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7 D.C. officers removed from violent-crime squad amid internal probe

D.C.'s police chief said the officers were believed to have been involved in seizing guns from suspects, but not arresting them.

D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Seven D.C. police officers from a specialized unit that focuses on violent crime have been placed on administrative leave or desk duty, after officials discovered incidents in which police stopped people and took guns from them without making an arrest, D.C. police Chief Robert J. Contee III announced Friday night.

The investigation was met with pushback from the city’s police union, whose leader suggested on Saturday that the officers were following Contee’s orders.

The seven officers are part of the crime suppression team in the Seventh District, which includes communities with some of the city’s highest violent crime rates. Officers on such teams are freed from responding to routine calls so they can concentrate on patrolling neighborhoods for drugs and guns. A D.C. police spokesman said the remaining dozen or so members of the team have also been reassigned as a precautionary measure, while investigators explore the extent of the wrongdoing.

Contee said police were first tipped to the conduct when internal affairs investigators were reviewing body-camera footage as they reviewed a citizen complaint. They discovered that on Sept. 11, two officers had seized a semiautomatic handgun from someone without making an arrest — even though the weapon was properly accounted for and placed in evidence, Contee said.

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As they kept investigating, Contee said, they found two more sergeants and three officers had engaged “in similar acts of misconduct.” In total, he said, they have found seven cases where people were found in possession of firearms and were allowed to leave. The first two officers were placed on paid administrative leave; the other five were put on desk duty, Dustin Sternbeck, the D.C. police spokesman, said.

“That’s just not the way that we conduct business here in the D.C. police,” Contee said, adding, “They should have been placed under arrest, or, at a minimum, we could have initiated an arrest warrant.”

But union officials say the officers were doing what Contee and other police leaders had ordered them to do more than a year ago: seize the weapon to secure forensic evidence that ties the person to it, especially if the firearm is in a bag, backpack or vehicle, and the person stopped says the gun was not theirs. Prosecutors have told senior officers that they often need DNA or fingerprint evidence to obtain a warrant and conviction.

“This is exactly what [Contee] and MPD supervisors told the officers to do — get the guns off the street and obtain direct evidence linking the gun to the person,” Gregg Pemberton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said Saturday.

“There has to be more going on here,” Pemberton said. “The officers seem to have been following orders.”

D.C. police have been under immense pressure to get illegal firearms off the streets as the department struggles to drive down shootings and homicides, which are near 20-year highs. And one metric they frequently tout is the number of weapons they seize.

Every week, the agency publicizes a list and pictures of guns taken by officers, accompanied by photographs. There were 53 such firearms seized from Sept. 19 through Monday. Police said earlier this month they had seized more than 2,000 illegal guns this year, about 800 more than at this time in 2021.

Police officials have complained that convincing prosecutors to pursue criminal cases, though, can be more difficult. That is especially the case when police find one gun in a vehicle or a residence occupied by multiple people. Prosecutors have said in those cases, they prefer to investigate more thoroughly before making an arrest, to ensure they charge the person who had control or owned the firearm.

Contee has said he worries about people who are not charged “picking up another gun.” And in the cases internal affairs officers review, Contee said, it appeared to officials there was sufficient cause for an arrest to be made. He said the guns, too, were all accounted for.

“It’s not a mystery where the guns are. The mystery is why the people weren’t arrested,” Contee said.

He was shot inside his D.C. apartment. Then management evicted him.

The chief said investigators have notified the U.S. attorney’s office of the possible misconduct, and they are trying to determine whether the problem is more widespread. He said investigators reviewing video from the officers’ body-worn cameras noticed inconsistencies in what they saw on the footage, and what the officers wrote in their reports.

Two people familiar with the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, identified the officers from the Sept. 11 incident as Iman Samaraay and Abdul Dieng. The Washington Post had been reporting on the investigation into them for about a week before Contee’s announcement Friday. When reached by phone Wednesday, Samaraay, who has been on force since 2018, said: “I don’t know anything about the investigation. I’m going to ask my union rep about it.” Dieng, who has been on force since 2017, said “don’t call my phone” and hung up.

At Friday’s news conference, the chief said he was disappointed in the officers’ actions.

“While we stress the importance of holding offenders accountable for their actions, we have an obligation to hold our members to a high standard for all that they do,” Contee said. “The expectation of our officers is they make arrests when they have probable cause to make an arrest.”

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.