WAPO: Excessive force not a problem in the D.C. police force, but issues remain

January 28, 2016

Appeared in Washington Post
January 28 at 10:30 AM
By Peter Hermann

Nearly a decade after the Justice Department ended its oversight of D.C. police, the use of excessive force and shootings by officers have remained low and have “not reemerged as a problem,” according to an independent report made public Thursday.

The police force, according to the review commissioned by D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson, “is plainly a very different, and much better, law enforcement agency” than it was when federal authorities in 1999 began investigating fatal shootings by officers. At the time, the department had the highest rate among large cities in the nation.

“There is no evidence that the [police department] has an excessive use-of-force problem,” said Michael R. Bromwich, who oversaw the review and had served as the court-appointed monitor overseeing the consent decree with the Justice Department that expired in 2008. “Bottom line is that the reforms are still in place, and they continue to be managed by people who still care for them.”

The report did find fault with the police department, however, identifying what it called “significant shortcomings” that were procedural and substantive. Those include concerns about the way some internal investigations were conducted and about the merger of an elite squad that handled probes of shootings by officers into a larger unit.

The report cites several instances in which investigations were incomplete, including cases where detectives failed to follow up on discrepancies between accounts of officers and questionable tactics that went unexamined. “We do think the quality of the use-of-force investigator has declined,” Bromwich said a news conference.

Police disputed or sought to correct many parts of the report and said their investigations have not declined in quality. The department said in a written response that the agency “remains a leader in the field of use-of-force investigations. The investigations conducted by [internal affairs] from 2008 to the present have investigative substance and are based on sound investigative principles.”

But overall, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier called the review “very satisfying to us” and said it proved other police agencies now facing similar oversight by the Justice Department can emerge as better police departments.

The report, titled “The durability of police reform,” comes at a time when law enforcement is under increased scrutiny across the country for tactics and use of deadly force. Many departments are implementing reforms that mirror those the District was forced to undertake years ago, and prosecutors are increasingly criminally charging officers for deadly shootings.

Bromwich and Patterson said the just-completed review marks the first time a police agency that had been under federal oversight has been examined to determine if any of the reforms remain. Bromwich said the District’s success shows that reform can work “not only for the police departments that are under siege, but for the communities that they serve.”

Lanier, a 26-year veteran who became chief in 2007, said that in the 1990s, the District and the police force had little money. She said the binding agreement with federal authorities to repair the department forced government to pour in money.

“Once we signed that agreement, the city had to back the police department,” the chief said. She added that on Friday she will be working with other police chiefs across the country on new rules governing use of force that could become a new standard. Lanier also has begun a program designed to identify and root out problem officers and has implemented body-worn cameras to increase accountability.

The Metropolitan Police Department came under scrutiny in 1999 after The Washington Post published a series called “Deadly Force,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for public service that year. In addition to the Justice Department review, the police chief ordered new firearms training for all 3,500 officers.

The report published Thursday says that since that time, intentional discharges of weapons — 28 in 2001, 30 in 2004 and 31 in 2007 — have declined to seven in 2010, nine in 2012 and 15 in 2015. Since 2009, the report says, the number of fatal shootings by police has remained relatively constant, between three and eight each year.

Other types of force used by officers — such as batons and tactical takedowns — were difficult to track because of changes in policy and reporting requirements. But the report found “no evidence of any significant or sustained increase in any category of use of force employed by MPD officers.”

The report found fault with Lanier’s decision in 2012 to merge the Force Investigation Team, called FIT, which had exclusively reviewed police-involved shootings and serious uses of force, into the internal affairs division, citing among other factors a diminished workload because of the fewer shootings by officers.

Police responded that the auditors drew “broad conclusions regarding the quality” of internal investigations “based on a review of handful of cases.” It defended merging its elite force investigation squad into internal affairs, saying detectives were exceptionally trained.

The report recommended that the internal affairs division assign specialists to handle such complex cases.

The report authors singled out for review three police-involved shootings. In one, they said that while agreeing that shooting was justified, they said detectives failed to reconcile inconsistencies in the reasons officers gave for chasing the man hey had shot. The report also found that there were discrepancies between written summaries of interviews and tape recordings, and said a use-of-force review board made no “serious effort to conduct a tactical analysis” of the officers’ actions.

The reviewers also said they were troubled at what the report called an inordinate length of time to investigate use-of-force cases, noting inquiries typically took more than 19 months to complete. The report says that based on information from prosecutors, “there has never been a criminal prosecution of an on-duty MPD officer arising from an officer-involved shooting.”

Auditors said authorities should find a way to speed up inquiries or overlap administrative and criminal reviews, which can be difficult given the different legal requirements of both. Officers, for example, can’t be compelled to give statements until after the criminal investigation is complete.

Auditors put some of the blame on prosecutors, who said the report oversimplifies the complexities of the cases, the difficulties in completing forensic testing and the large workload of their office, which deals with many police agencies aside from the District’s.

The U.S. attorney’s office for the District said Thursday that prosecutors review more than 100 police use-of-force incidents each year, and must often wait for different agencies to complete parts of the probed before they can assemble all the investigative pieces.