Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
High-level city and police officials have often failed to provide the police force with adequate leadership and instead have been involved in inappropriate behavior themselves.26 As part of a general review of the police department in 1997, consultants found that performance reviews of officers and supervisors were terminated in 1985.27 It appeared that promotion through the ranks was based on positive relations with the chief or mayor, rather than on job performance. The cronyism in the department is one of the factors widely blamed for the force's poor performance.28 The others are a flood of recruits during a short period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and subsequent budget cuts.29 The congressionally mandated hiring of 1,500 recruits in a two-year period meant that new officers were put on the streets without adequate, or in some cases any, background checks; many were later found to have criminal backgrounds. The 1989-90 classes accounted for half of the 200 officers arrested during the subsequent three years on charges from shoplifting to rape and murder.30
Until the February 1997 purging of the city's highest police officials, two of the city's deputy chiefs were the subjects of serious allegations. One former deputy chief was charged with assault with intent to commit murder after he reportedly shot at a girlfriend; the woman refused to testify and the charges were dropped.31 An internal affairs investigation found the deputy chief guilty of misconduct andrecommended he be demoted, but he successfully appealed, and was instead promoted. In 1993, another former girlfriend claimed that the deputy chief intentionally rammed his car into hers, but prosecutors did not bring charges against him.32 For years, officers under investigation for serious abuses argued that, since the deputy chief was not fired for his actions, why should they be let go? Another former deputy chief was accused of sexually harassing a female sergeant while he was a commander. An internal investigation found that he had harassed the woman, but the finding was later overturned by an administrative judge who found the complainant's account inconsistent.33 Neither of the deputy chiefs' records were mentioned as reasons for their dismissals in 1997.
Since the abolition of the CCRB, the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the police department has been responsible for handling all citizen complaints of police misconduct.34 Unfortunately, IAD's budget reportedly has not increased accordingly and perhaps potentially for this reason, IAD did not in fact become more active.35 Rather, it established a system that allows district supervisors, rather than IAD, to investigate most complaints. Therefore, supervisors who work closely with an accused officer must decide whether he or she committed an abuse, and if the supervisor acknowledges abusive behavior, this may reflect poorly on his or her own leadership and training skills. It would appear that such a system inherently favors officers and removes impartiality from investigations. During a 1996 interview with Inspector Lloyd L. Coward, Jr. of IAD, he disagreed with this negative assessment and told Human Rights Watch that local investigating is desirable because supervisors and officers know each other best.36 Coward stated that, if there is a lot of publicity, IAD handles excessive force cases, rather than referring them todistricts for investigations. Noting that CCRB no longer exists, the city's corporation counsel provided his assessment of the way the MPD handles citizen complaints, "Currently, there is an informal process within the Department for handling these [citizen] kinds of complaints."37
The changeover from CCRB to IAD left a number of pending complaint cases - possibly several hundred - shrouded in secrecy. IAD's Inspector Coward was unable or unwilling to provide information to us about the status of the CCRB complaints, or where the board's files as a whole ended up. He suggested Human Rights Watch file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for this information and other basic guidelines about how the department handles complaints. A FOIA request was sent in September 1996 and acknowledged on October 2, 1996 but remained unanswered as of May 1998. In an undated letter to a community activist, received in September 1996, IAD provided some information about the CCRB complaints, reporting that of the 824 transferred complaints, 246 were categorized as priority 1 (excessive force requiring medical attention). The lesser priorities included 334 complaints of excessive force not requiring medical treatment, 229 complaints of harassment and/or demeaning language, and fourteen that were not within CCRB jurisdiction (one complaint was not accounted for). In earlier correspondence in response to an advocacy group, IAD reported that of the 824 complaints, 232 had been investigated and resolved, with just seven sustained - a very low 3 percent sustained rate for investigated cases.38 A letter of prejudice was issued in three sustained cases, an official reprimand issued in two cases, and suspensions (length not defined) were ordered in two cases.39 IAD reported 184 new citizen complaints between January and September 1996, including fifty-five of excessive force, with the 4th and 7th district officers the subjects of thirty of the excessive force cases.
IAD's system for the intake of complaints is imperfect. Complaint forms are only in English, but the U.S. State Department reportedly assists the department when it needs interpreting. Attorneys in police abuse cases claim that officers attempt to dissuade individuals attempting to file complaints.
IAD Inspector Coward stated that complaints have little impact on promotions, but they do affect assignments so that if someone has a history of complaints, he or she will not be assigned to "sensitive" units. The department does have an "early warning system" to identify officers who are the subject of several complaints. The tracking is done by a separate office, the Office of Audit and Compliance. If, during a two-year period, three or more sustained or not sustained complaints have been lodged against an officer, a report is sent to the district commander or supervisor, who is asked to provide an evaluation before any action is proposed for dealing with the officer.40 Supervisors may consider civil lawsuits against the officer, but IAD does not initiate an investigation when it learns of a civil suit against an officer alleging excessive force or other serious misconduct. Moreover, IAD will not investigate a complaint made with its office if a civil lawsuit is pending.41
Domestic violence is an area where IAD has been reluctant to tread, although it is clearly a problem for the MPD. One IAD representative interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that IAD was not involved in investigating domestic violence complaints against police officers, and that those allegations are handled by district command. This is because, as Inspector Coward explained, "It's usually a one-time incident."42 IAD only handles long-term, "serious" violations, said Coward, apparently considering alleged domestic battery a minor issue.43
A 1996 investigative report in the Washington City Paper, however, underscored the fact that domestic violence was a problem on the force, and raised serious doubts about the department's interest in dealing with officers who are abusive at home.44 According to that report, victims of domestic abuse at the hands of police officers were left with nowhere to turn to report the incident and were often intimidated out of pursuing cases against their boyfriends or husbands.
Some examples were provided in the same report. One officer who allegedly beat his girlfriend in July 1994 was not arrested or reported because a lieutenant on the scene ordered no charges be filed, according to an officer present. The officer reportedly remained on the force, working in the 1st District. He reportedly told his girlfriend, "I'm blue, baby....All cops stick together."45
In another case, MPD Officer George Batista allegedly beat his girlfriend severely in May 1994.46 The Maryland state's attorney charged him with felony counts of assault, but his girlfriend backed down and tried to drop the charges. Because the police in Prince George's County, where the incident had occurred, did a good investigation with photographs and other evidence, the prosecutor went ahead with the case without the victim, who ended up marrying Batista. Batista was convicted, but his attorneys argued for a new trial; the judge then dismissed the convictions, and the state declined to retry the case. After Batista was dismissed, fellow officers campaigned to get him reinstated. Citing the deputy chief who was not fired for allegedly abusive behavior, lawyers argued that Batista should get his job back.47
Incidents of violence against women have also been alleged in off-duty sexual assaults. In 1997, for example, an MPD sergeant was arrested for allegedly beating a woman in nearby Anne Arundel County, then binding her arms and legs with duct tape before raping her.48 MPD officers arrested the sergeant on charges of being a fugitive from justice in Maryland. He later reportedly pleaded not guilty to charges in Anne Arundel County of first- and second-degree rape, first- and second-degree sexual offense and second-degree assault.49
At the time of this writing, an MPD officer faces second-degree rape charges for allegedly having sexual relations with a thirteen-year-old girl.50 The officer wasplaced on administrative leave when the MPD first learned of the allegations a month prior to his indictment in a nearby county where a majority of the incidents took place. According to initial reports, the MPD did not report the allegations to the police department in the nearby county; investigators there learned of the allegations through a social service agency instead.51
In September 1997, Chief Soulsby announced a comprehensive review of domestic violence complaints against members of the force.52 Soulsby stated that he would fire any officer who had pleaded guilty or been convicted in a domestic violence case - he also threatened to fire officers who were accused but not criminally charged, acquitted, or whose cases were dismissed. At the time of his announcement, approximately eighteen officers were suspended pending disciplinary hearings related to domestic violence, and MPD sources told a reporter that at least one hundred officers had been accused of domestic violence in the past. In a welcome, if belated, acknowledgment of this issue, Soulsby stated, "[D]omestic violence is one of [the department's] worst behavioral problems."53 There were still those who resisted addressing the issue, however. Fraternal Order of Police labor committee chairman for the MPD, Ron Robertson stated, "[I]f you went around firing all the people who did it, nobody would have a job...What other profession do you know that [people] get fired for beating their wives?"54
As in many other cities' police forces, lack of cooperation from police officers involved in incidents under investigation is part of the MPD culture. In a fatal 1994 shooting, Detective Roosevelt Askew shot motorist Sutoria Moore and alleged that he fired because he feared another officer, Sgt. William Middleton, would be run over by Moore's car. Middleton backed him up and the officers were not disciplined. An assistant U.S. attorney allegedly uncovered evidence discrediting their story, however, and Askew agreed to plead guilty to making a false statement and to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation into the alleged coverupinvolving other officers from the 7th District, as well as the conduct of homicide detectives who determined that the shooting was justified.55
In court documents filed in July 1997, Askew (who retired shortly after the July 1994 shooting) admitted he lied about what had taken place and said that the motorist posed no immediate threat of harm, but that his gun accidentally discharged.56 In September 1997, Middleton pleaded guilty to making a false statement in the case, and agreed to resign.57 In January 1998, a federal judge placed Askew on probation for two years and fined him $5,000.
26 Mayor Barry was caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine and was convicted on misdemeanor charges in 1990. And former police Chief Soulsby was caught on audiotape reportedly promising the head of the homicide squad a choice assignment if he would agree not to oppose Soulsby at the chief's confirmation hearings.
33 Avis Thomas-Lester, "D.C. reverses suspension of police commander," Washington Post, July 24, 1995. Avis Thomas-Lester, "Police official calls demotion political," Washington Post, December 2, 1996. The city's Office of Human Rights told Human Rights Watch that, as of April 1998, the woman's complaint against the police department was still pending.
39 Ibid. A letter of prejudice is described as "a written notice to a member outlining specific unsatisfactory job performance or conduct." An official reprimand is a "formal written censor for specific unsatisfactory performance or conduct."
40 It should be noted that, as of August 1997, officers in the MPD did not receive written performance evaluations, meaning that recording abuse complaints or civil lawsuits may have little effect on the subject officer's personnel records. Cheryl W. Thompson, "Progress, problems mark D.C. police overhaul," Washington Post, August 25, 1997.
52 A new federal law bars convicted domestic abuser, including police officers, from possessing firearms. Avis Thomas-Lester, "D.C. police to rid ranks of spouse abusers," Washington Post, September 10, 1997.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch