Reserve Officer Matthew LeFande can almost tell a war story like a real cop.
On foot patrol this past March, LeFande says, he spotted a guy fitting the description of an alleged coke dealer working the 2200 block of P Street NW: “Gray sweat suit, black stripe, black cap. He sees me. You can see the look in his eye. He takes off.” The possible perp, a husky white guy in his late 20s, hustled north on 22nd Street. LeFande followed.
At Massachusetts Avenue, the suspect turned east toward Dupont Circle, with LeFande right behind him. “The guy steps out for a cab,” LeFande recalls. “I come up to the guy, put my hand on his arm. ‘Come on, buddy.’”
At that point, LeFande says, a police sergeant drove up. LeFande ordered the suspect to put his hands up against the cruiser. From there, as LeFande tells it, things went downhill:
“What are you doing?” the sergeant asked. “What are you doing out here alone?”
“Can we get this guy secured first?” LeFande asked.
“No,” the sergeant said. “We’re going to talk about this right now.”
“Can we get the guy secured first?” LeFande pleaded.
The two continued to argue until, finally, the suspect turned around from the cruiser. “Yeah, Sarge,” he said, “what is he doing out here by himself?”
A real cop’s story doesn’t usually end with the perp snagging the best line. But LeFande isn’t a real cop. For 10 years, he’s been a volunteer reserve officer for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Reserve cops don’t go after coke dealers. Reserve cops don’t question real sergeants.
LeFande, 36, has trouble seeing it that way. His rule is straightforward: If he sees bad guys doing bad things, he does something. So he has lots of these stories, stories that document a single plot line: Reserves are forever rookies.
LeFande is a particularly active rookie. He keeps a tally of the arrests that he can remember: 235. He’s got a list of the perps’ names, dates of their offenses, and their charges. There are stick-up men, crack dealers, disorderlies, drunk drivers, underage drinkers. Several police officials, reserve and otherwise, say that LeFande has made more arrests than a lot of paid cops, that he’s “brilliant,” the “poster boy” for the reserves.
And that’s just where the problems begin. In the department’s playbook, the reserve officer exists to fill in along parade routes and suck up busywork at the district stationsin short, to do everything except the glory work of policing.
The reserve’s job description never suited LeFande, who has always wanted to be considered a real cop, complete with the tools of the trade and the power of arrest. According to one police higher-up, the department has viewed him as “John Wayne without a gun.” Of course, this official notes, “most [officers] think he carries a gun anyway.”
LeFande’s frontier mentality has twice gotten him fired from his volunteer job. The first incident occurred in 1996, when an off-duty LeFande arrested a man caught with a gun after a traffic accident.
Then, in 2002, LeFande attended to a cop-on-cop traffic accident. He was terminated outright for allegedly flouting general orders.
So LeFande, a lawyer by trade, compiled his stories and tucked them into a 51-page, 300-plus-paragraph civil complainthis secondagainst the District and various police officials. The suit is pending. But his job status is not. On Oct. 10, MPD Chief Charles H. Ramsey reinstated the reserve.
LeFande, who lives in Arlington, has volunteered with D.C.’s Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health, and has even been a volunteer prosecutor with the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel. He has been certified as an emergency medical technician and as a firearms instructor. But to him, nothing compares with being an unpaid cop.
“People are sitting at home watching CSI or Homicide. We’re out there doing it,” says LeFande. “You felt real.”
LeFande made fake detective by the time he was 9 years old, when his great-uncle, one of several relatives who were cops, gave the boy his real New York City detective’s badge. Little LeFande wore it around on his shirt until his family thought better of the idea and took the shield back. But the fascination of the shiny badge and his rough-and-tumble relatives stuck. “Cops just seemed cool,” he says.
The fascination lingered. One night during his college days at George Washington University, LeFande found himself in Adams Morgan and in the presence of a reserve cop. He noticed the man’s badge first. It wasn’t like a real cop’s badge. It was a crappy badgewhat he and his fellow reserves, he says, would call the “crossing-guard badge.” Still, he asked the reserve about his volunteer gigthe weekend hours, the responsibility of street policing, the beat. He walked away hooked. “I’m like, Man, that rocks,” LeFande says. “I could be a cop.”
He had already tried. LeFande had applied to several area departments, including the MPD and Metro Transit Police. They had all rejected him, despite his forceful appeals.
So LeFande enlisted for volunteer duty. According to police and court records, he was sworn in on Sept. 23, 1993, after graduating from the police academy with the highest grade-point average in his class. He was sent to the 3rd District, which patrols such busy neighborhoods as Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan. He chose to work the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift Fridays and Saturdays. If he missed out on a social life, it didn’t matter as long as he was where the action was.
Before he could cuff his first disorderly, LeFande needed a department-issue radio. It wasn’t unusual, he says, for him to be sent out of the station house without one.
Working Howard University’s homecoming in 1993, LeFande positioned himself perfectly, finding a spot along Georgia Avenue next to a fellow reserve equipped with a radio. He could stand and eavesdrop. “A call comes outthree black Jeeps are coming down Georgia Avenue and all the occupants are armed,” he remembers.
Soon enough, LeFande saw the three Jeeps coming right toward his position. “I said to the guy, the officer with me, ‘Get on the radio and tell them the Jeeps are right here,’” LeFande says.
But LeFande’s fellow reserve froze.
“‘Come on, man. Tell them,’” LeFande urged.
The Jeeps drove by and made a right onto V Street. They were getting away, and still his radio man was mute. “I grab the radio out of his hand, start running down the street, giving the lookout,” LeFande says. “I’m running with the radio. I’m yelling, ‘I’ve got the cars in my sight! Here’s the tag number!’”
Police cars rushed down 8th Street, and everybody swarmed those Jeeps. LeFande and the others recovered five guns from the vehicles. All the occupants were arrested.
#Tired of being left out of the loop, LeFande spent $400 for his own Motorola radio. He promptly got hassled for it. Where did you get this? Whose radio is this? And the admonishment that would trail LeFande throughout his career: That’s not really authorized. A few times, a sergeant attempted to take the radio from him and give it to a paid officer.
The radio became LeFande’s best partner. On July 11, 1994, LeFande chased down a suspected car thief. They ended up alone in the hallway of an apartment on the 1400 block of Chapin Street NW. In the pursuit, LeFande somehow broke his left leg. But after the suspect started wrestling him to the floor, the reserve still managed to pin the guy down. “By the time I got him handcuffed, my toe is trying to touch my kneecap,” he says. But he had used his radio to call for backup, and help arrived before the suspect discovered that LeFande had only one good leg.
LeFande had a metal rod surgically inserted into his leg. It took him four months to walk again. He now walks with a limp. The incident earned him a commendation from the chiefand only fueled his drive. He got himself certified as an EMT, as a member of the MPD’s Civil Disturbance Unit, and as a chemical-breath-test technician.
LeFande was quick to use the training. On May 31, 1996, while off-duty, LeFande heard an urgent call come over his radio: Police were chasing a stolen auto. “Then they had a big crackup at 3rd and K SE, and they started calling for help,” he remembers. “Four people injured. Very seriously injured.”
The car thieves had gunned their stolen Cadillac through an intersection, slamming into a tiny sedan carrying FBI agents on their way to lunch. The Cadillac had T-boned the agents’ sedan; FBI Agent Courtney VanOsten had taken the brunt of the impact. LeFande figured that the ambulance wouldn’t be able to handle all the wounded. “I drove down there,” he says. “I was sort of headed in that direction anyway.”
When LeFande arrived, VanOsten lay on the pavement, surrounded by police officers. She wasn’t breathing. The reserve grabbed his medical bag. “The [cops] weren’t doing anythingthey were just looking at her,” he remembers. “Just the look in their faces: Oh my God, here’s somebody that can do something.”
LeFande went to work administering CPR. “She had a collapsed lung,” he says. “If you don’t get to breathe, then the rest of it doesn’t matter. That’s where you start.”
The ambulance went to the wrong address, so LeFande had to keep the agent breathing for 22 minutes. Without his trusty radio, LeFande says, VanOsten wouldn’t have lived.
Of LeFande’s work, VanOsten says, “I was thrilled, obviously. Glad he was there. Since I wasn’t conscious at all during the time and nobody else was therethere was no other paramediche may very well have [saved my life].”
On Sept. 30, 1996, LeFande received a commendation from then-FBI Director Louis Freeh for his work at the crash scene. The plaque sits in LeFande’s basement, along with a photo of the reserve officer in action. It was the highest honor his radio ever earned him.
And it came only a few months after the radio earned LeFande his first termination. On June 27, 1996, LeFande stopped to assist three motorists involved in a car accident on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. He was quickly told that one of them had a gun. The suspect admitted that he had the pistol and that it was tucked under the front seat.
LeFande found the weapon, a loaded .38, and used his radio to call for assistance. After the arrest, the reserve volunteered to do the paperwork. The paid cops said sure. After writing up his reports at the 1st District station, signing himself as the arresting officer, he presented the documents to police officials.
They signed off on them. But when LeFande went back later, he got a surprise. The nighthawk on duty that night, then-Capt. Ethel Jones, claimed that making an arrest for the offense at hand didn’t fall under the reserve’s authority. LeFande responded by citing regulations that appeared to back him up. Not a good move.
Jones promptly asked for his badge and ID. LeFande says he later heard that police officials were considering charging him with impersonating a police officer and with possession of the .38. Instead, they fired him.
“I don’t remember the facts of the case as we speak,” Jones says now. “God, that was a long time ago. If I initiated an investigation, I would have to see what [the details] were. I don’t recall the facts of it all.”
LeFande sued the department, citing a lack of due process. While his termination was being finalized, the U.S. Park Police rejected an application he had previously put in with the agency. Its March 1997 letter cited his expulsion from the MPD reserves.
The city settled LeFande’s case, paving the way for his return to active volunteer duty that summer. In no time, the policing enthusiast was back to making arrests. “He had more arrests than the average officer working five days a week,” says Reserve Lt. Reginald Winter.
LeFande also became a cheerleader for his fellow reservists. He invented a computer program reserves could access from his Web site that would automate arrest paperwork. And when he realized that the new reserves under his supervision were not issued radios, he went and found radios no one wanted. They were old and brokenbig, heavy hand-me-downs dating back to the ’70s and early ’80s. The vets had dubbed the model, the Motorola MX-300, the “brick radio.”
LeFande befriended the techies at the department’s radio shop. They taught him how to fix the bricks and squirreled away parts for him. “They just had piles of shit,” he remembers. “They were like, ‘This is going to get thrown away anyway.’ This guy retiredhe left this box behind.” He still has the box of supplies in his basement workshop.
LeFande made every newbie in his squad a working brick. He fixed blown speakers, broken antennae, plastic chassis, little square amplifiers the size of hotel mints. “Nobody cared,” he says. “It wasn’t their problem. It was my problem. I had the squad that had all the new people. I wasn’t going to let them go out without a radio.”
During the ’80s, an MPD reserve officer was merited nothing more than a ride-along. If you arrived at the station house expecting to do some big-city policing, you had to cajole a paid officer to take you out. If you couldn’t find an officer who knew you and trusted your work, you sat and waited for the pity of the career guys to kick in. Sometimes you waited a long time.
“They’d leave your ass in the station for hours,” Winter remembers. “They’d call a certain scout car to pick up a reserve officer, and three hours [later], you’re still sitting there.”
In 1994, however, the department gave reserve officers, in effect, a ticket to ride: Through an amendment to the general orders, reserves acquired the power to write police reports. That privilege conferred an even greater perkthe freedom to cruise the streets on their own.
Of course, the cars given to reserves looked like auto-auction bait. Every district at one time had a green army ambulance. LeFande got the ambulance. “Ours didn’t work very well,” he remembers. “It was a 24-volt system, and nobody had any parts for a 24-volt system. It had two batteries, and all the cables were shot.”
LeFande went to the National Guard for parts. He then hit up the D.C. Fire Department. He used the gas guzzler to haul orange cones to his Adams Morgan traffic details.
When the ambulance went down, LeFande was given a beat-up wagon. None of the emergency lights worked. He snagged strobe lights from the fire department, fixed the control panel, and bought a new battery. It was the only police vehicle with flashing red and yellow lights.
There were still other beaters to come. The most common problem among the reserve’s fleet was that car batteries would give out. Leave the headlights on and walk away for a moment, and you could forget about that cruiser starting again. “That was routine. I remember it happening twice in one night,” LeFande says. “That’s just embarrassing.”
But by the mid-’90s, LeFande had bought his own Crown Vic, the better to profile as a real cop. And that seemed to bother the real cops. Witness this June 17, 1996, conversation that a wary LeFande taped with one of his supervisors, Ron Linton:
Linton: Tell me about your car.
LeFande: My car?
Linton: Your automobile, your private automobile.
LeFande: It’s an ’88 Ford.
Linton: What’s it look like?
LeFande: Brown in color, four-door, Crown Victoria.
Linton: What’s it got in it?
LeFande: A 302 fuel-injected.
Linton: What’s it got in it in the way of emergency equipment?
LeFande: There’s warning lights in the back dash. There’s a radio charger…
Linton: How come you have a siren, a siren?
LeFande: Why do I have a siren? Umm, mostly as a novelty. But, you know.
Linton: Matt, you’re a reserve officer. You don’t have any doubts you’re a reserve officer, right?
Linton: Then how come I’m being told that when you go to training and the reserve officers do something, you go off with the regular officers? Most notably a [Civil Disturbance Unit] incident where you did not identify yourself as a reserve officer.
LeFande: I don’t know what you are referring to.
LeFande denied not identifying himself as a reserve and offered to back it up with witnesses. Linton didn’t want to hear about witnesses and let the matter drop, circling back to the Crown Vic and the siren inside. “The first thing you have to do is, the siren comes out,” Linton said. “You don’t have any authorization for a siren. The only thing that we let our reserves have is a Kojak light. Which they use to help regular officers with traffic control….They can use it for that reason.”
LeFande agreed that the siren had to go. “The whole thing was childish,” he says now.
The car trouble did not end there. In July 1999, according to filings in LeFande’s suit, five agents from the department’s Internal Affairs Division “tailed” him and impounded the Crown Vic. He later got the car backalong with tickets for expired tags and unlawful possession of the Kojak light. LeFande claims he beat both charges.
The Sept. 11 attacks elevated the prestige of law-enforcement and emergency officers across the country. Once stereotyped as doughnut-eating layabouts, cops and firefighters were suddenly heroes critical to waging the war against terrorism.
But D.C.’s reserve officers didn’t feel the post-attack glow. In fact, they suffered a demotion. Chief Ramsey lowered training standards for entry into the reserve corps. These days, reserve wannabes get drilled on the basics of customer service, and that’s about it. Background checks have also been scaled back.
The Wal-Mart-ization of the reserves played into Ramsey’s goal of expanding the corps’ membership to 600 from 100. So far, the chief’s new recruitment drive has netted only an additional 85 new reserves.
But in the D.C. police department, more personnel automatically means less equipment. So it has gone for the reserves. After Sept. 11, the volunteers lost even their dumpy cruisers, which were reallocated to career cops. They’ve had to beg for gas masks. They’ve had to beg for flashlights. They’ve had to beg for the new encrypted radios. Some new reserves didn’t even get handcuffs. “What are you going to do? Tie them up with ribbons?” asks Winter. “They don’t have handcuffs or batons. I think it’s stupid for the department to put them out like that.”
The department also saddled the reserves with a hard-line supervisor, Capt. Kevin Keegan. “He told us up front he didn’t like the reserve corps,” remembers Rose Dodson, a founder of the Reserve Action Committee, a quasi-union. “Not only with his words but with his body language. He was top cheese. Anything we had to sayhe could care less.”
Keegan denies his bad rep. “I like the program,” Keegan says. “I think it’s good. The redesigned program makes it more accessible for those that want to volunteer their time.”
LeFande had no use for the new plan. It meant he was back to being a ride-along. It meant fewer opportunities for training. It meant dealing with a new system of leveling within ranks. The system, instituted in 2002, grades reserves by experience and training: A Level 5 is a green reserve with virtually no policing authority; Level 1 is like the reserve equivalent of Patton. LeFande is a Level 2, yet his supervisors can’t agree on what that means.
•Lt. Sharon McInnis, the current head of the reserve corps: “Technically, they do not have the powers of arrest….Some may think they have it, but they are mistaken.”
•Capt. Keegan: “Unless they are Level 1, they are supposed to be accompanied by a sworn officer to make the situation safe.”
•Reserve Inspector Charles A. Brown: “[LeFande] has arrest power under most circumstances. It’s not full. It’s on a case-by-case basis….The law is really tricky. If we see a felony or probable-cause misdemeanor in our presence, we can arrest.” Can a Level 2 make traffic stops? “I don’t want to touch that one.”
A new ranking system, indignities from the brass, hassles in getting department-issued equipment: LeFande is enough of a die-hard to deal with those aspects of the new regime. But the epaulets were another matter.
On June 25, 2002, Keegan and his command staff issued military-style epaulets to reserve officers. They were navy blue with “Reserve” written in white stitching followed by the corresponding level number.
The epaulets were designed to set the reserve officers apart from the rest of the department. That they did. Everyone else looked like police officers; reserve officers now looked like toy soldiers.
On the morning of July 4, 2002, LeFande reported for parade dutywithout the epauletsalong Constitution Avenue NW. According to LeFande’s civil complaint, Inspector Brown ordered him to attach epaulets to his uniform. Believing the accessories were unapproved by the department’s Uniform Boardand that because they made him look like a fake cop, they were a safety hazardLeFande protested. When Brown told him to wear the epaulets or go home, LeFande agreed to put on the epaulets.
It was the start of a rough tour of duty.
Later that day, as LeFande was driving through the area he was supervising, he witnessed the aftermath of a collision between two motorcycle cops. Both were thrown from their Harleys, and bike parts were scattered everywhere. Following his EMT training, LeFande grabbed his medical bag and got to work. ABC, he reminded himself: airway, breathing, circulation. He checked airways, he checked breathing, he checked circulation. He applied bandages.
Reserve Officer Daniel Kim saw nothing wrong with LeFande’s actions. “It was within our area we were covering anyway,” he says. “He went above and beyond because he had the capability of providing medical assistance. I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘Don’t respond.’”
But after the parade, Kim says, all of officialdom came down on the maverick reserve. “People questioned why he responded,” he says. “It didn’t look pleasant. It wasn’t a calm conversation.”
LeFande had to justify his actions on the spot, in writing. And then he didn’t stop writing about it, talking about it, bitching about it. The next day he sent out an e-mail addressed to his fellow reserves on an e-mail list he had created. “Inspector Brown appeared at the detail with a large bag of epaulets and demanded that all personnel wear these ridiculous ‘kick me’ signs,” he wrote.
As a controversy, the epaulets had staying power. Two weeks after the incident, LeFande argued with Keegan in public after an anti-terrorism press conference. LeFande offered something of a compromise: He’d wear the epaulets at public events like the parade but not on the street during patrols. “Keegan stated that the issue had been decided and there would be no further discussion on the subject,” the reserve wrote in an e-mail posted on the list.
On Aug. 30, Keegan stopped LeFande on the street and rebuked him for not wearing epaulets with his utility uniform. LeFande reminded his superior that regulations specify that the utility uniform is supposed to be epaulet-free. Keegan then chastised him for driving his personal Crown Vic. LeFande reminded Keegan that under the MPD’s general orders, reserve sergeantssuch as LeFande, who was an acting sergeant at the timeare allowed to operate their personal vehicles. Winter says that LeFande’s temporary rank had been approved and was well-known.
No matter: In September 2002, his officials ordered LeFande to stop using his Crown Vic and to dismantle the strobe light, flashing front-grill lights, and siren. In an Oct. 28 memo, a still-pissed Keegan vented about the reserve: “A major issue is, it is not clear when he is voluntarily working with the MPD (on-duty) and when he is not (off duty).”
Two days after Keegan’s memo went ignored by 3rd District officials, the department started an investigation of the July 4 incident at which LeFande had assisted the motorcycle cops. In February, a final department report recommended disciplinary action against LeFande, alleging that he “appears to be toying with MPD supervisors and set policy.”
LeFande was finally cannedagainexactly a year from the date of the incident.
Fellow reservist Winter wasn’t surprised by the termination. “Keegan’s got a vendetta,” he explains. “He hates Matt with a passion. It’s too obvious. He doesn’t like the reserve corps. He hates us with a passion.”
“‘You guys think you’re the real police, but you’re not,’” Winter remembers Keegan telling reserves repeatedly.
Of LeFande, Keegan will say only: “If there’s some discipline pending, it would be difficult to say something positive.”
Earlier this month, however, LeFande was notified by fax that his termination had been rescinded: “I have determined that the penalty of termination is too severe,” Ramsey wrote him. “This conclusion is reached in light of your past performance as evidenced by your recent CHAMPS Officer of the Month award. Consistent with my review of the matter, I find that it is in the best interest of the Department to transfer you to the First District, where you may have a fresh start.”
Ramsey added that LeFande had to remove the Kojak light and siren from his Crown Vic.
LeFande’s policing skills didn’t rust while he was fighting his termination. Last Saturday, on his first night back on the beat, the reserve managed to cap his shift with an arrest.During their tour, LeFande and his partner, a regular cop, called an ambulance for a drunk sprawled in front of a KFC drive-through, assisted a woman looking for her daughter, settled down a disorderly citizen, pursued a speeding car into Virginia, and calmed a crowd of noisy kids.
All of it was a boring preamble to the moment LeFande spotted a blue Cadillac Cimarron sporting only one metal tag. He called the number in to the dispatcher. The tag didn’t belong to the Caddy. Now he had a suspect to work.
LeFande pulled the guy over. He smelled weed. He asked for the guy’s driver’s license. The guy didn’t have one. With that, the reserve ordered the driver out of the Caddy and cuffed him. It was 8:49 p.m. The rest was textbook.
LeFande searched the suspect without fuss. He let the guy tell his convoluted story about just purchasing the car from a friend and having his sister drive it home. And then, once the suspect ran out of story and steam, LeFande put him in the cruiser and locked him up at the 1st District station.
“You can go ahead. I’ll write up the paperwork,” LeFande told his partner as the two stood over their collar.
“I can write up the paperwork,” his partner offered, chuckling. “You can sign off on it. It’s your arrest.”
No, LeFande had this one.
“I had fun tonight,” he said later. “There were some classic moments of us trying to help the drunk into the ambulance. Yeah, it was good. Made a collar. Nobody hassled me.”
Until he went upstairs to the lieutenant’s office to have her sign off on processing the perp’s property. LeFande introduced himself. The lieutenant noticed his badge number: R196. She wasn’t sure what the R stood for, LeFande later recounted.
“Oh, retired?” she asked.
“No,” LeFande said. “Reserve.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.