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All through the early fall of 1998, Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Tommy C. Musgrove waited for the call from Chief Charles Ramsey. Since June, Musgrove had been the acting head of the police force’s Court Liaison Division, running a staff of 23, coordinating all of the force’s activities with the courts and prosecutors, and making sure that the 1,200 officers scheduled to appear in court every day showed up to see their arrests through to conviction. In that short time, Musgrove had earned a reputation for steadfast adherence to regulations.

Now, however, it was time for an official decision on his performance. On Sept. 17, the call came through: Ramsey promoted Musgrove to inspector.

As he mulled Musgrove’s promotion, Ramsey had been busy with other matters. The former Chicago police deputy superintendent had arrived in D.C. to impossibly optimistic hype. He was to be the force’s salvation, shaking up a department handicapped by the bad reputations of more than a few bad cops. On Sept. 9, the new chief held several forums for the city’s 3,500 officers, letting them know that it was a “new beginning” for the force, time to get the house in order. Ramsey also offered an amnesty of sorts, making it clear that any officer’s past indiscretions would remain past.

Musgrove must have been glad to hear the news—which preceded his promotion by a mere eight days. Although he is now known as a by-the-books stickler, he has a controversy in his past that ought to make Washingtonians take a moment to press Pause on the infomercial about D.C.’s clean, new law enforcement epoch.

Twenty years ago, Musgrove was at the center of a maelstrom that garnered citywide attention. In 1979, two other cops accused him of badly beating a prisoner. There were allegations of a cover-up, then numerous daily newspaper headlines, and, finally, a U.S. Attorney’s investigation. Eventually, Musgrove was convicted of assault. He was sentenced to a year in prison and kicked off the force before clearing his name on appeal.

The standards of the law, some say, are different from the more stringent standards that ought to be in place for holders of the public trust. Several people involved in the case say that the continued prominence of folks with histories like Musgrove’s hampers the department’s ability to polish its tarnished reputation.

According to retired 28-year police veteran Lowell Duckett, who closely followed the 1979 incident and its aftermath as vice president of the D.C. Afro-American Police Association, even a whiff of brutality taints public confidence in a force. “You think if one of his officers is accused of beating a prisoner, Musgrove’s going to step to the plate?” he asks. “Please.”

But with Musgrove’s promotion, Ramsey seemed to be saying that the historical ripples from 1979 had officially slipped into the tide.

In the 1970s, the Metropolitan Police Department was a dangerous place. The force’s 1st District—comprising Capitol Hill, parts of downtown, and the Southwest waterfront—was ground zero. The number of brutality complaints against 1st District officers during that era exceeded that of any other district.

It was a time of unchecked wildness. Some 1st District officers would don gorilla masks and drive around the neighborhood, scaring kids and chasing residents into their homes; they thought it was funny. “The whole station was like that, had a little reputation of beating up people,” says a 1st District officer from that time.

In the wee hours of April 4, 1979, Michael Morris—a 22-year-old Silver Spring man who served as a kitchen steward at the Mayflower Hotel—drunkenly stumbled into this mess, when he was hauled into the station for disorderly conduct.

The desk sergeant asked Morris for his Social Security number. Morris said he couldn’t remember it. “I got something to make you remember it,” the desk sergeant said, according to newspaper accounts of Morris’ statement to the U.S. Attorney’s office. “‘Then, with the handcuffs on,’” Morris said, “‘he took my hands up to the desk and bent my four fingers until my right pointer finger came out of joint.’”

An eyewitness, nine-year police veteran Ben Ashe, confirmed in a statement given to investigators, according to newspaper accounts from the time, that the desk sergeant had “bent [the prisoner’s] fingers out of the socket,” so much so that Morris fell on the floor in pain, crying. Morris was taken to the cellblock, where he attempted to soothe his hand in the cold water of the cell’s toilet.

Twenty minutes later, Tommy Musgrove strode into the substation, according to newspaper accounts of Morris’s statement to the U.S. Attorney. Then 26 years old, Musgrove was a five-year veteran of the force, in charge of transporting prisoners to the central cellblock as well as the lockup at the 1st District. Morris would later say that Musgrove taunted him from outside the cell, laughing in his face. Morris cursed and spit at Musgrove.

Then, according to Morris—who was, of course, still intoxicated at the time—Musgrove unlocked and entered his cell with “‘this black steel thing in his hand,’” according to newspaper accounts. “‘I said, “Man, I’m sorry, please don’t hit me,”‘” Morris said in his statement. But Musgrove took the blackjack and pummeled Morris’ face with it, according to this account.

Musgrove—then and now—disputes Morris’ story. Though he refused to speak about the incident with Washington City Paper, in Musgrove’s version of events, according to his court testimony and his attorney, Musgrove got involved with Morris only after he saw the desk sergeant struggling with the prisoner in the fingerprinting room. He then came to the desk sergeant’s aid and helped restrain the prisoner. In the course of that restraint, Musgrove testified, he hit Morris’ forehead with his fist—but only once, and only in the course of official police duties.

While Musgrove took Morris to D.C. General Hospital—a fact not in dispute, according to court documents—the desk sergeant hosed down the cell splattered with blood, according to Ashe’s testimony. At D.C. General, doctors stitched the cuts around Morris’ eyes and treated bruises on his body. Musgrove took Morris back to the 1st District. The disorderly conduct charge against him was dropped.

Morris was never charged with a crime that night. It could have all ended right there, with his release from D.C. General.

But Ashe had walked by and seen Morris face down on the floor of a cell splattered with blood. He asked what had happened, according to both his account to the U.S. Attorney and his trial testimony. He was told that Musgrove had beaten the prisoner. Soon afterward, Ashe heard that Musgrove had said that he’d merely restrained Morris to help the desk sergeant. But Ashe had seen the desk sergeant bend Morris’ fingers back. In his recollection, Musgrove had been nowhere near the fingerprinting room at the time.

Ashe telephoned a deputy inspector. First District Capt. Joyce Leland was told to investigate the matter. But, according to an article in the Washington Star, Leland couldn’t find Morris, so she hadn’t even talked to him before she declared at a roll call days later that Ashe’s complaint was unfounded.

“I was at roll call in the morning,” former Officer Earl “Bull” Bell recalls. “Ashe said, ‘Tommy took a man into the cellblock and beat him up.’” Ashe told Leland, but she said she already knew. “And they said to keep it down,” Bell says.

But Bell, one of Ashe’s best friends from the police academy, didn’t believe in keeping it down. He told the U.S. Attorney’s office what he had heard about Musgrove and Morris. Then he tracked down Morris and took his statement. A few weeks later, Bell related the story to a contact at the Washington Star.

After the U.S. Attorney’s office launched its investigation and the Star wrote its story, the 1st District initiated a second internal investigation, this one headed by Lt. Larry Rosenberger. The second inquiry also cleared Musgrove. Nonetheless, as part of an ongoing investigation into the matter, a June 21, 1979, memo from an assistant U.S. Attorney noted that “‘the reaction of the police department has been to ignore and/or cover up this incident,’” according to newspaper accounts at the time. The memo called Rosenberger’s investigation “‘less than complete’” and suggested that his “‘future conduct should be carefully scrutinized,’” according to the newspapers.

After five months of investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s office took its case against Musgrove to trial. On May 9, 1980, after two days of deliberation, the jury in The United States vs. Tommy C. Musgrove returned a verdict of guilty. Six weeks later, Musgrove was sentenced to one year in prison—the maximum penalty.

Musgrove got more of a break from his fellow officers on the police trial board. Though the board soon ruled that, because Musgrove had been convicted of assault, he should be dismissed from the force, it also found Musgrove “not guilty” of using excessive force—thus paving the way for Musgrove’s reinstatement should his conviction be overturned.

There were howls of protest. Deputy Chief Rodwell Catoe, an 18-year veteran and one of the three-member trial board, called the decision “‘irresponsible’” and “‘unethical’” in a letter he wrote to then-Chief Burtell Jefferson, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Catoe said that the board had “‘shunned its responsibility of objectively evaluating the evidence presented before it’” and resigned from the board.

Musgrove, meanwhile, got a new attorney, who immediately filed an appeal. On Feb. 3, 1982, citing problems with evidence admitted into the first trial, the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned Musgrove’s conviction and ordered a new trial. In the new trial, Musgrove’s new attorney, David Schreiber, successfully argued against the inclusion of certain testimony from the original trial, which he today calls “hearsay on hearsay.” Schreiber argued that Morris had identified Musgrove only after Bell told him to. The attorney was able to introduce evidence of Morris’ many drug and drug-related convictions since the incident. After two days of deliberations, the jury acquitted Musgrove.

“[Musgrove] didn’t do it,” Schreiber says. “He was acquitted. The system took a long time to work, but ultimately justice prevailed.” Schreiber got Musgrove reinstated on the force. Then he got the District to cough up back pay and lawyer’s fees.

To this day, Musgrove refuses to comment on any aspect of his alleged assault on Morris. “I won’t talk about it,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s behind me.”

Ramsey and his team think so, too. “We were aware of it when we put Tommy Musgrove in there on an interim basis,” says Executive Assistant Chief Terry Gainer, Ramsey’s right-hand man. “The checking we did [indicated that] the incident happened more than 20 years ago and ultimately was overturned. So we looked at his record for the last 20 years, and that was enough to give him the job.”

“There are a lot of issues here,” Gainer says. Musgrove has “served very honorably over the last 20 years. How long do you wear the jacket for what happened 20 years ago? Can he be rehabilitated? Does he have the right tools for the job? Those are the things you weigh into this.”

Ramsey, of course, inherited a police force with a lot of problems. He’s had to play the cards he’s been dealt, and officers with dubious histories are part of that hand. Inspector Tommy Musgrove has been cleared of any wrongdoing, after all. The final word from the legal system is his acquittal.

And in the grand scheme of things, perhaps one dismissed allegation of ass kicking is not that big a deal. By most accounts, Musgrove has played strictly by the rules since his reinstatement, maintaining a military demeanor that’s won him few friends but kept his record squeaky-clean. With Ramsey’s help, Musgrove has put the Morris incident firmly behind him.

Ashe and Bell, meanwhile, became pariahs years ago. Death threats were made to their homes, according to Bell. Since few of their fellow officers would work with them, both men were reassigned out of the 1st District. Bell estimates that 80 percent of the entire force refused to speak to him. “Nobody did,” he says.

A 1984 traffic accident left Bell in a wheelchair, with a metal plate in his head and a serious stutter. That same year, Ashe finally made the promotions list and was bumped up to sergeant. It was his first and last act of upward mobility. Though he made the list for lieutenant in 1986, that promotion never came through. Some cops whisper that his accusation against Musgrove was what held him back.

“In law enforcement, as long as someone remembers the incident, it goes on—it doesn’t stop,” says Duckett, whose D.C. Afro-American Police Association officially promised to help Ashe when other officers quit answering his on-duty calls for back up after the Musgrove affair. “I think that’s probably the main reason that Ben never went any higher….I have never seen an officer that stood up [against another officer] rewarded for coming forward and having the bravery to come forward.”

“Chief Ramsey and I want to make it clear that there is no way we support the excessive use of force,” Gainer says. “We will do everything we can to hire and train and make sure people don’t fall into that trap. And those who do, appropriate action we will take.”

Ashe, currently back at the 1st District, refused to be quoted for this article, other than to say that if he had to do it all over he wouldn’t change a thing. “It was wrong,” he says. “Somebody had to do something.”CP