The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. police ‘street justice’ in gun seizures without arrest is no justice at all

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, during an Aug. 29 news conference. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Growing up in the Foggy Bottom/West End area of Northwest D.C. in the late 1940s, we heard about cops assigned to the 3rd Precinct, then located at 21st and K streets NW, who sometimes confiscated criminal proceeds — gambling money, shoplifted items — and sometimes let the thieves go, with a kick in the pants or the smack of a billy club upside the head.

We might have speculated about what happened to the proceeds. But this we knew: The wrongdoers didn’t go to jail.

That was back in the day when some police ignored their duty to arrest suspects, and decided, instead, to administer what became known as “street justice.”

In that climate, they, not prosecutors, disposed of crime. They, not courts, decided guilt or innocence. They didn’t uphold the law because in their minds, they were “The Law.”

So, it’s disgusting to learn that even today, some D.C. police officers might be abusing their authority in a similar fashion.

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D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III announced in a news conference Friday evening that an internal police investigation found that several officers at the department’s 7th District station confiscated illegal guns without making arrests.

“In these cases, the suspect was not arrested, and the suspect should have been arrested,” Contee said. “The firearm was taken and placed into evidence. However, the suspect was allowed to go free, and that’s just not the way that we conduct business here in the Metropolitan Police Department.”

Except I know, based upon my childhood, that police business has, on occasion, been conducted that way. At issue is the extent to which this misconduct is occurring.

The manner of discovery offers grounds for deep concern. It was an unrelated community complaint against D.C. officers that triggered the internal probe. While investigating that complaint, officials came across information of a separate incident involving two officers confiscating an illegal gun from a suspect without making an arrest.

Contee said the discovery sparked a closer look into gun-seizure cases over the past three weeks. Comparing written reports from officers of what unfolded during the gun seizures with their body-camera footage revealed noticeable inconsistencies and examples of other similar behavior by police officers. Now, five additional officers stand accused of misconduct. All have been placed on administrative leave or desk duty.

The city’s police union has suggested that the officers were just following Contee’s orders. That’s not good enough. Where is the evidence that the D.C. police chief told his officers to confiscate guns and let the suspects go free? Put up or do otherwise.

The investigation of these cases is now in the hands of the U.S. attorney’s office.

But the discovery of other police officers not upholding the law — regarding gun seizures and other criminal behavior — must continue. Yes, the seven 7th District police officers are on the front lines in targeting crime. But getting illegal guns off the streets is not their choice alone. It is a mayoral mandate, backed by strong public sentiment. The fact that police have seized more than 2,000 illegal guns this year is proof that the city is awash in deadly weapons.

But the practice of “street justice” constitutes no justice at all. Letting gun-toting suspects walk away doesn’t make the community safer. It only corrodes respect for those bearing badges, and it gives a go-ahead to gun up again.

Even as too many citizens pay with their lives. And our children, like this once-upon-a-time youngster, find it hard to fully trust the police.


An earlier version of this column misidentified the former location of the 3rd Precinct D.C. police station. It was at 21st and K streets NW. This version has been corrected.