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After a Black man’s death, a D.C. street agonizes over the future of policing

Composite: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post; Craig Hudson for The Washington Post.

Karon Hylton zipped through streets and alleys of his old D.C. neighborhood on a rented moped. A police car, lights flashing, tailed him.

As Hylton steered out of an alley onto Kennedy Street, a busy strip in Brightwood Park, a passing van plowed into the scooter. The 20-year-old lay crumpled on the ground.

Video of the encounter, captured by police body-worn cameras, also showed the cruiser stop and D.C. police officer Terence Sutton get out.

“Karon!” Sutton yelled as he walked toward the dying man.

Police said the four officers in the car tried to stop Hylton because he was riding on the sidewalk and without a helmet. Hylton’s family and many young Black men in the neighborhood saw something else — police harassment and racial profiling that they say is commonplace. This time, though, an incident had turned deadly.

The October crash, which had followed months of demonstrations across the country over social justice and policing, ignited a new round of volatile protests in the nation’s capital.

But even as some decried police tactics as overly aggressive and biased, others demanded more officers in a neighborhood that had been plagued by open-air drug dealing and chronic gunfire. The shootings had killed rival gang members, injured bystanders and sent bullets flying near day-care centers and busy corners.

As the nation gropes toward a reset of policing after the killing of George Floyd, life around Kennedy Street demonstrates the challenge of answering demands for reform in areas where persistent crime has left many residents fearful. On Tuesday, hours after a jury found a former Minneapolis police officer guilty of murdering Floyd, D.C. residents fed up with crime along the Kennedy Street corridor met virtually with police and lawmakers.

Karon Hylton on Kennedy Street in Northwest Washington in 2019. (Khali Brown)
Karen Hylton, mother of Karon Hylton, demonstrates outside a D.C. police district headquarters on Dec. 19. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Karon Hylton on Kennedy Street in Northwest Washington in 2019. (Khali Brown) RIGHT: Karen Hylton, mother of Karon Hylton, demonstrates outside a D.C. police district headquarters on Dec. 19. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

In an interview, Sarah Savoy, 35, who lives near the spot where Hylton crashed, crystallized the conundrum. She is frustrated by the dealers who sell drugs near her home but also empathetic to communities that say they have been unfairly targeted by officers.

“It’s a real problem, and there’s got to be some sort of middle path,” said Savoy, who is White. “The answer can’t be: ‘Let the police run wild.’ But the answer also can’t be: ‘Get rid of the police.’ ”

A memorial for Karon Hylton at Seventh and Kennedy streets NW, near where he was killed. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A fatal crash

When Hylton’s family first saw the police video, they weren’t surprised to hear Sutton call out Hylton’s first name. Both men were fixtures on Kennedy Street, key actors in an increasingly tense drama between police and a group of young Black men who hang out on the block.

Sutton, a nine-year veteran of the force, was a member of the Crime Suppression Team, which conducts proactive patrols not tied to 911 calls, searches for suspects and recovers guns and drugs.

The team was well known to the men who often gathered outside. A half-dozen in the group said they feared and resented the officers, who they felt looked for minor offenses in order to stop and search them. They said Sutton was the team’s most visible face, a presence so ubiquitous that he even had a nickname on the street — “Tattoo” — for his sleeves of ink.

Sutton had been recognized in 2017 for his part in a sting that resulted in the arrest of a burglary suspect, but he was also named in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in which a fellow officer was accused of searching a man in a sexually demeaning way.

During the incident, the lawsuit claims, Sutton yanked the man toward him and told him that he had a “bad attitude” and that he “didn’t run s---.” The officers denied any wrongdoing in court filings, but Sutton was recommended for training following the incident, according to a letter from the D.C. Office of Police Complaints obtained by The Washington Post.

“There always been a lot of harassment,” said Chester Anderson, 24, who lives near Kennedy Street and said he had been stopped by police.

Friends and family said Hylton had had a number of encounters with Sutton in recent years.

Hylton spent his early years living on Kennedy Street, and his friends and family said he returned frequently to the commercial strip, which is rapidly redeveloping after being hollowed out by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Luxury condos, a cidery and a cheese shop have sprouted next to longtime bodegas and a funeral home — although the cheese shop has announced that it will close April 30 because the neighborhood has become too dangerous.

The commercial corridor runs about 10 blocks from Georgia Avenue NW to the Northeast Washington border.

Hylton dressed sharply and had appeared in a rap video, but his life was changing quickly.

The day he was hit by the van, his daughter turned 3 months old. Charles Brown, Karon’s father, said the girl was a stabilizing force for his son after a period of turbulence.

Hylton was convicted twice in 2018 for dealing marijuana. In one case, police said they found him at Fifth and Kennedy streets with bags of marijuana, a digital scale and $357.

Police requested he be barred from part of the street. Hylton had a number of other arrests, including one that was pending at the time of his death for assault on a police officer in Northeast.

“I’m not going to say he was the best of sons and I’m not going to say I’m the best of fathers, but what I will say is he was just out having fun,” Brown said of the night his son died. “He has a 3-month-old daughter. He was trying to do the best for her.”

Whatever legal issues Hylton had previously, friends and family say police used a small infraction — riding a scooter without a helmet on a sidewalk — as an excuse to follow Hylton. They said it was an all-too-common tactic on Kennedy Street, where young men say they often pull out cellphones to record interactions with police because they are fearful of what might happen.

In one violent encounter, captured on video in May 2019 following a call for disorderly conduct, police and neighborhood residents scuffled in the street before officers took some to the ground and pepper-sprayed others.

“This is what it’s like to be young, Black in f------ America!” a bystander can be heard shouting.

The incident resulted in multiple arrests. One of the officers involved was fired in April 2020 after the department found that he used pepper spray without justification during the encounter, D.C. police said. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Perry Redd had called for a probe of the incident.

Family and friends said that on the night of Oct. 23, Hylton had headed out on the scooter to scan the sidewalk for lost car keys.

The body-cam videos released by D.C. police begin with Hylton, on a rented blue Revel scooter, darting across the street in front of a cruiser. The cruiser quickly turns to follow, and then its red and blue lights begin to flash.

D.C. police show an almost constant presence at Fifth and Kennedy streets NW. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Stickers on a sign outside D.C. police headquarters on Feb. 12 demand the removal of Officer Terence Sutton. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
LEFT: D.C. police show an almost constant presence at Fifth and Kennedy streets NW. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Stickers on a sign outside D.C. police headquarters on Feb. 12 demand the removal of Officer Terence Sutton. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Sutton and the three officers continue to follow, driving up streets and down alleys in the Kennedy Street area for 1 minute and 50 seconds, video from the body-worn camera shows. One of the officers appears to point out Hylton as he turns and crosses streets.

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who has since left the department to head the Prince William County, Va., police force, said at a public meeting after the crash that the videos “suggest there was a police pursuit.”

The point is significant because if officers were chasing Hylton for riding a scooter without a helmet, that would probably violate department rules, which ban pursuits in all but the most serious cases. Investigators are also exploring whether there might have been another reason officers were trying to stop Hylton. Federal prosecutors are still weighing whether to file charges against the officers, who remain on administrative duty.

The final seconds of the body-cam videos show the cruiser following the moped down a tight alley filled with garages. Hylton makes a quick turn to exit onto Kennedy Street and a silver van slams into him.

Sutton declined to comment, but D.C. Police Cmdr. Randy Griffin, who heads the Fourth Police District, which includes Kennedy Street, said officers take a measured approach to enforcement and denied any racial profiling or harassment. However, he said officers are required “to give special attention to persons of known bad character.”

He said a “very small portion” of the community fits that description, which includes repeat offenders. Investigators and witnesses blame much of the violence in the area on beefing crews from Kennedy Street and surrounding neighborhoods, according to court records in recent cases.

“I can imagine the perception that they are being harassed, but it’s much more that officers are giving attention to the folks we have the most concern with in regard to criminal behavior and public safety,” Griffin said.

Nikki Balls Lugo-Rimm, seen in Shady Side, Md., in March, was wounded last year by a stray bullet from a shooting near Kennedy Street. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

‘I was hit by a bullet’

On a November night not long after Hylton’s death, Nikki Balls Lugo-Rimm was chatting with a neighbor about shootings in the Kennedy Street area. A car sped by with a man leaning out one of the rear windows with a gun, D.C. police said.

The man opened fire at an unknown target, but a stray bullet caught Lugo-Rimm in the bicep outside her home blocks south of Kennedy Street.

“I went down to my knees,” she said. “My arm was flailing about. I saw the hole and the blood and thought, ‘Holy s---, I was hit by a bullet.’ ”

Lugo-Rimm was rushed to a hospital, where a surgeon inserted a metal plate to repair her shattered arm bone. Doctors tell her they’re hopeful she will regain full feeling and use of her arm — but they can’t guarantee it, leaving her career as a tattoo artist in limbo.

“This arm is my life,” she said.

Lugo-Rimm said that after the shooting, she, her husband and mother were so on edge that they drew straws at night to see who would walk the dog. That fear ultimately pushed the family to move to Maryland.

Last year, a stray bullet struck a bystander in the head as he exited a Kennedy Street bar at lunchtime. Months later, a man and his pregnant neighbor had to rent a power washer to clean up the blood from a shooting outside their homes. In August, a double shooting on Kennedy Street left 17-year-old Taijhon Wyatt Jr. of Northeast Washington dead. Three people, including a 16-year-old, were charged in the killing.

The persistent pop of gunfire has rattled the neighborhood for years.

Frustration over the violence reached a tipping point for some residents in February 2019 after a particularly brazen shooting. Surveillance video captured two groups of men pulling out guns in the middle of the afternoon and firing indiscriminately at each other near the busy corner of Fifth and Kennedy streets, not far from a day-care center.

No one was injured, but residents packed a community meeting afterward to complain about the violence, drug use and groups of men loitering on the street. Some called for more police, while others wanted more city services.

Police promised to step up patrols, and city officials said they wanted to increase staff dedicated to quelling feuds in the neighborhood. The most visible outgrowth of the effort was a patrol car that was stationed at Fifth and Kennedy full time, with its lights often whirling.

In the period that followed, the squad car became a reassurance to some residents but an irritant to others. Redd, of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said the aggressive posture aggravated tensions with youth in the neighborhood.

“It’s like an occupation,” he said.

Redd said the city would have more success fighting violence and building trust with residents by offering services that address poverty and other issues at the root of crime. He said some longtime Black residents feel the police are there to protect White residents who have recently moved to the neighborhood.

He wasn’t surprised that Hylton’s death prompted an outpouring of anger.

In late October and early November, hundreds of protesters marched nightly from near the spot where Hylton died at Seventh and Kennedy streets to the Fourth District police station, shouting “Justice for Karon!” and other slogans.

Demonstrators used trash cans to smash windows at the police station one night. On another, police in riot gear fired tear gas at protesters. The action drew national attention, and Karon Hylton was mentioned alongside George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. D.C. police removed the squad car from Fifth and Kennedy streets.

Hylton's first name written on the sidewalk at Fifth and Kennedy streets. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
A D.C. police car at Fifth and Kennedy streets. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Hylton's first name written on the sidewalk at Fifth and Kennedy streets. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post) RIGHT: A D.C. police car at Fifth and Kennedy streets. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A fresh look at policing

At a November neighborhood meeting on Zoom, questioners fell into two broad categories: those who wanted an update on Hylton’s case, and those who wanted to know what police were going to do about a spike in shootings.

In the weeks after Hylton’s death, one man was killed on Georgia Avenue near Kennedy Street and three others were wounded in a carryout days later. D.C. homicides climbed sharply in 2020, hitting a 16-year high that is mirrored in a number of major cities across the country.

D.C. police redeployed the cruiser to the corner of Fifth and added a second two blocks away. People have repeatedly spray-painted “Justice 4 Karon” and other slogans just feet from where one cruiser regularly parks.

Griffin, who heads the Fourth District station, said in an interview that negotiating the forces pushing police in different directions on Kennedy Street is a “difficult balancing act.”

“At one end are proponents of hands-off policing,” Griffin said. “But then we see and hear from the neighborhood affected by gun violence, and you get the complete opposite.”

The circumstances of Hylton’s death and questions about how it could have been prevented have become part of the discussion on how to reshape policing in the District.

The Police Reform Commission, set up by the D.C. Council to reimagine law enforcement, is recommending that D.C. police pause crime suppression units until the tactics are examined. Christy Lopez, a commission co-chair, said such teams have wide discretion in targeting suspected criminals, which she said can alienate and scare many in a community.

Lopez, who led the U.S. Justice Department investigation of police abuse in Ferguson, Mo., said D.C. police instead should use “focused deterrence” to track the few hardcore criminals. And officers should be taught to think of themselves as guardians of a community, rather than warriors, she said.

“When you are at war, you’ve got to keep people under submission,” Lopez said. “If you are a guardian, you’re protecting everybody in the community.”

This month, Robert J. Contee III, the city’s acting police chief, said he was pressing prosecutors to come to a decision in the Hylton case and told the D.C. Council, “They understand that this is a priority, not only for the Metropolitan Police Department but for the community.”

Karon Hylton’s mother, Karen, said she is still holding out for justice in her son’s case. She would like Sutton and the other officers involved in his death to be fired from the force and prosecuted.

“Things got to change,” she said.

Karen Hylton along Kennedy Street NW in the Brightwood Park neighborhood on Feb. 12. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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