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Prosecutors to drop dozens of cases amid probe of D.C. violent crime squad

D.C. federal prosecutors say they expect to scrap dozens of gun and drug cases as an internal investigation of officers in the 7th District continues

Police Chief Robert J. Contee III. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Federal prosecutors expect to dismiss dozens of felony gun and drug cases involving officers on a violent crime squad in the D.C. police department’s 7th District, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said, after an ongoing internal investigation raised questions about the officers’ credibility.

Bill Miller, a U.S. attorney’s office spokesman, said in a statement that prosecutors began reassessing pending cases upon learning that the officers were under internal investigation for seizing guns without making arrests, and possibly lying on police reports. Miller declined to say how many cases had been dismissed so far and refused to answer specific questions.

“When our Office learned of the 7-D crime suppression team investigation, we began a case-specific assessment of impacted pending cases,” Miller said in a statement. “In determining how to proceed with each case, we take a number of factors into consideration, including burden of proof, witness availability, likelihood of success on the merits at trial, and the applicable law. Our review is ongoing, but at this point we expect to dismiss dozens of gun and drug possession cases.”

In September, D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III announced that seven police officers from the 7th District’s crime suppression team had 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. Contee said officials were trying to determine — among other things — if the officers were truthful in police reports they submitted about weapon seizures, because video from the officers’ body cameras did not match what was described in the reports.

The seven officers were part of a roughly 20-person specialized unit, which was freed from responding to routine calls to concentrate on patrolling neighborhoods in the 7th District, which includes communities in Southeast Washington such as Anacostia and Washington Highlands, for drugs and guns. A majority of that team has since been replaced with other officers from other departments across the city, D.C. police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said.

Sternbeck said the internal affairs investigation remains ongoing.

If an officer was found to have lied in a report, that information would have to be disclosed to a defense attorney, and it could complicate prosecutors’ having to rely on their testimony at trial.

Jamila White, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in a neighborhood in the 7th District, said “trust” between the community and police officers in that area is “severely broken,” and as a result of the internal affairs investigation, policing in the community will only “weaken.”

Defense attorneys in D.C. Superior Court said that after the internal affairs investigation became public on Sept. 30, they began noticing cases involving 7th District officers being dismissed — though often in such a way that they could be refiled at a later date. A Washington Post review of recently dismissed gun cases found many involving 7th District crime suppression team officers, though the exact reason for their being dropped was not immediately clear. Some of the cases were for people who had prior felony convictions and were later alleged to have possessed a gun.

Some defense attorneys said they have had concerns about the legality of 7th District officers’ stops and seizures for years.

“That bunch of police officers has been a problem for years. I’m glad it’s coming to everyone’s attention that they don’t follow the rules or act legally,” said defense attorney Tammy Jacques, who said she has had at least one client’s gun possession case dismissed.

“I am a criminal defense attorney, but my grandfather was a police officer. I have a high respect for police officers, but not these officers,” Jacques said.

Contee said police were first tipped to officers’ seizing guns but not making arrests when internal affairs investigators were reviewing body-camera footage as they explored a citizen complaint. He said that although it appeared to officials that the officers had cause to take suspects into custody, they were let go. The guns, however, were all accounted for, he said.

Gregg Pemberton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said in a statement: “The allegations against these officers are still unclear and no charges of misconduct have ever been sustained against any of these members. The union continues to assert that these officers were properly following policy and directives issued by command staff and we are confident that all of these officers will be exonerated.”

He also criticized the U.S. attorney’s office for dropping cases.

“The fact that the USAO is dismissing cases against dozens of defendants is an affront to the responsible and positive work these officers have engaged in,” Pemberton said. “This will undoubtedly cause more criminals to be released into the community and probably result in more violence. This decision is more likely a result of the USAO’s lack of desire to prosecute criminals than it is a reflection of any allegations against these officers.”

Defense attorney Stephen LoGerfo said that while he applauded prosecutors reexamining current cases involving officers in the 7th District, he was concerned about those in which people already had been convicted. It was not immediately clear if prosecutors were reviewing those cases, too.

“That’s a major issue. If they pled five months ago and are serving a prison or jail sentence, what are they going to do about that?” LoGerfo said.