Police Negligence Charged in Shooting Aftermath on Capitol Hill: Are Morale Problems Plaguing the MPD?
by Larry Janezich
A little after 3:00 pm on December 26, 2012, suspects in a stolen vehicle riddled their targeted victim at 14th and K Streets, SE, with fifteen bullets and then fled the scene. Moments later, the suspects turned the car into an alley on Capitol Hill and hit a standing wall.
A witness who heard the crash viewed the suspects from a distance and observed them taking flight. The witness gave chase, but, unable to keep visual contact, did not actually encounter the four men involved until the park between Pennsylvania Avenue and D Street and 8th and 9th Street, SE.
In the foot chase that followed, the witness observed the four going underground to the Eastern Market Metro Station. The witness then stopped pursuit and ran to a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) vehicle parked on the small triangle outside of Dunkin’ Doughnuts at 8th and Pennsylvania. It was raining and cold, and the witness had to knock on the window to get the attention of the officer seated in inside. According to the witness and a subsequent complaint filed, the conversation proceeded as follows:
“Officer, a bunch of young guys just stole a car and crashed it. They ran into the Metro. If you come down with me, I can finger them for you.”
The officer, who was filling out paperwork and was likely ending his shift, replied, “Go down yourself. I’m busy.”
“But officer, I’m unarmed. I don’t even know if these guys are armed.”
“Get the Metro Transit Police if you’re scared.”
Once it was clear that the officer had no intention of getting out of the car, the witness left him and went down into the Metro alone. After a brief conversation with the Metro manager on duty, who said no transit police were in the station at that time, the witness returned to ground level and made a note of the squad car number of the officer who had refused assistance.
Only later did the witness discover that the men in question were wanted in connection with the shooting at 14th and K, SE. The witness filed a complaint with the MPD several days later, after no arrests had been made in the case.
For complaints other than excessive use of force, the MPD’s review process is entirely internal and conducted through Internal Affairs. The witness/complainant sat for an interview with MPD in mid-January, and stressed the importance of obtaining Metro video which would clearly show the witness/complainant entering and exiting the Metro station alone.
Days later, at a PSA 108 meeting which CaptitolHillCorner attended, an MPD officer provided an account of the shooting contrary to the facts as indicated by the witness/complainant. After providing information that could be used to locate a house where the witness lived – inaccurate information, as it turned out – the MPD officer went on to say that the witness/complainant had successfully located a police officer in the Metro, and he made no mention of the refusal of service. It was uncertain why the officer chose to reveal the information about the witness, and it was unclear why the officer made it sound as though the MPD had acted appropriately that day.
There are other problems with the MPD handling of this case. CaptitolHillCorner attended a public safety meeting the night before the PSA 108 meeting. At that meeting, officials of the MPD, including Chief Lanier, described the investigation into this case. The accounts provided on the two consecutive nights differed in several aspects, including the number of suspects in custody and whether any had been charged. On the second night, when asked if any of these developments had transpired in the previous 24 hours, the MPD officer providing the briefing said “no.” When CapitolHillCorner contacted the MPD to clarify the details and to confirm the information that had been given at these public meetings, officials of the MPD requested that the blog refrain from publishing details disclosed to the public at these meetings.
Does the MPD Have an Attitude Problem?
Widespread reports of the study by Human Rights Watch that accused the MPD of dissuading victims of sexual assault to file charges have been met by Chief Lanier with sharp rebuttals, including her insistence that anecdotal accounts of appalling behavior by detectives or officers are isolated and not in line with the character of her department.
But message boards and listservs discussing the Human Rights Watch study have included numerous anecdotes in line with a culture of dismissiveness toward DC citizens who wish or need to file a crime report. Though not as serious as the allegations in the cases of sexual assault, other examples traded among neighbors and friends in recent days confirm that police officers can and have discouraged the filing of police reports in the cases of property crime, and sometimes they have flatly declined to do so.
While few anecdotes aired reach the level of contemptuousness reported by the witness/complainant for 12/26, it is clear that one of the biggest problems facing Chief Lanier in the sexual assault debacle is that many residents recognize the MPD attitude of dismissiveness described in the report.
What Accounts for the Attitude Problem?
It’s possible that the pattern of dissuading citizens from filing reports can be traced to an informal policy of the MPD to keep crime numbers as low as possible. If so, then the MPD’s current tack could be viewed as a strategy either of management or of workers trying to appease management, roughly analogous to teacher-abetted cheating on school exams. Viewers of the television series, “The Wire,” for example, will be familiar with COMPSTAT, or the practice of police management that focuses on upward or downward trends in crime statistics and rewards officers and police districts accordingly.
Another possibility is that police officers can be just plain lazy. This explanation at least provides a context for understanding the behavior of the patrol officer on 12/26, but it seems imperfect at best. Officers know that, inevitably, they will be called upon to file police reports, so their resistance to doing so has to be seen at least as somewhat strategic – discouraging certain reports over others.
Finally, another possibility is that the entire MPD is suffering from a deep morale problem. MPD officers have not had a cost of living raise or a compensation raise since 2007. They have not had a collective bargaining agreement since 2008. Mayor Fenty delegated negotiation of contracts to Chief Lanier, most likely in an attempt to shore up her ability to manage and execute her priorities. That authority expired last April and Lanier signed a new five year $1.2 million contract last year which did not contain that authority.
Federal workers familiar with stagnant salaries can understand how work performance suffers, though few (if any) would defend jeopardizing public safety as a result. And it would be too much to claim that officers and detectives of the MPD are engaged in an unannounced and informal job action to protest the failure to sign a new contract. But it is not too much to suggest that the deep morale problems that seem to pervade the department are in part the result of this failure.
Is the Attitude Problem Affecting Service Delivery?
Capitol Hill is in the midst of a crime wave, though its exact duration and dimensions cannot be determined yet, owing to a technical transition in how the police compile statistics and the delay that this transition has caused.
Obviously the refusal of the officer on 12/26 alleged by the witness/complainant imperils public safety. The suspects who remained at large that day have turned up in other crimes – including as a victim, as the MPD claims that one of the four suspects was subsequently a homicide victim.
Does the MPD’s more typical lackadaisical attitude undermine public safety? It is impossible to know the answer to this question, though it seems reasonable to assume that the MPD is less effective in thwarting crime if it does not have an accurate picture of it in the first place. The police union has gone on record disputing the figures cited by police officials to illustrate that city-wide crime has gone down.
In the face of the crime spike, many Capitol Hill residents have gravitated toward a solution put forward by Councilmember Tommy Wells and, more recently, Council Chair Phil Mendelson: hire more cops.
It is unclear what this will accomplish. First and most obvious, the MPD at 3,900 officers already has the highest ratio of cops to citizens in the country – a fact that has been true for a long time. MPD traditionally points to the extraordinary number of events – like the inauguration – to justify its size, but these claims must also take the number of auxiliary forces in the area (Park Police, Capitol Police) into account as well. Even in the face of events that drain staff, the MPD has a lot of cops. Second, according to Council Chair Mendelson, new hires have been requested in order to beef up police presence in some dozen “hot spots” detailed in a new crime report that has gone to – or will shortly go to – the city council from Lanier. It is unclear what kind of difference these new cops will make regarding crime committed on residential streets. Third, it goes without saying that new cops will not make any sort of difference if they sit in their cars as violent crime unfolds around them. Finally, these new cops will not be on the streets for some time, so even if new hires represent some kind of solution, it is not a resolution of the current crime wave on Capitol Hill.
It is highly unlikely that there is one “solution” to the crime affecting the neighborhood. But it does seem clear that the MPD can and should elevate its conversation with the public. It can and should: 1) insure that officers respond to requests for assistance, even if it’s raining; 2) file each and every crime report; 3) tell the public more about its strategies; and provide information at public meetings that can be backed up and confirmed by the MPD Public Information Office.
At the January 16 Public Safety meeting, Chief Lanier alluded to a policing strategy that appears to be hot-spot policing, focusing on those locations where crime recurs. But this is only a guess – and one that, if true, requires taking greater account of the need for patrol and police response in residential neighborhoods. It’s possible that neighborhoods could benefit from other strategies. Some of these include gun-intensive enforcement – prioritizing those crimes in which a gun was used; disorder policing – as New York City did under Mayor Giuliani where even little crimes were pursued with vigor (there are a lot of stolen packages in this neighborhood that the MPD should be more serious about); or community policing – where the police look to shore up relations with the community because it is usually the community that produces the most important information about crime (why do we encounter so much indifference from the police)? It is safe to assume that we have all heard the lecture about using smartphones in public; some listen, and some don’t. The police are not wrong to repeat this lecture time and again, but do they have anything else to say?
So far the police have had nothing to say about their actions on 12/26 or its aftermath. Requests for comment on either police negligence on that day or the false information provided to the public about that day have met with the same response: both matters “are currently under investigation.” The witness/complainant told me that despite an initiative taken by the witness/complainant, First District Commander Hickson has not reached out to discuss any of these matters or apologize for the alleged actions of officers under his command.