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  •   D.C. Police Lead Nation in Shootings
    Lack of Training, Supervision Implicated as Key Factors

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    First of five articles

    By Jeff Leen, Jo Craven,
    David Jackson and Sari Horwitz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, November 15, 1998; Page A1

    The District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department has shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large American city police force.

    Many shootings by Washington police officers were acts of courage and even heroism. But internal police files and court records reveal a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight, an eight-month Washington Post investigation has found.

    Washington's officers fire their weapons at more than double the rate of police in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami. Deaths and injuries in D.C. police shooting cases have resulted in nearly $8 million in court settlements and judgments against the District in the last six months alone.

    "We shoot too often, and we shoot too much when we do shoot," said Executive Assistant Chief of Police Terrance W. Gainer, who became the department's second in command in May.

    The shootings involve a small proportion of the District's 3,550 officers. But the details of individual cases can be chilling even to police veterans: An off-duty police officer out walking his dog in August 1995 fired 11 times while trying to stop an unarmed motorist who had hit a utility pole and left the scene of the accident. An off-duty police officer fishing in May 1995 shot an unarmed man three times after arguing with him on the banks of Rock Creek. In August, an officer ended a police chase of an irrational truck driver who had rammed several cars by firing 38 times into the truck's cab, killing the unarmed driver.

    The extent and pattern of police shootings have been obscured from public view. Police officials investigate incidents in secret, producing reports that become public only when a judge intercedes. In a small hearing room closed to the public, nine of every 10 shootings are ruled justified by department officials who read the reports filed by investigating officers but generally hear no witnesses.

    The spate of police shootings in the District this decade is closely tied to the training and supervision of officers and the way the department investigates cases and holds officers accountable, records and interviews show.

    Police shootings began to rise at the beginning of the decade with a huge infusion of new, ill-prepared recruits and the adoption of the light-trigger, highly advanced Glock 9mm handgun as the department's service weapon. By the mid-1990s, shootings by officers had doubled to record levels even as a succession of police administrations failed to accurately track shooting patterns or correct acknowledged deficiencies in firearm skills.

    Among the findings of The Post's investigation:

  • In the last five years, D.C. officers shot and killed 57 people – three more than police reported in Chicago, which has three times the police force and five times the population. During that period, D.C. officers were involved in 640 shooting incidents – 40 more than the Los Angeles Police Department, which has more than double the officers and serves six times the population. Since 1990, Washington police have shot and killed 85 people.

  • District officers in the last five years shot at 54 cars they said drove at them or others in "vehicular attacks." The shootings have killed nine people – all of them unarmed – and wounded 19. Police officers in the District and elsewhere are instructed to get out of the way and not shoot at moving cars, except in the gravest circumstances, because bullets can ricochet and because cars with wounded drivers can become unguided missiles. In New York City – with 10 times the number of officers and 14 times the population – officers shot at only 11 cars in vehicular attacks in the last three years.

  • In addition to the incidents in which officers fired into cars, D.C. police in the last five years shot nine unarmed men on foot, killing two. Five of the surviving men were charged with assaulting a police officer, but the charges were dropped in all but one case.

  • In 11 cases from 1992 to 1997, D.C. police ruled shootings justified despite eyewitness accounts or forensic evidence that contradicted officers, an examination of internal investigative records showed. Investigations were sometimes marked by errors, omissions and internal inconsistencies.

  • Nearly 75 percent of the District officers who used their weapons in 1996 failed to meet the District's basic firearms standards for using the Glock semiautomatic handgun, a weapon that requires a high degree of training and skill. There have been more than 120 unintentional discharges of the gun in the past decade; 19 officers have shot themselves or other officers accidentally.

  • In the internal records used to track shooting trends, D.C. police undercounted by nearly one-third the number of people they killed from 1994 to 1997, tallying only 29 fatal police shootings. The Post investigation confirmed 43 fatal police shootings in that period. Seven fatal shootings were missing from police shooting trend records, and seven other fatal shootings were mislabeled as nonfatal.

  • Police shootings during the 1990s already have left a costly legacy: more than 70 lawsuits filed against the District. In June, a D.C. Superior Court jury awarded a $6.1 million judgment against police in a case in which a man with a knife was shot 12 times in the back by SWAT team members.

    "Some of them just got gun-happy," one juror, William P. McLaurin, later told The Post.

    That same month, the District quietly paid a $797,500 settlement in a lawsuit brought by the roommate of a D.C. police officer. The officer, who had not been to the firing range to qualify with his weapon for 26 months, accidentally shot and wounded his roommate. Department regulations require firearms training every six months.

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