The sound of a battering ram against wood would have been jarring enough, but Viola Briggs had a metal front door.
The only warning that it was about to come crashing open was a knock and a three-word shout: “Police! Open up!”
The 55-year-old legal assistant had just finished watching an episode of “CSI: Miami” on her computer. She would have opened the door but didn’t have time to take a step. She shouted for her older brother, who lived with her in the Southwest Washington apartment. Then, suddenly, the door frame gave way, and 13 police officers rushed in, weapons drawn.
Over the past two years, one graphic video after another has captured ugly and sometimes deadly interactions between police officers and black residents of the communities they serve. From one city to the next, the shaky-framed images have fueled demonstrations and made household names of the dead: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile.
But for Briggs, and many people like her across the country, trust in the police was eroded long before videos of police shootings were going viral on Facebook and Twitter. It was destroyed in moments that were not caught on camera and that might have gone unnoticed if they hadn’t been reported.
An extensive examination of citizen complaints and civil lawsuits filed against D.C. police over the past decade shows that even in a city with a majority-black department and a robust civilian oversight office with newly enhanced powers, hundreds of incidents occur each year in which people feel mistreated by those who are supposed to protect them.
In one case, a 65-year-old African American man said he was leaving a library in Southeast Washington when he was detained and handcuffed, even though he did not fit the description of the threatening library patron police had been called about. In another, an officer admitted to spreading a black man’s buttocks twice in an unlawful body-cavity search but denied that he “jammed” a finger inside him, as the man claimed.
Since 2005, the city has agreed or been ordered to pay at least $31.6 million in 173 cases alleging police misconduct, including claims of false arrest and excessive use of force, according to a Washington Post analysis of data obtained from the D.C. attorney general’s office.
Complaints against police — and the settlements that sometimes result — are common across the country. Baltimore, which has a similar-size police force, paid $5.7 million in 102 court judgments and settlements for alleged misconduct between 2011 and September 2014, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of city and court records. During roughly that same period, alleged police misconduct cost the District $2.9 million in 38 cases.
But since then, the District’s payouts have risen sharply. In the first nine months of 2016, misconduct lawsuits cost city taxpayers at least $3.8 million in judgments or settlements. And last month, the family of Terrence Sterling, a motorcyclist fatally shot Sept. 11 by a D.C. police officer, filed a $50 million lawsuit against the city and the police department alleging that the 31-year-old “was unarmed and posed no danger” when he was killed.
Some of the District’s lawsuits detail beatings that resulted in hospital stays. Others describe people who had committed no crimes before contentious encounters with police landed them in jail.
Viola Briggs and her brother, Frank Briggs, were the recipients of a 2016 settlement.
The two had moved into their apartment three months before the night of Jan. 20, 2012, when the officers, several wearing ski masks, held them at gunpoint.
Police had a search warrant for drugs but did not find any, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the siblings. The case, launched against the city and the 13 officers involved, argued that the warrant was based on a conversation with a confidential informant and that investigators did not attempt to corroborate the information or research who lived at the residence.
Once inside, the officers ordered the siblings to lie on the floor. Viola Briggs did. But as her brother, then 56 and suffering from back pain so debilitating that he qualified for disability, slowly lowered himself, an officer shoved him to the ground, according to the suit.
Before that day, Viola Briggs said, she held a deep respect for law enforcement. One of her three sons is an Army captain who has considered joining a civilian police force, she said. She regularly donated to the Fraternal Order of Police. And, after two U.S. Capitol Police officers were killed in the line of duty, she wrote this on a Washington Post online memorial site: “I would like to express my sincere condolences to the family of the two brave officers who gave their lives for the protection of others. May GOD be with you in your time of need and may HE also bring you peace.”
After the raid on her apartment, she was left not only with a broken door but also with a shattered sense of security, she said. For years, she slept with a baseball bat at her side and a chair shoved against the door.
“It made me hate the police,” she said. “Not all of the police. It made me hate the police at the 7th District because of what they did to me.”
In the 1990s, when the District was known as the nation’s murder capital, the city also led the country in the rate of fatal police shootings, a Washington Post investigation at the time found. The reputation for lethal force prompted a 2001 Justice Department investigation and a 10-year reform effort.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress,” said former D.C. police chief Cathy L. Lanier, who spent 26 years on the force, 10 as the chief, before leaving in September to work for the National Football League. “We’re now in a position where people know their officers by name, and they have a relationship with the police, and they feel comfortable that we are here to look out for them.”
Complaints and civil lawsuits can be a gauge of the relationship between police and the community, she said. But it is only one measure. Instead, she pointed to an audit released last January that examined the department’s performance in the years since the reform efforts ended. It found that the command staff “remained committed to limiting and managing use of force — and to fair and constitutional policing” and called the department “a leader on these issues.”
But the audit also found “significant shortcomings” in the department. The quality of use-of-force investigations had deteriorated, the report said, and a large number of less serious use-of-force cases go unreported and uninvestigated. The audit also found that several officers had been flagged for repeated involvement in use-of-force incidents, citizen complaints and other violations.
One officer, who is not named in the report, had more than 100 such incidents listed on his record in a 16-year span, “including numerous uses of force found to be unjustified,” the audit found. Another officer had 50 incidents noted on his record.
Lanier conceded that her power to root out abusive officers was limited. The city’s 3,500 officers — 54 percent black, 35 percent white, 8 percent Latino — are represented by a police union. Even when officers were fired for “legitimate, sustained misconduct complaints,” Lanier said that she was forced, through arbitration, to rehire some of them. She estimates that at least 30 such officers were rehired during her tenure as chief.
In the past six years, 86 officers have been terminated, according to data The Post obtained from the department.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow as a D.C. resident when I know that the police chief here doesn’t have the authority to say, ‘This is a bad officer and shouldn’t be in the department,’ ” Lanier said, “and an arbitrator, who has no stake in it and doesn’t live in the city, can say, ‘Put that officer back on the street,’ and have him patrolling your neighborhood.”
In an email, Matt Mahl, president of the D.C. police union, called some misconduct complaints and lawsuits “frivolous” and expressed hope that body-worn cameras would help protect officers against false accusations. “We have seen time and time again,” he wrote, “where members of the public file complaints against officers to the Office of Police Complaints, and they do subpar investigations that tend to give more credence to what the complainer says than to officers with zero evidence, and an officer’s reputation is damaged for the remainder of their careers.”
Kris Baumann, a former D.C. officer and police union official, also noted that the number of misconduct allegations is tiny given the huge number of interactions D.C. police have with the public each year.
“I think there is a good case to be made that D.C. police officers do an extraordinary job in dealing with residents, tourists and victims of crime,” Baumann said. “That doesn’t mean when a police officer does something they shouldn’t be doing, it’s not important. It is important.”
Viola Briggs does not know what happened to the officers she and her brother named in the lawsuit. A D.C. police spokesman said that the case was reviewed by the internal affairs bureau but that no disciplinary action was taken against the officers and no one was fired. Ten of the 13 are still with the department.
Briggs said that many of her neighbors would have remained quiet about the raid but that she could not.
Days after the police search, when plywood still covered the hole where she once had a door, Briggs took two courses of action available to D.C. residents who believe that their rights have been violated.
She filed a report with the Office of Police Complaints. And she found an attorney to file a notice of claim with the D.C. Office of Risk Management, a step needed to sue the District.
The Office of Police Complaints received a record 1,442 requests for information about reporting misconduct last year. The actual number of complaints filed in fiscal 2016, which ended Oct. 1, was 438 — 31 more than in fiscal 2015 but less than the 574 in 2012.
At the same time, the office has been granted more authority than ever before.
The D.C. Council voted last year to give the complaints office the power to review all use-of-force incidents, which were previously handled internally. This means that the office’s staff can look at — and publicly disclose — how the police department handles fatal encounters such as the one that led to the death of Terrence Sterling. The council also gave the office the authority to directly refer officers for additional training. Previously, the office was limited to recommending disciplinary action, but the choice of punishment was left to the police chief.
Michael G. Tobin, who heads the Office of Police Complaints, said that when he gives presentations to cities that are considering creating civilian oversight operations, he tells them that without enough power, these agencies are just “window dressing.” About 150 cities nationwide — less than 1 percent — have police-oversight agencies, all with different levels of authority, he said.
Tobin’s staff, in investigating a complaint, can interview witnesses, visit the scene of the encounter and view footage from police body cameras. They can also interview the officers involved; there are rooms with two-way mirrors at the agency’s headquarters above the McPherson Square Metro station in downtown Washington.
Tobin, who worked as a Milwaukee police officer and assistant city attorney before coming to the District, considers the work crucial. He said he has seen how one person’s ugly interaction with an officer is amplified as it is recounted to relatives and neighbors, reinforcing the perception that “the police are not here to help.”
In the past two fiscal years, more than two-thirds of the complaints were filed by African Americans — who make up less than half of the city’s population — and the vast majority of encounters occurred in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“One bad incident destroys the reputation of the police department,” Tobin said. “If we can improve community trust in the police department, every officer’s job will be easier. People will talk to them. People will give them tips.”
In November, the Police Complaints Board, which oversees the work of Tobin’s office, issued a report criticizing the foul, denigrating language some officers used during traffic stops and other interactions.
Other residents describe harassment by police. In a complaint filed against three officers in November, a man said he was walking along Malcolm X Avenue in Southeast Washington across from a car that had been stopped by police. He said he told the occupants to make sure they got the officers’ names and badge numbers — and that’s when one of the officers yelled at him.
“Wanna come look at it?” the officer asked, according to the complaint.
When the man crossed the street, the officer then said, “Oh, you just jaywalked now, sir.”
After the man refused to show his ID, he was arrested for failure to identify himself, although he had a legal right not to do so. He was also charged with failure to obey in an emergency and jaywalking. After a review of the incident and the body-camera footage, a complaint examiner, chosen from a pool of lawyers in the District, determined that the officers had acted improperly.
Police misconduct cases were difficult to prove in the past, Tobin said, but that is changing with the ubiquity of cellphones and the growing number of police body cameras. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced last month that all uniformed patrol officers are now equipped with body cameras.
Jeffrey Light, a District civil rights lawyer who has litigated many cases against the police department, said civilian oversight agencies are usually created with the best of intentions. But in reality, he said, they often do not help a person whose rights have been violated. He said that many times, his clients wind up in jail after negative interactions with police and are more worried about getting out than filing complaints within the 90-day requirement. Other times, he said, someone will file a complaint only to receive a letter months later saying it was dismissed.
Of the 526 complaints that were closed in the District in 2015, only a small fraction were upheld. The vast majority — 306 — were dismissed, while 209 were handled administratively, through mediation or some other way. Of the 11 cases where misconduct was suspected, a complaint examiner determined that eight involved wrongdoing. The discipline for the officers involved in those cases ranged from an official reprimand to a five-day suspension without pay.
When Viola Briggs filed her complaint in 2012, she listed the nature of the incident as “Invasion of privacy,” “Harassment” and “Traumatization.” The last line of her handwritten description of the events said, “I feel ‘VIOLATED’!”
Less than three months later, she received a letter from the Office of Police Complaints that said, “After examining the information provided, we have concluded that there is no reasonable cause to believe that police misconduct occurred in the case.”
The ACLU’s Washington office has two attorneys, so it chooses its battles carefully. Legal Director Arthur Spitzer said that when his office takes on police misconduct, the cases either involve complicated legal questions or a larger pattern of wrongdoing.
Spitzer said his office, working with the firm Crowell & Moring, represented Viola and Frank Briggs because their case spoke to the carelessness of police in making sure they had the right location for a warrant — and the fear the raid left in its wake.
The plywood the siblings used to cover the hole left by police was eventually replaced with a flimsy wooden door that left a large gap at the top. The lawsuit blames that door for contributing to a break-in at the apartment. The suit also cited the officers’ unnecessary force as further aggravating Frank Briggs’s back problems and leaving Viola Briggs with anxiety and trouble sleeping.
“Every little noise I heard in the hall, I’d jump,” Viola Briggs said. “It just keeps your nerves on edge because you never know.”
Viola Briggs, who at one time earned $85,000 annually but has struggled to find employment in recent years, said that before the incident, she was well aware that police officers sometimes overstep boundaries. When one of her sons was 19, he was pulled over on the way to a job interview and made to lie on the ground in his dress clothes. She said he was so upset by the encounter that he never made it to his interview. Even so, she said, her perception of police changed when it was her on the floor, handcuffed and hyperventilating.
“They don’t care,” she said. “They’re supposed to be here to protect the citizens. But they don’t care, so why should we?”
An examination of civil lawsuits filed against the D.C. police department in recent years shows that the misconduct alleged by the Briggs siblings is far from the most egregious. In a pending case, a man said he ended up in the hospital after officers allegedly punched, kicked and stomped on his face and body.
Keith Blakeney had committed no crime on July 6, 2013, according to his lawsuit. Instead, he was walking home from his mother’s house in Southeast Washington when he took a shortcut through an alley and encountered a group of officers who had just handcuffed four or five people.
“What’s up, Peaches?” an officer called to Blakeney three times, according to the suit. He finally replied, “Just minding my business. What’s up with y’all? It’s a shame we can’t chill in our own neighborhood in peace without y’all coming through and harassing us.”
“What did you say, motherf---er?” an officer asked before the alleged violent encounter began, according to the suit.
Blakeney’s attorney, Brian McDaniel, who has handled other police misconduct cases in the city, said these types of encounters between officers and African American men are “something that is all too regular” and make people feel “powerless.”
In the suit, Blakeney is asking for at least $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
In addition to the $31.6 million that the lawsuits have cost the city in police misconduct cases, the District has also settled complaints before they even reached the courts. Those payouts have totaled nearly $3.2 million since 2011, according to data obtained by The Post from the Office of Risk Management through a public records request.
Among the cases that have reached litigation, the majority of settlements involved allegations of false arrest, accounting for about 8 of every 10 cases. The settlement amounts for those ranged from $100 to $13.3 million. The latter award was shared by hundreds of World Bank protesters who claimed that officers unfairly arrested them. The median payout for all false arrest cases was $25,000.
The Briggses’ case was settled for $55,000.
Viola Briggs said she put her share toward moving into a new apartment, one where she feels safer. But as she sat on her sofa there one morning, it was clear she still worried about unexpected intruders. A baseball bat and golf club leaned against the wall by the front door.
Frank Briggs moved out shortly after their encounter with the police. Even so, for years, he called his sister daily to check on her and to remind her to push a chair against the door.
Viola Briggs said the incident left him angry and in pain. But those who saw him every day at his job, handing out newspapers near the Ronald Reagan Building downtown, did not know that. They considered him a friend and filled a poster board with compliments about how his easy smile brightened their days. Viola Briggs keeps it in her apartment, along with a black and gold urn. The name Frank Briggs is written on it.
His family said he died of natural causes May 2, 2016.
The settlement check arrived on June 2.
Peter Hermann and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.