was unarmed.
Police charged him with second-degree assault and resisting arrest. Prosecutors tacked on two more charges: failure to obey a police officer and drug possession. Police said they found marijuana in the restaurant but not in Torres's possession.
At the trial, Robinson testified that she arrested Torres because he was disorderly.
"He was talking very loud in the store," she said. "I asked him to get on his knees, and he refused. So I had to take control of him."
That was a different story from the one Robinson told internal affairs detectives. In a 10-page written statement, she made no mention of loud or disorderly conduct by Torres. She declined to comment for this article.
Prince George's District Judge Thurman Rhodes found Torres not guilty on all counts. He ruled that police had no right to arrest Torres and that he was legally entitled to defend himself.
"The defendant had a reasonable right to resist," Rhodes said from the bench.
The Wounded Face Charges
About 40 minutes after the New Year had arrived in 1995, Cpl. Warren M. Hayes was breaking up a fight outside a Capitol Heights dance club when he said a man in a Chevy Blazer gunned the engine and tried to run him over.
"I felt that I was about to die," Hayes testified later.
Hayes said under oath that he fired several shots as the Blazer hurtled straight toward him, striking the driver in the arm and shoulder. The officer was not hurt. It was the third time he had shot at someone.
Police charged the wounded man, Michael Otis Mills, 24, with assault with intent to murder, assault with intent to maim, assault with intent to disable and reckless endangerment.
The case crumbled in court. Mills acknowledged that he was in the Blazer, watching the fight, but he said the vehicle never moved. He said that he put his hands in the air to surrender when Hayes yelled, "Freeze!" but that the officer shot him anyway. Several witnesses backed up his account.
A jury found Mills not guilty. Hayes declined to comment.
Defense lawyers say Prince George's police routinely pile on criminal charges after shooting someone to make it appear justified. Of the 75 people who survived their wounds, all but six were charged with crimes, according to court records.
"If someone can't see a pattern in these cases, they don't have eyeballs," said Joseph M. Niland, the county public defender. "The pattern has existed for a long time -- years -- where police fire at people and then as an afterthought they realize they have to justify it. And then the defendant gets a whole lot of charges he wouldn't have gotten otherwise."
Police Accounts Stand
The Post's examination of police shootings during the past decade also reveals a pattern in which investigators rarely challenged officers' accounts and dismissed evidence that raised questions about their actions.
On May 20, 2000, police said, Officer Michael A. Arnett shot a burglary suspect who refused to drop a knife during an attempted break-in in the 2400 block of Gaither Street in Temple Hills.
The suspect, Kendell Grant, 42, bled to death.
Neighbors said little about Grant's appearance that night suggested that he was a burglar: He was stripped down to his underwear as he stood on a friend's porch and banged on the door about 12:15 a.m., yelling things no one could understand.
Kenneth Coleman, a neighbor who saw the incident unfold, said officers were 30 or 40 feet away from Grant when they opened fire. Grant was struck by eight bullets: five of them to the back of his hips, legs and buttocks, according to an autopsy report.
"The cops . . . they asked me all these questions," Coleman said. "The last question was, 'Do you think the officers were justified?' I said it all depends on what you call justified."
Police officials cleared Arnett of wrongdoing. He did not respond to phone calls and letters seeking an interview.
Three weeks later, on June 9, 2000, police officials said Cpl. Charles K. Ramseur shot and wounded an unarmed man outside a Hyattsville pizza parlor after he ignored orders to stop running from the scene of a fight.
The wounded man, Jose Buruca-Melgar, said the officer overreacted and shot him without warning. His account was supported by a witness who told The Post that the man was not fleeing and that Ramseur opened fire from inside his police cruiser.
Police officials exonerated Ramseur after they said they could not locate the witness. Ramseur did not respond to written requests for comment.
The reluctance on the part of the police department to conduct rigorous investigations has persisted for many years.
Cpl. Archie D. Joiner opened fire on a man sitting in a wheelchair on the front steps of a Suitland apartment complex May 17, 1992. He struck the man twice in the midsection and once in the arm.
Police said James E. Minter Sr., 19, had been "verbally abusive" and disobeyed Joiner's commands to keep his hands behind his head. Joiner pulled the trigger because he feared that Minter was reaching in his waistband for a gun, police said.
But Minter didn't have a weapon. Moments before, Joiner and the other officers had frisked him and searched a bag in his lap, taking a pellet gun, Minter said.
Minter said that police ordered him to keep his hands in the air but that he got angry when Joiner called him "a cripple."
"That's when I said, 'What are you talking about, fat boy?' " he recalled.
Minter said that he spat a few curse words and that Joiner responded with gunshots. The wheelchair toppled onto the sidewalk.
"They patted him down and were talking trash to him," said Alexis Allen, 28, a friend of Minter's who saw the shooting. "That's when the shots rang out."
Joiner, who is no longer on the force, declined to comment. In a petition for a restraining order filed in court last year, Joiner's ex-wife wrote that he was forced to retire from the police department "for brutality."
"He had already frisked me and knew I didn't have no weapon. He was mad because I was talking back to him," said Minter, who was not arrested or charged with a crime.
Investigations Clear Officers
The police department investigates each shooting to determine whether the officers committed a crime or violated internal regulations. The findings are kept confidential.
The reality, however, is that Prince George's police who use their guns almost always are cleared of wrongdoing, records and interviews show. No Prince George's officers have been fired or demoted for shooting someone since 1989, according to court records and the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Farrell confirmed that no shooting has been ruled unjustified since he became chief. Police union officials said that a few officers have been cited for related violations -- such as failing to notify dispatchers immediately after a shooting -- but that none has been disciplined for pulling the trigger.
Experts said police departments rarely punish officers for using deadly force. But they added that agencies that never find fault with a shooting are probably not scrutinizing them closely enough.
"Police administrators, many of them are reluctant to challenge an officer's version," said Lou Reiter, a former Los Angeles deputy police chief. "They are afraid of creating civil liability, but by not being aggressive, not seeking the truth, they are creating more civil liability."
In Montgomery County, where police have shot 28 people since 1990, officials concluded that four of the shootings were unjustified, records show. Last year, District police officers shot seven people; one case was found to be unjustified.
Elsewhere, police in Harris County, Tex., ruled that one of the 27 fatal police shootings in the Houston suburb between 1990 and 2000 was unjustified. And five of the 49 shootings by police that resulted in death or injury in DeKalb County, Ga., outside Atlanta, were ruled unjustified during the same period.
Prince George's police can take several months to complete a shooting investigation. But police officials don't always wait that long to make up their minds about whether a shooting was justified.
Officers Matthew C. Barba and Harry W. Oldfield III said they acted in self-defense when they shot and killed an unarmed teenager in a vacant Landover apartment May 13, 1997. Police said Tyrone Antwon Harris, 18, of Fort Washington, had attacked the officers and tried to grab their guns.
The next day, though they had yet to interview Barba and Oldfield, the police brass said they had no doubt the officers had acted properly.
"There was no provocation [by the officers] whatever," said police spokesman Royce D. Holloway. "The suspect immediately charged them. . . . One can only imagine what the outcome would have been had he gotten an officer's gun."
"Both officers are a credit to their agency and to the community," said their commander, Maj. Clifford Holly. "I am very, very proud of them."
Three months later, Barba and Oldfield were formally exonerated.
Interviews and documents obtained by The Post shed a different light on the officers' actions that day -- and on the manner in which Harris was killed. For example, police did not examine the officers' guns for fingerprints to see if Harris had grabbed the weapons. Nor did they test Harris's clothing for gunshot residue to verify the officers' account that he was shot during a hand-to-hand struggle.
Richard Fulginiti, the homicide detective in charge of the investigation, said he thought the tests were unnecessary.
"I didn't see a need," he said in a deposition for a lawsuit filed by Harris's parents.
Fulginiti also said he didn't try to question Barba or Oldfield because he didn't want to violate their constitutional rights against self-incrimination.
Instead, he said he concluded that the shooting happened exactly as Barba and Oldfield described it in their written accounts.
Officers are required to fill out a form called a Discharge of Firearms Report immediately after a shooting. One reason it must be completed so promptly is out of concern that if officers have the chance to talk to each other, they might agree to a false version of events if they had done something wrong.
Copies of the reports obtained by The Post show that the officers' written narratives were nearly identical -- word for word in many places.
Wrote Oldfield: "The subject attempted to take this officer's weapon. This officer shot the subject in self-defense."
Wrote Barba: "The suspect attempted to take this officer's weapon. This officer shot the suspect in self-defense."
Both officers declined to be interviewed for this article.
Police investigators also dismissed the account of an eyewitness.
Standing in an unlighted corner of the vacant apartment was a friend of Harris's named Antione Glasgow, 19, of Landover. Glasgow was not involved in the struggle or charged with a crime, but he said he saw the whole thing.
According to court records, he told detectives that Harris was leaving the apartment just as the officers came in. There was a brief confrontation, followed by gunshots.
Harris was shot in the head and crumpled to the floor, facedown. As he lay there, badly wounded and unconscious but still alive, the officers stood over his body and fired a volley of shots into his back, Glasgow said.
Glasgow declined to speak with a reporter, saying he feared retaliation from police.
But his account was backed up by Harris's autopsy report. It showed that police had fired 13 rounds into Harris's back, striking his heart, lungs, stomach, right kidney, intestines, liver, spine and ribs.
Glasgow's statement also was supported by the crime scene report, which showed that several bullets had been fired into the apartment floor.
In addition to the 13 shots in his back, Harris was struck four times in the arms and once in the right cheek, the latter wound occurring after someone had jabbed a gun barrel in his face, the autopsy found.
In August 2000 -- three years after the police department declared the shooting justified and put Barba and Oldfield back on the street -- lawyers for Prince George's County agreed to pay the Harris family an undisclosed sum of money to settle a lawsuit.
Since then, the county has agreed to confidential settlements in two other lawsuits that accused Barba of using excessive force, court records show.
Indictments Are Rare
Responsibility for policing the police rests with Jack B. Johnson, the Prince George's County state's attorney. Under a policy put in place by his predecessor, a grand jury reviews every police shooting in the county.
Since he became the top prosecutor in 1995, Johnson said, he has stepped up scrutiny of police shootings and misconduct cases.
"No one began to deal with this issue until I began to deal with it," he said. "We've come a long way, and I think we've been pretty forceful."
But court records show that police officers are rarely indicted. Punishment is even rarer.
Since 1990, three officers have faced criminal charges as a result of the evidence brought before a grand jury.
One of them, Brian C. Catlett, was indicted on a charge of manslaughter in the Nov. 27, 1999, death of Gary A. Hopkins Jr., an unarmed college student shot outside the West Lanham Hills fire station. Catlett was found not guilty by a judge in February. Police officials later gave him an award related to the shooting.
Two other officers were indicted after they shot their girlfriends, one fatally, with their police-issued Beretta 9mm pistols. Both resigned after pleading guilty.
Only one served time behind bars: a total of 13 hours.
By their own admission, prosecutors are handicapped in their grand jury presentations because they rely heavily on detectives to investigate their fellow police officers. Last year, Johnson blamed "a blue wall of silence" for his inability to bring charges against officers who beat a man to death.
In the past, Johnson said, the county moved too quickly to exonerate the police. He said the grand jury was used "as a rubber stamp" to clear officers when he was a deputy state's attorney between 1989 and 1994.
"There were a number of shootings that I remember vividly in my mind and I felt an indictment was absolutely in order, but it wasn't my call," he said. He declined to identify those cases.
Grand jurors themselves have questioned whether prosecutors take police misconduct seriously.
In 1994, a grand jury issued a report criticizing prosecutors for not giving it more information about police shootings and openly wondered whether such cases were "being buried until forgotten."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt, director of computer-assisted reporting Ira Chinoy and database editors Sarah Cohen and Dan Keating contributed to this report.