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As Christmas Eve slid into Christmas Day, 1996, a Northwest Washington woman called the police to report two men causing a ruckus in her building. With booze on their breath, Darrelle Johnson and Kenneth Furr were heatedly arguing with the woman and her son. It was pretty much your standard liquor-soaked slice of Christmas cheerlessness, with one twist: The two men were D.C. police officers, and they were both on duty.
Lt. Mike Smith and Sgt. Michelle Milam responded to the call. When they brought Johnson and Furr back to the 3rd District police station, Milam and another lieutenant, Willie Dandridge, detected a strong stench of liquor emanating from the officers. And Furr and Johnson weren’t particularly “good” drunks, according to several officers involved. Furr got in Dandridge’s face, calling him a “little motherfucker.” Johnson used similar language with Milam. One of the officers’ blood alcohol content registered at 0.14 on the Breathalyzer, according to an investigating officer.
Johnson and Furr were put on administrative leave while the case underwent an internal investigation. Word eventually came down from the big guns at the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) that the department was going to seek the maximum penalty for the two cops: termination from the force. They were given a date for their hearing before the police trial board.
This kind of professional nightmare might lead cops in a lot of towns to hand over their fates to a high-priced attorney, or at least to a lawyer retained by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Johnson and Furr, however, went a different route: They got in touch with a then-police sergeant named Frank Hill. Having graduated from the University of Baltimore Law School in 1995, the then-32-year-old Hill had recently flunked the bar. He didn’t charge for his advice or representation.
But asking Hill to handle their case wasn’t a reckless decision at all. Ever since the early ’90s, Hill had been building a name for himself among officers throughout the city as the man to call if they got in trouble with the department.
There’s a simple reason why, at least if you ask Hill. “I’m the best,” says the 1987 Georgetown University grad. “It’s because I’m a cop and [the other defense attorneys] are not. I know what a police officer [on the trial board] is interested in hearing….I know what arguments are going to annoy police officials and what they’re going to find to have merit. That’s an edge that’s just priceless.”
It proved so to Johnson and Furr, at least. Two years later, they still have jobs, thanks in part to Hill’s legal machinations. After a refresher course at the MPD’s Maurice T. Turner Institute of Police Science, the two officerswhose drinking and insubordination that Christmas Hill does not disputerejoined the force.
Not every officer thinks Hill’s after-hours hobby is so valuable. “Furr should have been terminated,” says Dandridge, who now works in the department’s Homicide Unit. Dandridge’s respect for Hill knows bounds. “He represents scum,” Dandridge says. But, he hastens to add, “everybody has a right to aid and counsel. That’s the Constitution.”
Frank Hill’s unique role in the culture of MPD began when he became the 3rd District shop steward around 1992. At the time, it was a task the then-law student thought would help him practice for oral arguments. But it wasn’t until the fall of 1997 that he first represented an officer before the police trial board, thus officially becoming the MPD’s own low-rent version of F. Lee Bailey.
Hill stepped up to the plate because he had to. Under Sonya Proctor’s leadership as head of the department’s human resources bureau and then as interim police chief, “the department had tripled the number of termination cases,” former FOP counsel Robert Deso says, “and had stopped coordinating hearing dates” with defense counsel.
In the fall of 1997, the FOP assigned Deso a case he had no time to prepare for, representing two officers accused of using excessive force. He’d seen enough. “I told the FOP, ‘You gotta work something out with the department and get this under control,’” Deso says. “I said, ‘I’m not going to go in unprepared and commit malpractice just because the department wants to rush these through.’ One of the decisions FOP made was to have Frank Hill do some of the cases.”
Hill, who had never handled a termination case before, took the job. The evidence against the two officerswhich included photographswas strong, Hill says. And time was running out: He was thrown the case on a Friday at 5 p.m., and the hearing was slotted for Monday morning at 9. Hill met with the accused officers, crashed on his project all weekend, and, come Monday morning, “whipped the department’s ass.” The two officers were soon reunited with their shields and department-issued guns.
Now Hill can barely take a sip of water from the jug he carries around with him without being approached by officers who want his advice. At least one officer calls him on his cell phone every day. He doesn’t know most of the men and women who ask for help, he says, but his reputation precedes him. Hill estimates that he’s advised a couple hundred officers and represented approximately 20 to 25 before the police trial board. “If you’re going to a trial board, there’s no doubt in my mindand I think my record speaks for itselfthat your chances of keeping your job are greatly improved if I’m representing you,” he says.
“Over the years, the union has helped bring a lot of people back that the department would have been better off without,” says police watchdog Carl Rowan Jr. But he points out that it’s unclear if either Hill or the union should be blamed, “or a police administration that can’t seem to put a case together that holds up in arbitration.”
An attorney with the D.C. Corporation Counsel’s office, who asked not to be identified, says that Hill’s high batting average exists only because so many of the cases he was given during the Proctor era were lightly lobbed softballs. “Sgt. Hill got the cases that probably should never have gone to the trial board,” the attorney sayscases that Proctor was pushing forward “that otherwise would have been presented with recommendations for a different penalty. The evidence wasn’t strong; the cases were not strong.”
But chalking up Hill’s success solely to Proctor’s termination-happy policies might be a mistake. Take Johnson and Furr, for instance. Hill was confident that he could get the officers a verdict of not guilty before the trial board. The problem was that the police chief can overrule any decision, and Hill didn’t want to give then-Chief Proctor the opportunity to make her vote, because he strongly suspected that she would kick his clients off the force no matter what the trial board ruled. So Hill decided to bypass the trial board hearing altogether and go straight to arbitration, which is usually an officer’s last chance. “The department was baffled,” Hill reports. “‘What do you mean you don’t want a trial board hearing?’ they asked.” But Hill was adamant.
Then, in April 1998, fate stepped in. New Chief Charles Ramsey demoted Proctor and ordered his right-hand man, Assistant Chief Terry Gainer, to review the cases of about two dozen officers Proctor had been looking to can. Hill’s wrangling had managed to buy Johnson and Furr the time they needed to outlast Proctor. And when it came time for Gainer to review their file, there was none of that troubling trial board testimonyjust an internal investigation report, which doesn’t carry as much weight. The department decided to bring Johnson and Furr back, along with the other officers whose cases Gainer reviewed. “In our opinion, the cases didn’t warrant termination,” Ramsey says. Hill says that an arbitrator would have ruled in their favor eventually, anyway.
Johnson and Furr aside, Hill generally stays mum on the particulars of his cases, including some black X’s on his own professional docket. He does acknowledge, though, that the Corporation Counsel attorneys probably look at him as “a dirty cop protecting other dirty cops.”
The “dirty” situation Hill alludes to took place in his early days with MPD, when he was accused of discharging his weapon inappropriately. He was disciplined and put through the wringer, but ultimately he remained on the force. “He should have gotten fired years ago,” says Rowan.
Hill disagrees, of course, citing his situation as an example of how “important it is to have good representationbecause I could have done a better job myself” than the FOP attorney who took his case and defended him. Other than that, however, Hill insists that the incident has little to do with his raison d’être, though he allows, “Freud, I’m sure, would spin his theories….But I think Freud was insane.” He says he represents cops under fire simply because most of the officers he defends are “100 percent innocent.”
Not that he regards every officer accused of wrongdoing as innocent. Hill says that there are some cases that even he won’t touch: when an “officer’s conduct was that, as an official of the department and as a taxpayer, I don’t think it’s in the interests of the department or the city to have that officer on the department. No hard feelings, but it might be better off having that officer in a different line of work.”
Many of Hill’s adversaries say that they find it hard to believe that there’s any officer too dirty for Hill to help. Professionally, these critics say, Hill’s about as discriminating as an I-95 rest stop. A Corporation Counsel attorney cites the case of Officer Richard Fitzgerald, wholike Furr, Johnson, and Hillwas a member of MPD’s infamously troubled class of 1990. In August 1993, Fitzgerald took out his nightstick and pounded a drug suspect, Lonnie Lee Cannon, until Cannon needed “35 staples in his skull,” according to the attorney. Three years later, a jury convicted Fitzgerald of assault with a dangerous weapon. The officer ended up doing time behind bars.
Hill appeared before the police trial board to try to save Fitzgerald’s job, even though MPD is required to terminate officers found guilty of committing felonies. “Hill stood there and argued what a wonderful officer [Fitzgerald] was,” says the Corporation Counsel attorney. Hill says he was just doing what any advocate would do, preparing for Fitzgerald’s reinstatement on the force in case his conviction is ever overturned on appeal.
An Army veteran and former junior high school math and science teacher, the Bronx-born Hill has rubbed more than a few attorneys the wrong way. “I think he’s very childish,” says the Corporation Counsel attorney. “And his opinion of himself far exceeds reality.” More important, this attorney is troubled by the fact that Hill, who has yet to pass the bar, represents these officers at all. “There are certainly some legal issues that he is not qualified to…handle,” the attorney says.
Another potential drawback in having an officer legally represent fellow officers can possibly be seen in the case of Sgt. Nick Lawrence, whom Proctor wanted fired for getting into a shoving match with a firefighter in the summer of 1997. After Deso turned down Lawrence’s case, it was handed to Hill. But according to Lawrencewho had once been Hill’s sergeantHill wasn’t given respect by the trial board because of his rank-and-file status. “Everything he tried to say, the members of the panel shot down,” Lawrence says. “They had no respect for him. To them, he was just another sergeant….And his whole attitude was as a wiseass, and they weren’t amused by his bullshit.”
The police trial board demoted Lawrence, but then Proctor overruled the board and fired him. Ramsey and Gainer brought Lawrence back on the force last April, although they didn’t return his sergeant status.
Hill argues that Lawrence was just a client who didn’t get everything he wanted. He saved Lawrence’s job before the trial board, Hill sayshis termination was a foregone conclusion because of Proctor’s pink-slipping ways. Lawrence “has his job, right?” Hill says. And indeed he does.
Even though he works on his own time and doesn’t charge for his services, Hill says that his status as patron saint of the soiled shield has reaped him tangible benefits. When he was a sergeant in the 7th District, the officers under his command were fiercely loyal to him. “When you go to roll call and your sergeant isn’t just someone who supervises you, but someone who’s literally saved your job for you, that’s made my job a lot easier,” he explains. Before he was promoted to lieutenant late last month, Hill wasn’t even remotely concerned about finding friends at his next assignment. “Wherever I go, it’s guaranteed that there will be at least one person whose job I saved and a dozen or so who I got out of serious trouble,” he says.
On a Monday morning in January, as Hill drives to his Northwest home from the police academy, where he’s been preparing for the promotion to lieutenant, his cell phone rings. It’s another officer with another story, another plea for help. He’ll advise the officeras well as most future officers who approach himbut his new title means he can no longer be part of the union, no longer officially sit with officers at police trial boards and help them keep their jobs.
Maybe it’s just as well. Hill has seen the number of requests for his help shrink since Chief Ramsey came aboard. “The crisis is over,” Hill says. “My talents will just go unused now. It’s like disbanding an Army division after a war.” Hill makes attempts to reassure that Johnson and Furr are on the right side of that war, belonging in the category of officers who “had done something wrong and the issue was [that] the penalty” was too severe. “This city is a safer place to live and work because of those two officers. All the evidence supports that.”
Well, not all the evidence. The Christmas incident was not the first time that the actions of Furr, at least, have raised departmental eyebrows. In 1993, Furr shot and killed a man who tried to wrestle his 9 mm Glock away from him. A year later, during a traffic stop that got out of control, Furr again discharged his handgunthough this time, no one was at the wrong end of his gun. Furr currently works in the 5th District; his drinking buddy, Darrelle Johnson, works out of the 1st District substation.
“It’s a great feeling to save these officers from unemployment, from foreclosure, from…lifelong shame,” Hill says. “It’s worth its weight in gold.”CP