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D.C. officer charged with murder after deadly pursuit

A memorial for Karon Hylton, who was killed last October in a police-involved vehicle crash in the Brightwood Park neighborhood of Washington.
A memorial for Karon Hylton, who was killed last October in a police-involved vehicle crash in the Brightwood Park neighborhood of Washington. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)
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A D.C. police officer was indicted Friday on a murder charge accusing him of leading an improper pursuit that resulted in the death of a young man in a moped crash, and conspiring with his supervisor to cover up the chase and the severity of the victim’s injuries.

Officer Terence Sutton and others pursued 20-year-old Karon Hylton the night of Oct. 23, 2020, police said, after they spotted him riding a moped on a sidewalk and without a helmet along Kennedy Street in Northwest Washington. Hylton was struck by a van after he sped out of an alley, with Sutton’s vehicle speeding up and closing in behind him, prosecutors said.

Sutton, 37, a 12-year veteran of the force who was working on a crime suppression detail, and his supervisor, Lt. Andrew Zabavsky, 53, also were charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Police said they surrendered to federal authorities Friday morning.

The death of Hylton, which came amid a nationwide movement for police reform, had roiled his Brightwood Park neighborhood and put law enforcement tactics under renewed scrutiny. D.C. police officials and prosecutors said they could not recall any other cases in which a D.C. police officer has been charged in an on-duty death.

After Hylton’s death, family and friends charged that D.C. police had targeted and harassed Hylton, who left behind a baby daughter, and other young Black men in the neighborhood. Police and demonstrators clashed outside the 4th District police station on Georgia Avenue NW, leading to arrests and injuries among activists and officers. D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) repeatedly pressed for answers as the investigation went on for 11 months with no comment or resolution.

Hylton’s family members, who could not be reached Friday, had joined those protests. After the indictment was issued, George said she talked to Hylton’s family and friends. “For once,” the lawmaker said, “they felt like they were being heard.”

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

The crash — which followed months of demonstrations across the country over social justice and policing after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis — sparked a fierce debate in Brightwood Park and across the District about police tactics some viewed as overly aggressive toward Black residents, even as others called for more enforcement to combat open-air drug-dealing, deadly gunfire and criminal street crews.

At Sutton’s initial appearance in federal court in the District, his attorney J. Michael Hannon defended the officer’s actions as an attempt to make a legal stop of an individual he suspected of committing a crime. Hannon asserted that Hylton was a member of a drug gang and involved in an altercation earlier in the evening — and that police were concerned he was armed and wanted revenge. He said the crash was caused not by police, but by Hylton’s own actions.

Hannon said Sutton believed he was the victim of a “tragic double-cross of his commitment to law enforcement,” in that he was being charged with a crime for targeting a person he believed was contributing to the community’s crime problem.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Baset blasted the defense claims.

“The double-cross is the abuse of his badge and carrying out the conduct that he did,” Baset said. The prosecutor pushed back at Hannon for “besmirching Mr. Hylton’s character” and said there was “absolutely no evidence that Mr. Hylton possessed a gun, let alone any weapon that night.”

No gun was found at the scene of the crash, police have said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui ordered Sutton to remain under home detention with electronic monitoring at his D.C.-area home or his mother’s, in Delaware, pending trial, with exceptions for work, medical or religious reasons or to meet with his attorneys.

Zabavsky accepted release under high-intensity supervision. The department said paperwork is being filed to suspend both officers without pay pending the resolution of the case.

Police video shows fatal crash as D.C. officers attempt to stop moped driver

Acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips said most officers act within the law. But he said “when a select few violate their oath by engaging in criminal conduct, they cannot do so with impunity and must be held accountable.”

The indictment accuses Sutton of “driving a police vehicle in a conscious disregard for an extreme risk of death or serious bodily injury.” It alleges Sutton and Zabavsky initially downplayed the crash and that Sutton drove over evidence in the street as he left the scene.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said the administration will review the allegations in the indictment “very closely,” but she also expressed concern the charges might have on police fighting gun crimes and rising homicides amid distrust in communities.

She said she expects officers to “act like professionals, to do their job, to keep neighborhoods across the District of Columbia safe.”

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, who was appointed chief after the incident, said he told officers “there are many in the community who recognize the hard work that you do, who support the work that you do, who understand that you make decisions, split-second decisions, and you do it professionally, you do it constitutionally and you do it procedurally correct, day in and day out.”

The chief said that, “Unfortunately, we are dealing with the decision we are dealing with today, but I assure you we will get through this together.”

Contee said the department has some of the strictest policies on pursuits in the nation. That includes prohibiting pursuits for traffic violations.

On the night of the Friday crash, Sutton, with three other officers in his cruiser, tried to stop Hylton, who was on a Revel Electric moped.

The indictment provides new details about the pursuit and for the first time contends that Zabavsky joined Sutton in trying to stop Hylton, at one point briefly taking over as the lead chase vehicle.

The pursuit went 10 blocks, according to the indictment. Prosecutors alleged that Sutton was at times traveling more than double the residential speed limit, went the wrong way on one-way streets and went through seven stop signs.

The indictment says Sutton and Zabavsky kept each other apprised of their locations on a police radio channel that was not accessible to the watch commander responsible for authorizing pursuits and to a dispatcher whose job is to coordinate them.

Videos from two D.C. police body-worn cameras, from Sutton and another officer in his vehicle, show a police cruiser closely following the moped moments before Hylton left an alley and collided with a van. After the crash, Sutton left the cruiser and yelled “Karon,” indicating he had prior interactions with Hylton.

The indictment says neither officer immediately notified the department’s major-crash unit, which is responsible for investigating serious traffic collisions, or immediately notified superiors that Hylton appeared to be severely injured. Though both officers were approached by at least one witness, the indictment says, they did not take statements from those people.

Read the indictment here

Prosecutors said that 20 minutes after the crash, and while still at the scene, Sutton and Zabavsky turned off their body-worn cameras “and conferred privately.” Later at the station, the indictment says, “they provided a misleading account of the incident.” It says Sutton denied pursuing Hylton and that Zabavsky “withheld all information about his involvement in the incident.”

The indictment says Sutton only informed the watch commander of Hylton’s worsening condition after he learned the young man had been put on a ventilator at the hospital and had suffered a fractured skull. Prosecutors said the watch commander viewed body-camera video, ordered Zabavsky to notify the major crash unit and called internal affairs to start an investigation.

By then, the indictment says, a full investigation into the cause of the crash and the conduct of the officers had been delayed.

D.C. Council Member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, said revelations about the alleged coverup are “why we talk about having accountability and oversight for policing and public safety.”

George, whose district includes Brightwood Park, said such interactions destroy trust between residents and police, essential for fighting crime, and she hopes that the indictment is a “step forward for our community and our city.”

Patrice Sulton, executive director of D.C. Justice Lab and a member of the D.C. Police Reform Commission, said she thinks improper police pursuits are a problem in the city and that more needs to be done to ensure officers follow the rules.

“I don’t think this will fix the problem,” she said.

In April, the D.C. Council-appointed commission recommended sweeping changes in how police operate, including suspending specialized units such as the Gun Recovery Unit and crime suppression teams, whose members are freed from answering 911 calls to focus on areas where violence is most acute.

The commission said officers in such units often use “aggressive stop, pursuit, and search tactics that bump up against — and sometimes cross — constitutional boundaries.” The report singled out the Hylton case, saying that “even when lawful, these tactics can “rapidly escalate and lead to police violence,” unfairly target Black neighborhoods and embody the “warrior” model of policing.

Fredrick Kunkle, Clarence Williams, Donovan J. Thomas, Keith L. Alexander, Justin Jouvenal and Ellie Silverman contributed to this report.

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