Police Negligence Charged in Shooting Aftermath on Capitol Hill: Are Morale Problems Plaguing the MPD?

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.


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12 responses to “Police Negligence Charged in Shooting Aftermath on Capitol Hill: Are Morale Problems Plaguing the MPD?

  1. marybindc

    Commander Hickson is part of the problem, and the sole reason I stopped going to those crime meetings (which seem to be more frequent). Given that he was dismissive of resident information and flat-out lied about some crimes, I figured there was no reason to count on him. I’m not surprised his toxic attitude is spreading to other 1D officers.

    The subject of a raise for officers is a tough one for me. If a raise would improve morale – and not having a raise since 2007 is really criminal – then let’s do it. I say take the money we were going to use for additional officers and give raises to the ones we have instead. On the other hand, you don’t want to reward bad behavior.

  2. I. Rex

    This is outrageous conduct by the police and sadly it gibes with my own experience with MPD in trying to report a hit and run property damage to my vehicle to a disinterested nearby police officer. Not only does the officer need to be punished for this, the MPD needs to address its culture of laziness and negligence in these situations.

  3. A M Holbrook

    I did not contact the police to file a report and have the EMTs come but this did happen. After the info from the report was given to the new Congressional Cemetery director, he stated that I had lied about what happened. I was bit by a dog three times, one bite breaking the skin. The dog’s owner was kept walking at Congressional Cemetery and I was threatened about returning again.
    I was directed by my doctor to get a tetanus shot.I got a copy of the police report and it was inaccurate. I contacted the assistant chief and Lt. and was told that the report has been submitted and approved by the supervisor–no changes. I don’t feel confident of a police report being accurate and hope that I never have one thrust upon me again.

  4. CapHill Resident

    It is a pervasive and ongoing problem with the MPD. In April of 2009 I was brutally assaulted by two teens while walking on the sidewalk in front of Jenkins Row, in broad daylight. The teens ran into Potomac Gardens afterwards, which I reported to the police. There was never any follow up on their part, I was never contacted again, and this crime never showed up on the official lists or crime maps afterwards. It was only later, after these same types of assaults starting happening even more frequently in exactly the same area, that MPD made any move to crack down on them.

  5. HillJoe

    Add me to this list. When my nice, brand new bike was stolen from my back yard on S. Carolina Ave about 18 months ago by thieves who came over my locked fence and then cut a serious cable to get the bike, I finally called the DC police (which I did not do for my three other bike thefts, as I’ve never had a postive experience with DC cops). Someone took my information over the phone but I pushed and pushed for an officer to be sent to my house. Finally, she agreed to send someone. When the cop arrived, he was bizarrely dismissive and pretty much said that these thefts are what I get for living on the Hill. He several times told me that he instead lives in Fairfax County. Oh well, at least I’d managed to get a cop to come and see the cut cable and take a full report. Or so I thought! About a month later, when I learned I may be able to get a refund via my credit card benefits, I was told I needed a police report of the theft. But, when I tried to get the report, I learned there was no such report! The officer either had not filed it, or the precinct had tossed it. Either way, I believe the combination of lazy DC cops and a perverse system that rewards them lying about actual crimes to make them look better in statistics results in a lot of Capitol Hill crime never being reported or acknowledged. (Suffice to say, I didn’t bother reporting the next bike that got stolen.)

  6. June

    I agree that Hickson is a problem. I don’t ask that every patrol officer or detective be a genius, but command should be competent and motivated. He seems like neither.

  7. Johnson

    My girlfriend and I were robbed at gunpoint near our house in Capitol Hill about a year ago. The first three cops that came over were attentive and helpful, but were waiting for the “detective” that would actually take our case. He had no interest in working and just wanted to make idle chit chat about bbq and what restaurant bars he goes to. In the meantime, I was calling up my credit card company, which told me the robbers just tried to use my credit card at a gas station. I told the detective he may want to go there, and he basically replied, “what good would that do?” I told him there might be video, and he said that he’d check into it tomorrow. Then I e-mailed him two weeks later and asked him whether he found anything. His response was: “I’m going to go to the gas station to see if there is a video tomorrow.” Never heard anything from him again. That’s when I learned that the kids are going to have guns in our neighborhood and rob people, and if they aren’t caught in the act, the police are not going to investigate it.

  8. 8th Street

    The MPD successfully used intimidation to talk my cousin out of reporting a domestic abuse situation (berating the victim and threatening take her to jail and rape her). They tried a similar tactic on me and my roommate when we were burglarized in SW; I knew they had no grounds to arrest us, but a lot of people would rather drop the case than face terrifying threats from the police. I wonder what the crime stats really would be if this sort of thing wasn’t going on with such frequency.

  9. Observant Citizen

    Kudos to Capitol Hill Corner for shining a bright light on what has been a problem off and on with MPD for the 40+ years we’ve on Capitol Hill. Let me point out the obvious: If law-abiding citizens who are the victims of crime or witnesses to it do not trust officers to take their jobs seriously, do we think the criminals are likely to believe they will be aggressively pursued? I believe hiring new officers is not the answer; improved workforce management and deployment of existing forces are necessary. If those improvements still are insufficient to apprehend criminals and reduce street crime, then taxpayers should consider increasing the size of the force. Given that we have one of the highest officer citizen ratios in the country, I would think Chief Lanier and her management team would be looking around the country and learning from the most effective forces.

  10. Bobbi Krengel

    Thank you, CHC, for your usual careful and insightful muckraking. The answer to all your questions is yes.
    I share the same experience which is showing itself to be universal.
    I have called 911 on a number of occasions, only to be met with contemptuous attitudes followed by sending officers to the wrong locations despite painstaking efforts to make location and direction clear to them. When officers would finally report their failure to discover anything, I would tell them they had been misdirected, and I could see them biting their tongues in frustration. When I added in the contemptuousness and dismissiveness of the dispatchers, they have said “we get it too”.

    After years of participating in PSAs and precursors through multiple moniker changes (anybody remember the Beats?), I, too, have given up on community meetings on crime that pop up in response, fatigued and offended by being lectured once again on what I can do to protect myself; when I am not the one being trained and paid to protect me; nor is the knee-jerk political posturing helpful.
    The problem is endemic and epidemic. It goes from top to bottom, from crooks at the Wilson Building and their corrupt lobbyists to ANC commissioners who, based on nothing more than a simple check of their own lights, feel entitled to vote their own personal preferences over those of their constituents; to community members who never bother to avail themselves of the facts before jumping in to lower the level of debate with personal attacks and name-calling, effectively modeling bullying for the easily-influenced to copy.
    We need to support and demand integrity and accountability.
    Respectfully submitted–
    Bobbi Krengel

  11. Meisje van Belgie

    Good God, why has it taken so long for this unfortunate story to reach the general public here on the Hill? I was one of two “civilian” pedestrians who, at about 3:45-3:50 on January 26, encountered the witness who, rain-drenched and hatless, was talking earnestly to a D.C. fireman and (I think) an EMS person about the car crashing into the fence in the alley and the story of the pursuit and lack of action by MPD.
    About a week after this incident, I wrote identical letters about it, and about the go-to-hell response of the D.C. cop, in the cruiser.to Cathy Lanier, Diane Groomes, and Daniel Hickson. I never received a reply from any of them.
    There has been a notable deterioration in the quality of services from all agencies of the DC. government since the glorious ascendancy of Mr. Gray as mayor. Perhaps an increasingly disengaged attitude on the part of the MPD is just part and parcel of this. A third-rate, disengaged performance is good enough. It’s only the D.C. taxpaying citizens, after all…………