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Fallout grows from internal probe of D.C. police violent crime squad

In the month after police announced the investigation, prosecutors dropped 65 gun cases involving officers in the 7th District

Police Chief Robert J. Contee III speaks at a news conference in January. (Eric Lee for the Washington Post)
10 min

Police said they stopped one man on Barnaby Street SE, noticed an “L shaped object” in his satchel and found a loaded .22-caliber pistol in the bag.

They approached another man whom they said they saw smoking marijuana on Congress Street SE, then watched as he threw a .45-caliber ghost gun with a laser attachment into some nearby bushes.

In yet another case, officers said they spotted a man who had been smoking marijuana tossing a black bag to the floor as he hopped into a parked car on South Capitol Street SW. Inside, they discovered a .380-caliber gun.

All three men were arrested on gun charges, and their weapons were seized by D.C. police officers, who detailed the circumstances in charging documents. The cases had been making their way through the court system until October, when all three cases were dropped.

The officers who made the seizures were assigned to the police department’s 7th District, where internal affairs investigators are probing whether those on a violent crime squad lied on internal reports. The investigation has focused on police interactions in which the officers stopped people and seized their guns, but did not make arrests. Because of questions about the officers’ credibility, prosecutors began reviewing previous cases in which suspects had been charged — to see if the police accounts of events could withstand scrutiny.

In October, the month after the internal probe became public, prosecutors dismissed 65 gun possession cases from 2021 and 2022 involving officers in the 7th District, which includes communities in Southeast Washington such as Anacostia and Washington Highlands, according to D.C. Superior Court records reviewed by The Washington Post. Prosecutors dropped another 25 drug cases involving 7th District officers, The Post found.

The dismissals have left some city leaders fearful that the suspects who were released could possibly commit other crimes.

In 32 of the dismissed gun cases, those charged had been convicted of crimes previously, including murder, armed robbery, assault and drug possession, according to The Post’s review of court records. In the weeks following the gun case dismissals, seven people were rearrested in relation to other alleged crimes, including carrying a pistol without a license, driving under the influence and receiving stolen property. One man was charged with threatening to kidnap a person and attempted second-degree cruelty to children, though that case was later dropped.

“This means there are more criminals on the street,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “These officers jeopardized their credibility. These officers are at fault for these individuals being back on the street.”

But defense attorneys and activists said the dismissed cases illustrate another problem: that officers were too often stopping people with flimsy probable cause.

In the same month that prosecutors dismissed 65 gun cases initiated by 7th District officers, they dismissed 25 involving officers in other districts — suggesting they did not feel police had enough evidence to support criminal charges.

In most of the files The Post reviewed, prosecutors did not disclose the specific reasons for the dismissals, and they moved to throw out the charges in a way they could be refiled. In six cases, defense attorneys said prosecutors outlined to them that the charges were being dismissed because at least one of the officers involved was currently part of the internal investigation.

The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. had previously confirmed that prosecutors dismissed “dozens” of gun and drug possession cases involving officers in the 7th District precinct because of the investigation, but declined to provide a specific figure or details of the cases.

Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment on the reasons for dismissing the 65 gun cases, but said in a statement: “Where we believe that we have sufficient admissible evidence to prove an illegal gun possession case at trial beyond a reasonable doubt, we will bring charges and try that case. It is important to note that even where probable cause previously has been established, the government must assess whether it has sufficient evidence — including the availability of witnesses essential to present that evidence — to meet its burden of proof at trial.”

D.C. police said that the internal investigation of the officers remains ongoing and that prosecutors are conducting their own investigation to determine whether any charges should be filed against the officers.

“It is widely acknowledged that illegal firearms are contributing to violence in Washington, D.C., and our officers have the difficult task of removing them safely while protecting the constitutional rights of the community,” Dustin Sternbeck, a D.C. police spokesman, said in a statement. “This comes with the expectation that our members are performing these duties within department policy. When their practices aren’t holding violent offenders accountable or are inconsistent with agency standards, we have the responsibility to intervene.”

‘The antipathy to accountability’

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III revealed the internal affairs investigation publicly on the last day of September, announcing that seven police officers from the 7th District’s crime suppression team had been placed on administrative leave or desk duty. The circumstances were unusual.

By Contee’s account, senior officials had discovered incidents in which officers stopped people and took guns from them — but then let them go 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, as video from the officers’ body cameras did not match what was described in the reports. The precise discrepancies were not clear.

The seven officers, part of the roughly 20-person crime suppression team, concentrated on patrolling neighborhoods in the 7th District. Police officials replaced a majority of that team with officers from other departments across the city, Sternbeck said at the time.

Prosecutors soon began dropping cases, raising concerns among some residents and local political leaders.

“With the violence going up, people are getting desperate and police are overlooking people’s rights to get the streets safe. And that’s not right,” said Amanda Beale, an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner from Southeast Washington. “We want the guns off the streets. But we don’t want people discriminated against. We want the police to do things the right way.”

It is not uncommon for the U.S. attorney’s office to drop cases in which police seize guns. Defense attorneys have in the past accused officers of filing weak cases, and prosecutors often push police to gather more evidence. In the wake of Contee’s announcement of the investigation, the D.C. Police Union defended the officers — saying they were simply doing what they thought they were supposed to do, getting guns off the street while continuing to investigate.

“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 in October.

That the investigation has dragged on for more than five months has frustrated some city leaders, who say they would like clarity and accountability sooner rather than later.

“It’s not in the public interest for disciplinary investigations to go on so long,” Mendelson said. “It’s about accountability. The public has come to appreciate more than ever, after witnessing the murder of George Floyd, how critical accountability is. Delaying the investigation of these officers is the antipathy to accountability.”

‘L-shaped’ bulges

In court documents, officers in the 7th District often described similar circumstances in the cases that were dismissed. They noticed a person who was drinking alcohol openly, smoking marijuana, or had double parked in their vehicle.

In at least a dozen cases, officers claimed to have noticed “L-shaped” bulges in people’s jackets, satchels and the groin areas of their pants — which officers wrote “was not consistent with the human anatomy.” In one case, officers noted a man “broke eye contact” with the officer and instead looked down at his cellphone.

Searches of the individuals turned up firearms, and police and prosecutors pursued criminal charges.

Defense attorneys say the descriptions hark back to a time in D.C., New York and other cities when police would randomly stop people — predominantly Black men — in neighborhoods and conduct searches of their bodies and/or vehicles.

Sellano L. Simmons, an attorney for two defendants whose cases were dismissed after they were initiated by 7th District officers, said that some defendants instinctively lift up their shirts to show their waistbands due to having been constantly questioned by police in the past. Simmons said he sees no differences between this and the previous stop-and-frisk policies used by some major departments.

“When the officers approach, some of these individuals lift up their shirts without being prompted, and that’s horrible,” Simmons said. “That’s not a society which we want to be a part of. When you begin to normalize the action of ‘Let me check your waistband for any guns,’ it’s the same as stop and frisk.”

In a recent interview, Contee said D.C. police are more focused on longer-term investigations. Officers in the District, he said, are no longer jumping out of vehicles and indiscriminately searching people without probable cause — a practice some people refer to as “jump-outs”

“I was D.C. born and raised, and in my childhood, jump-outs were simply when the police jumped from a car and chased you for no reason whatsoever. They wanted to see the first person who runs, and that’s who they would nab,” he said, adding: “Jump-outs is not something we do.”

Civil liberties experts say that if a police officer has probable cause, they have the legal authority to conduct a search. But those arrested can later challenge officers’ authority to have done so. And if a case relies on the word of an officer who is under internal investigation, or if an officer has to narrate what their body camera shows, defense attorneys might use that to attack their credibility.

“We hear from community members frequently, from them or people they know, with stories about being stopped by police when they aren’t doing anything wrong,” said Michael Perloff, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. “Officers walking down the street come across people engaging in innocent conduct, and then stopping and frisking them. That conduct is very close to the line and very much over the line to what is constitutionally allowed.”

Defense attorneys said, too, that officers in the 7th District are not the only ones to face allegations that they are acting without probable cause. Attorney Carrie Weletz said police charging documents are often full of “absurdities such as someone’s pocket appeared heavy. Or they allegedly saw, in the dark of night, a protruding pocket.

“It’s citywide. They are, and were, stopping people for baseless reasons. And some of these people should have never been stopped,” Weletz said.

“I understand that there needs to be gun control and guns are an issue in the District of Columbia. But the police department can’t stop people because they are in a certain neighborhood or in an area that is full of crime and violence,” she added. “There are normal everyday folks who are trying to live their lives every day and go to work.”

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.