HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
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Scandals involving the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) have had less to do with allegations of excessive force by its 3,600 officers than with political infighting and gross mismanagement.1 Although in crisis, the department is embarking on a "zero tolerance" campaign, meaning that police-resident encounters, and presumably the opportunity to commit abuses, will increase.2 With the internal affairs unit exercising excessive secrecy and the recent abolition of the city's civilian review board, the department is left with very little external scrutiny regarding its handling of brutality complaints.3

In November 1997, Chief Larry Soulsby resigned amid allegations of impropriety.4 Soulsby had been sharing an apartment where the rent had reportedly been reduced dramatically after Soulsby's friend and roommate, Lt. Jeffrey Stowe, reportedly told the landlords that it would be used for undercover work. Also in November, Stowe - who headed the investigations unit on extortion and fraud - was himself charged with embezzlement and extortion.5 Stowe was accused of stealingmoney from department funds, attempting to blackmail married men who frequented a gay nightclub, and using his subordinates to get information about the FBI's investigation of Stowe.6 A former deputy superintendent from Chicago's police force, Charles Ramsey, was chosen as the new chief in early 1998, and there were hopes that an "outsider" might help improve the management of the force.

In addition to serious scandals involving the department's leaders, the rank-and-file of the force have also gotten into trouble. According to press reports, some one hundred officers who joined the force during a 1989-90 hiring drive, when standards and background screening were all but absent, were later charged with criminal offenses.7 Nearly one quarter of those were charged with crimes involving domestic violence.8 More recently it was reported that during late 1996 and early 1997, background checks of new recruits were incomplete.9

Prior to his own problems, in early 1997 Chief Soulsby gained enhanced powers as chief, and he used them to dismiss top-level police officials. (As described below, two of the deputy chiefs who were dismissed were allegedly involved in domestic violence and sexual harassment incidents.) The changes came about due to the D.C. financial control board's increased oversight of the police department and Mayor Marion Barry's decreased powers. Observers credited Chief Soulsby, who became chief in July 1995, with emphasizing that he would not tolerate abuse by officers. He also called for retraining for about three-quarters of the force. The need for training became apparent when one officer at the initial training session asked, "When are they going to change the laws about suing the department? So when a guy does something and gets smacked, he can't go and sue." None of the officers in the training class could articulate what constituted a legalsearch, and when the group did a word association exercise, responses to the word "gays" were "wrong, weird, faggots, AIDS, ungodly, don't like em, immoral."10

Latino activists have reported that community relations with the police improved after the riots in Washington's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in May 1991, but there are still language and cultural barriers for the approximately 10 to 12 percent of the D.C. population that is of Hispanic origin.11 The benchmark for this assessment is a January 1993 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report issued about the rioting that followed the May 5, 1991 shooting by a rookie officer of a Salvadoran man. After the shooting, there was looting and arson described as a "manifestation of frustration...years of harassment, resentment and rejection."12 The city's Latino task force complained of "a real or perceived pattern of widespread, endemic racism and physical and verbal abuse by the MPD against the Latino community, particularly in the 3rd District, which has the highest concentration of Latino residents...."13 Racial epithets like "wetback" and "spic" were allegedly used by officers. As noted, there have been improvements in recent years, but some unease persists.14

Some observers have speculated that the reason there have not been more recent incidents of excessive force is because - in addition to the lack of information about how to file a complaint or any evidence that it makes any difference - officers have been so demoralized by the budgetary and leadership crises that they were avoiding contact with citizens, thus possibly reducing the potential for complaints. The Booz-Allen reports found that two-thirds of the department's officers made ten or fewer arrests a year, with half of those officers making no arrests at all.15 Yet by March 1997, efforts were underway to copy the New York City Police Department's "zero tolerance" efforts by policing minor offenses more aggressively and becoming amore visible presence throughout the city. Residents' responses to the new efforts were mixed and echoed those in New York: some welcomed the new activism while others complained that the police were overzealous. Said one officer, "[Police officials] want to see numbers, so we're arresting people and locking them up for almost anything."16 The initiative began with little or no training for officers, including 400 who were moved to the streets from specialty units and desk jobs and who had not patrolled the streets for years.

In an alarming indication that training remains grossly inadequate, it was reported in March 1998 that roughly half of the city's police officers had not been certified on their firearms, as required by department regulations.17 As in most police departments, MPD officers are required to demonstrate their proficiency at a shooting range at regular intervals. When questioned about this development, interim police chief Sonya T. Proctor - who was responsible for recruitment and training before being named acting chief - had no explanation for the lapse but noted that the department "needed to be more diligent about scheduling these people [for shooting certification tests]."18 Almost a year before the latest disclosures, a consulting firm reportedly had brought the poor certification record to the department's attention, apparently with little impact.19

1 A detailed study by the consulting firm Booz-Allen and Hamilton concluded in 1997 that "chronic" problems plagued the force and that the department had poor leadership. Cheryl Thompson, "Detailing Failings of D.C. Police Department," Washington Post, April 9, 1997.

2 Meanwhile, tragedy has also affected the police force. During the first six months of 1997, three MPD officers were shot and killed. One, Brian T. Gibson, was shot in his squad car while on duty, another had just gotten off work and was shot as he stood outside his precinct, and a third was shot in a suburb while off-duty by an assailant believed to have known that he was an officer.

3 It is also very unresponsive to requests for information, even when they are submitted in the form of a Freedom of Information Act request. The police department did not respond to a FOIA request originally sent by Human Rights Watch in September 1996 and did not respond to a letter requesting an interview with the acting chief, or a response in writing to several questions, sent in January 1998 - twice by facsimile and once by mail.

4 Cheryl W. Thompson, Sari Horwitz, "Embattled D.C. police chief resigns," Washington Post, November 26, 1997; Sari Horwitz, Cheryl W. Thompson, "D.C. police chief weighs resigning," Washington Post, November 25, 1997.

5 Stowe pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud, theft, and extortion. Toni Locy, "Luxury unit allegedly for Soulsby," Washington Post, January 27, 1998.

6 Avis Thomas-Lester and Toni Locy, "Soulsby's friend accused of extortion," Washington Post, November 26, 1997.

7 Carl T. Rowan, Jr., "Who's Policing D.C. Cops?" Washington Post, October 8, 1995; and Michael Powell, Sari Horwitz, Cheryl W. Thompson, "Problems in D.C. police dept. festered for decades," Washington Post, October 12, 1997.

8 Stephanie Mencimer, "Battered Blue," Washington City Paper, August 23-29, 1996.

9 Cheryl W. Thompson, "Half of officers lack firearm certification," Washington Post, March 28, 1998.

10 Sari Horwitz, "Getting back to basics," Washington Post, April 1, 1996.

11 Telephone interview with Elena Rocha, member of the Police-Latino Relations Task Force, October 24, 1996.

12 Preface, "Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities: The Mount Pleasant Report," U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, January 1993.

13 Ibid., p 20.

14 More than 67 percent of the police force is African-American, 27 percent is white, and less than 5 percent Hispanic.

15 Cheryl Thompson, "Detailing Failings," Washington Post, April 9, 1997.

16 Cheryl Thompson, "D.C. Police Zero in on petty crime," Washington Post, May 5, 1997. During the first month of the new initiative, eight in ten arrests were for offenses such as disorderly conduct, panhandling, and traffic violations.

17 Thompson, "Half of officers lack...," Washington Post.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch