On a midnight shift in mid-January 1995 at the 6th District police station, Lt. William Corboy sat at a desk in the commander’s office. Corboy was just waking to the predictable paperwork that went with overseeing a patrol unit when Officer Kristopher Payne walked in. He and Payne had a very short history, none of it good. Corboy had recently checked up on Payne’s off-duty work, and Payne didn’t like having his integrity questioned.
The six-year veteran hadn’t wasted any time, just marched in all hot-wired after roll call ended. He took a seat in front of Corboy. There was no handshake, no joking. Across an expanse of brown Formica, Corboy sat back and relaxed. He was expecting this. “It’s open-mike time,” he thought to himself.
According to Corboy, Payne had come to vent. Payne was feeling cramped by Corboy’s oversight as his 6th District supervisor. Already, Corboy had hammered Payne for messy search procedures and suggested that the officer was too militaristic on the streets. Payne told Corboy that he was “tree-boxing” himdepartment jargon for riding his ass. Payne was there to tell Corboy to get out of his face and go do some real police work. Payne’s productivity as a copan arrest a dayand his penchant for vacuuming guns off the streets more than justified his street tactics, he claimed. Just for good measure, Payne told Corboy he was a lousy supervisor.
Payne said he knew real policemen who also happened to be supervisors, and Corboy wasn’t one of them. He rattled off a couple. “O’Donnell. Beheler.” “[He said] he knew good supervision,” Corboy recalls.
Corboy didn’t get upset. Throughout his 14-year career, Corboy had taken on his share of supervisors and felt Payne was entitled to do the same. He just kept nodding as Payne ran his list of injustices, slights, and beefs. (This account is according to interviews with Corboy and a deposition he gave. Payne declined repeated requests for interviews.)
Payne was one of many cops in the 6th District, which Corboy had recently been put in charge of: tough, smart cops who found and arrested lots of bad guys, but who also generated a lot of citizen complaints. Corboy understood Payne’s frustration, if not his tactics. In the face of all of the mayhem and lawlessness in the Southeast and Northeast quadrants of D.C., the department’s rules, regulations, and procedures seemed like a waste of time to many cops on the street.
But even though they both wore blue, he and Payne were fundamentally different. Corboy was a believer in community policing and was not impressed by big arrest numbers. “We rely too much on arrest statistics in performance; it becomes the almost exclusive measure,” Corboy says. “For the officers, that can be a very cynical thing. You can grow cynical. On one hand, we’re preaching community police, but we’re harping back on arrests, arrests, arrests.”
The department had historically given cops like Payne a lot of rope. Disciplinary procedures were a joke, and oversight in some districts was nonexistent. There were cops who picked up multiple citizen complaints and civil suits like so much confetti and just kept right on going. In many corners of the department, kicking up complaints was viewed as one more byproduct of real police work. Arrests on a motivationally challenged, demoralized force like the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) were almost always good, and if some heads got knocked in the process, well, nobody said big-city policing was a pretty thing in the first place. Payne had been consistently rewarded along the way for his aggressiveness. Until Corboy came to the 6th.
According to Corboy, Payne didn’t like Corboy’s candy-ass insistence on proper procedure and paperwork. Payne filibustered for 10 minutes, getting morenot lessexcited as he went. He eventually decided that mere words couldn’t convey the passion he felt. Payne began beating his chest with his fistsboom, boom, boom. He finished by raising his hand high. “[I am] a man of personal valor,” he bellowed, by Corboy’s account. “There’s a war being fought on the streets!”
Then Payne left.
The chest-beating routine stunned Corboy. He’d seen some grandstanding in his dayhe had done his share of itbut Payne’s spontaneous speech about “war” and “valor” left him thinking he had a problem on his hands.
There were other signs, as well. According to a deposition given by Cmdr. John Daniels, Payne had triggered the department’s Early Warning Tracking System, designed to monitor cops who had problems. He had picked up five citizen complaints and one civil suit in his six years on the forcenot the worst numbers in the department, but enough to be a cause for concern. And Payne was fresh off a shoot in which the victim/perpetrator claimed in a police report that he had been shot down for no damn reason. And now this odd speech. Corboy left the office and began telling all of his superiors that Payne might be losing it.
“I mean, you name it, I think I told all the force [about the meeting],” Corboy remembers. “I brought it to their attention. The attention of all of them.”
He didn’t necessarily have it in for Payne: Corboy knew the officer clearly believed what he was saying with every bone in his body. But the meetingthe words, the chest poundingconfirmed Corboy’s belief that Payne might not be fit for the streets he so dearly loved defending.
“There was enough there that caused me to go to the sergeants, to go to the captain, to go to people and say, ‘Look, we need to keep an eye on this guy. We need to closely supervise this guy.’”
On Nov. 29, 1989, Payne was working the holiday patrol beat. As recruits in the police academy, Payne and his partner had drawn one of the department’s most boring assignmentsparking lot detail. While walking a lot at 8th and E Streets NW that night, their job was to maintain high visibility in order to deter car thieves. In other words, they were blue window dressing. It was tradition, a kind of hazing that let rookies know their place.
Payne, in what would become a pattern, took his assignment and made the most of it. His unerring instinct for finding guns displayed itself before he was even officially a cop. At 8 p.m., according to an MPD report, Payne and his partner stumbled upon a “male subject” loading a .38-caliber revolver in his car. While his partner quietly radioed the dispatcher, Payne scouted out the vehicle without the suspect’s noticing. Payne then took the guy by surprise, arresting him with the gun sitting in his lap. There was no struggle, no incident.
By the time he graduated, Payne already had a handful of commendations. He was assigned to the 6th District’s midnight shift. Encompassing violent neighborhoods surrounding the intersection of East Capitol Street and Benning Road, Payne’s beat was a fine proving ground for a young, aggressive officer who wasn’t afraid to get out of the cruiser and take down criminals.
According to the officers who worked with him, Payne quickly learned how to maneuver between street and office politics. In a department devastated by mass departures of talented cops, the ones who remained generally put a premium on making it to the end of their shift. But not Payne. His fellow cops say Payne stuck out because he was fearless, a cop who not only craved action, but seemed to appear spontaneously when it took place.
“At the academy, he was one of these guys who knew he was going to be a good cop. There was just something about him….He’s definitely about locking up the bad guy,” says Lt. Robert Atcheson, who came on the force with Payne.
The young officer’s effectiveness did not go unnoticed. In his July 1990 evaluation, he received almost all above-average marks. “He should develop into an outstanding officer,” his lieutenant noted. Payne did well enough on his 6th District watch to earn a transfer in 1991 to the Rapid Deployment Unit (RDU), a roving mini-police force consisting of 66 officers who ranged across the city’s most dangerous corners. According to a Washington Post story written about the unit in December 1991, the unit harassed drug dealers, slammed perps around, and got into fights if challengedthe department’s own Green Berets. Payne and his partner, Jose Rivera, would become known within the unit as “Smith and Wesson.”
When the partners cruised together, they had a signal: Rivera would run his hand through his hair if he thought there might be a gun in a car they pulled over. “Our big thing was guns. We wanted guns. Where there were guns, there were drugs and other things,” says Rivera, who is now a detective with the Criminal Investigations Division. “That was our fortethe guns, the gestures, the looks, the cars they were driving. It all fell out into place.”
Seamless teamwork netted Payne and Rivera an average of about 20 arrests a month for serious stuff like carrying loaded automatics and possessing large quantities of drugs. The accolades from the press that followed were a welcome respite from the stories of cop graft and indifference that were all over the news at the time. Under the headline “DC Police Unit Fights Crime With Attitude,” the Post applauded the unit for seizing 300 firearms and making about 3,700 arrests that year. Even among the unit’s motivated officers, Payne excelled: He was recommended as Officer of the Month five times in 1991.
The unit was led by Inspector Phillip O’Donnell, a Vietnam vet who preferred working the streets to desk patrol. The RDU produced big numberslots of arrests, many of which led to convictions. Criminal lawyers complained that in pursuit of their mission, Payne and his colleagues had learned to walk a fine line with respect to search laws and the department’s general orders.
In spite of those criticisms, life was good on the unit. Unlike the average beat cop, RDU guys didn’t worry about extensive paperwork or petty crime.
Nor did they worry too much about the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an autonomous disciplinary panel. Consistent with the unit’s go-get-’em mind-set, members regarded CCRB complaints as a cost of doing business in the inner city. According to a 1993 Public Defender Service memorandum, one RDU member had racked up nine complaints, including one in which he was found guilty for “beating a guy and threatening to fabricate a drug charge against [him].” During the time he was on the unit, Payne picked up two complaints and a civil suit.
The RDU was like other tactical squads that proliferated nationwide to combat the unprecedented level of violence sparked by crack’s stranglehold on the inner city. Unlike the cops who sat in their squad cars and waited for calls, the unit went out and made its own action, doing jump-outs, sweeps, and shakedowns to keep the crooks guessing and to pull guns and drugs off the street. Payne was viewed as a stand-up member of the unit who wasn’t afraid of anything.
It was a reputation earned at some cost. In March 1991, Payne pulled over a man on a routine traffic stop. As Payne reached for the driver’s license, the man sped off with the officer’s arm caught in the window, dragging Payne down the street. The suspect eventually crashed into two parked cars, and Payne was thrown free. The driver then fled the crash site. Payne dusted himself off and gave chase on foot. He caught up to the driver and made the arrest. In the driver’s seat rested a fully loaded and cocked 9 mm automatic.
Payne’s heroics on D.C. streets wouldn’t have surprised anyone who watched him grow up. His father, Paul Payne, was a captain in the Detroit fire department. Payne rarely saw his dad except in uniform or with smoke staining his cheeks on the local news. When Payne was 6, there really was a war in the streetsthe riots of ’67. “You could walk out of anybody’s house and see the nightmare,” Paul Payne remembers.
Before he finished high school, in February 1981, Payne enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, following his father, uncle, and two brothers into the ranks of military service. It was a good match. Payne rose quickly to the rank of sergeant and picked up awards for good conduct and sea deployment. By the end of 1984, Payne had received a commendation for outstanding service as a troop leader. “Corporal Payne displayed an unusually high level of motivation throughout the rigorous training on Okinawa and the live fire exercise,” wrote Lt. Col. R.R. Matthews.
He earned a Rifle Expert Badge 2nd Award and served as a rifleman for five-and-a-half years, as marksmanship instructor for another year. He even trained as a sniper.
When Payne left the Marines in 1989, he brought the Semper Fi ethic with him to the police department. His experience with live fire had prepared him nicely for the RDU, an outfit obsessed with guns and those who use them. The license plate on Payne’s car read “Glock 19.”
And when Payne wasn’t in hot pursuit, he was receiving commendations and attending luncheons with MPD Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. “We just lived the moment,” says Rivera. “It was great. He felt that in three years we did more than the average person did in 15 years.”
Not everyone shared Payne’s view of the unit’s exploits. When Chief Fred Thomas took over in 1992, he folded the unit. Payne was pissed. “He felt that it was something that would never happen again,” Rivera recalls.
Thomas’ directive sent Payne back to the 6th District, where he appeared to work as his own little RDU. Over a two-month period in 1994, for example, Payne and his new partner, Walter Vaughan, took 53 weapons off the streetsa feat that earned Payne the department’s “Top Gun” award. “A lot of Kris’ talents stemmed from RDU,” Vaughan explains. “He just had a nose for guns.”
When Payne came back to work in the 6th District, folks in the district’s embattled neighborhoods in Southeast and Northeast soon found that life on Payne’s beat could be dicey. According to attorney Michele Roberts, who represented one of his collars, Payne was the cop everyone knewnot just for busting thugs, but for busting everyone around them.
Roberts, who is one of the leading criminal defense lawyers in town, says kids on the street nicknamed Payne “All Good,” after the officer’s penchant for showing up on crowded street corners and declaring, “It’s all good,” before patting down everyone in sight. (Vaughan points out that most of the time it generally was all goodthe majority of their gun busts resulted in convictions.)
Lt. Atcheson, a friend of Payne’s since recruit class, says Payne may not have been real selective in his choice of perps, but he got results. “That’s all part of the job. If you want to make a good omelet, you have to crack an egg.”
Payne cracked some eggs, according to citizen complaints lodged during his tenure on the RDU and at the 6th District.
In among arrests of genuine crooks, Payne made some shaky decisions. In January 1991, Randall Palmer went to the Rib Pit Lounge on upper 14th Street NW. After getting his food, he trotted across the street to buy some sodas. Payne, who was then still part of the RDU, was in the neighborhood looking for suspicious activity. Payne allegedly grabbed Palmer and threw him against a building, according to Palmer’s CCRB complaint. Payne began to frisk him. Palmer asked why; Payne didn’t answer. “Shut up!” he shouted at Palmer as he rifled through the suspect’s pockets. The search turned up a piece of aluminum foil wrapped around…peppermint candy, according to the statement.
Palmer’s CCRB complaint went nowhere, but he eventually sued Payne and the District in D.C. Superior Court and won a $5,000 jury award. Payne was found liable for false arrest and imprisonment as well as not acting in good faith. The jury found that Payne hadn’t had probable cause to link Palmer to drug dealing.
Herman McMillian never received compensation for the beating he says he suffered at the hands of Payne. According to McMillian’s CCRB statement, Payne accosted him in another 14th Street drug bust. While McMillian lay on the floor with his hands over his head, he alleges, Payne and others in his unit punched him. McMillian pleaded with the officers to stop, but they continued hitting him on the face and back, according to the CCRB statement. McMillian had already been busted for drugs a couple of timeshe was never convictedand his complaint went nowhere.
Like many D.C. cops, Payne was not confronted by his supervisors for claims of overly aggressive policing. Because the review process was in such disarray, the department was incapable of policing its own, and the U.S. Attorney rarely charged out police misconduct. The only thing cops had to worry about was civil suits, most of which are settled out of court. (See sidebar, page 23.)
Complaints generally weren’t taken seriously, especially when they came from people like McMillian who had been part of the criminal justice system in one way or another for years. Within the fraternity of police officers, there is a strongly held belief that people on the outside don’t have any understanding of what it’s like to be a real cop in D.C. Even the best cops occasionally pressure suspects in ways Miranda doesn’t account for and rely on instinct when they lack probable cause. Many of the people Payne was policing may have thought of him as some kind of Robocop, but he found understanding and regard among his fellow officers.
It’s a good thing he enjoyed his work, because there wasn’t much to the rest of his life, according to people he worked with. Following a divorce in 1989, Payne had left his wife and two kids in North Carolina Army country. In 1997, he was ordered to pay $17,800 in child support, according to court papers from Jacksonville, N.C. He agreed to make monthly payments of $450 to his ex-wife to settle the issue. Payne fell deeper into his work and drifted out of touch with his family. His father says he hasn’t spoken with his son in 12 years.
“Last time I saw him was when I visited him
in North Carolina or South Carolina,” Paul
His obsession with the beat meant he occasionally took his job home with himfor example, when he unintentionally discharged his Glock in his apartment in March 1991. The bullet went through the floor into the next apartment. (The room was vacant.) Payne got a written reprimand.
That slip-up and citizen grievances didn’t slow down Payne’s career. He still got pay raises. He was still cruising in his midnight shift.
The problems that Payne had out on the streets had begun to leak into the squad room when Corboy took over as his supervisor.
Their first big set-to arose over a complaint registered by the mother of a kid Payne had allegedly roughed up. Corboy investigated the woman’s allegations and filed a report outlining the following sequence of events: On Jan. 18, 1995, David Thomas dropped off his aunt at her house. As he was returning home, driving along Division Avenue NE, Officer Payne pulled him over. Payne “pulled him from the vehicle and onto the sidewalk,” according to Corboy’s report.
“[Thomas] was pushed down on the back of the car,” Corboy wrote. “Payne’s gun was next to his head. Payne, continually referring to him as ‘hero,’ struck him on the left cheek with his hand.” Corboy noted that there had been at least one witness to the incident and that Payne had never called the dispatcher. Leaving dispatchers in the dark was a high crime to Corboy, who took the department’s general orders very seriously.
And within weeks of his transfer to the 6th District, Corboy says he spotted other shoddy practices among Payne and other members of his shift that disturbed him, including failing to carry note pads, making traffic stops without issuing tickets, and ignoring standard search procedures.
Those offenses went beyond administrative nitpicks. In a memo, Corboy suggested that part of the reason Payne caught so many fish was that he cast his net so widely.
“The nature of the allegations are very serious to me even without any physical abuse,” Corboy wrote in an interoffice memo of the Thomas complaint. “I’ve expressed my concern that these officers are routinely acting improperly on these so-called traffic stops….The nature of the allegations involves criminal, civil rights, and CCRB violations. I believe this is a commonplace tactic on the part of a minority of officers. I also believe, based on the number of arrests these officers have made for guns in recent months, that a large number of people have been subjected to this activity. It seems that these types of activities have significant civil liability implications for the department.”
Corboy’s bureaucratese at least hints at the prevailing police subculture of the 6th District. Four officers in the Sixth District had kicked more than 20 complaints in four years. Corboy took those complaints a lot more seriously than his charges: “I don’t know how many I’ve racked up,” says Officer Homer Littlejohn, who received five complaints from 1990 to 1993, with a laugh. “I’ve never been called down to CCRB….I’ve never personally been down there.”
But it wasn’t just civilians and Corboy who thought some of the officers in the 6th District kicked up more than their share of citizen complaints. Nick Lawrence, a 5th District officer who lives in the 6th District, doesn’t trust his neighborhood patrolmen. “I can say this: They lack proper guidance and supervision….The officers make up their own rules.”
Renee Raymond, an attorney with the Public Defender Service, attributes the 6th District’s abuses to the troubled neighborhoods in its jurisdiction and to officers like Littlejohn and Payne. “There’s some kind of military perceptionus against them, a siege mentality,” she says.
The day after the Thomas incident, Payne’s partner, Vaughan, requested to be reassigned to work “with someone other than Officer Payne,” according to Corboy’s memo detailing the incident. (Vaughan declined to comment on this subject.)
The problems went beyond traffic stops that got out of hand. On the night of Jan. 9, 1995, Payne pulled his cruiser up to a “group of black males” hanging out on the 5300 block of Dix Street NE, according to a report written by Corboy. One teenager, Reginald Johnson, fled as soon as Payne pulled up. Payne pursued on foot. Johnson had a gun, but by the time the chase reached the alley a few buildings away, the cartridge had fallen out, according to Corboy’s report. The two ran to the end of the alley, and Johnson attempted to scale a fence. No other cops had arrived on the scene.
Payne told police investigators he shot Johnson twice, once in the back and once in the elbow after the kid pulled out his weapon. Johnson’s attorney, Michele Roberts, says she has numerous witnesses to counter Payne’s version. Roberts believes Johnson was shot without any provocation and that he never pulled out his then-unloaded weapon. According to Corboy’s report, Johnson said Payne threatened him before he fired the two shots. “It’s all good,” Payne said, according to a statement Johnson gave Corboy. “I’m going to shoot your little ass.”
Roberts claims Johnson posed no threat. “He’s climbing a fence,” she argues. “He’s shot as he’s on the fence. As he’s falling, he’s shot again. Payne goes over to Reggie’s body, finds the gun in his clothing.”
Johnson was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer and various weapons offenses. To police investigators, Johnson wasn’t a sympathetic character: He had an arrest record in Maryland and an “unspecified…probation/parole record,” according to a department report. Corboy noted that the first thing Johnson asked from his hospital bed was “What about the gun? Can I get the gun back?”
In spite of his reservations about Payne, Corboy recommended the shooting as justified. However, the charges against Johnson were dismissed. During discovery for criminal trial, the department and the U.S. Attorney’s office couldn’t produce reports on Payne and the shooting, according to Roberts.
“I think they were being hamstrung by the police department,” says Roberts. Channing Phillips, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, says that at the time Payne was the subject of an internal police investigation for another matter that prosecutors didn’t want to disrupt. They re-opened the case later that year but determined that the evidence against Johnson wasn’t enough for a conviction, Phillips says.
Johnson filed a civil suit with the District. In settlement negotiations at D.C. Superior Court in April 1997, Payne laid bare his contempt for proceedings dedicated to second-guessing his police work. In mid-conference, Payne started to speak out loud to no one in particular. “Maybe I should go to law school so I can represent some drug boys,” he joked, according to Roberts. “Buy some fancy car.” Payne said he, too, wanted to make some money off the city. When Roberts looked up, Payne was staring right at her. Even though Roberts had confronted her share of police officers in representing clients, she found herself trembling.
“I remember being surprised, because he’s a police officer,” Roberts explains. “I remember physically shaking. It was so bizarre. I remember thinking, ‘What are you so nervous about? He’s not going to shoot you.’ I remember being scared of him. I was physically upset by him and couldn’t wait to get out of the court building. Later, outside…the minute I saw him again, I started to shake again.”
MPD’s Corporation Counsel decided to settle the suit for $12,500 because “conflicting witness statements and the District’s analysis of the facts made us conclude that the outcome of this case was uncertain. Settlement avoided risk of a much larger verdict,” says Deputy Corporation Counsel Martin L. Grossman. Lawyers who work for the city say that the decision to settle cases like Johnson’s frequently has little to do with the particular incident. It’s simply the most cost-effective way to represent a client as complicated and litigation-worthy as the police department.
Payne went back to his beat.
The call started out just like hundreds of others that Payne had handled in his six years on the force. While patrolling Kenilworth Terrace on cold Feb. 7, 1995, Payne heard a radio assignment to investigate a “man with gun” at 413 51 St. NE. at about 4 a.m. Ever ready, Payne picked up the assignment and cruised to the scene. There, he joined two other officers and began interviewing witnesses. Payne was cruising alone that night because of a shortage of manpower.
Earlier in the evening, Donnell Monts of the Lincoln Heights housing project had gotten got into an argument with his neighbor, Antonio Williams, 18. The two began to fight, and Williams pulled out a pistol, according to Monts’ mother, Deborah Ann Carethers. She heard the commotion and ran to break it up. She managed to snatch the gun away from Williams, but gave it back to him when he agreed to leave. She notified Williams’ mother, Terry, to tell her what had happened and then called the police.
Williams returned home and lay down for a minute in his bedroom, according to his mother. His brother Greg noticed his agitation and cautioned him, “Stay inside. It’s too late to go out.” But Antonio made a telephone call and then burst out of the house.
Payne arrived at the Williams house and proceeded directly to a picture of Antoniohe recognized the kid from a run-in several months earlier, according to Greg Williams. Payne left the house, scoured the neighborhood, and eventually spotted the teenager. He pulled up near Williams slowly and beckoned him over to the car, according to the police report. Williams said no and started to run away. Payne bolted after him on foot for about two blocks.
Payne ordered Williams to stop. Williams didn’t look back; he just stutter-stepped through the icy alley perpendicular to the 5100 block of Fitch Street NE.
The sound of ice cracking woke up Phill Richardson, a resident of 51st Street, whose bedroom had a bird’s-eye view of the alley. In a later deposition, Richardson said he heard yelling and then one gunshot. He looked out his window and saw Williams lying on the ground next to the Fitch Street sign.
Then Payne “walked over to him, looked at him, got in close, and fired one shot,” according to Richardson. Williams lay on his right side and wiggled in his white vinyl coat. Payne then stood up from the body, “stepped back a little bit and looked around, and came back and shot him two more times,” Richardson stated.
Payne stopped again and walked over to an adjacent fence, looked down the alley, and then came back to the teenager and fired two more shots at close range, according to Richardson’s account.
After discharging eight bullets, seven of which found their mark, Payne got up, put his Glock in its holster, and radioed for help. Then he looked down at Williams and said, “Hold on, partner, help is on the way,” Richardson reported.
Upon seeing Payne standing over the bullet-riddled body, a bystander yelled, “Oh, fuck! You didn’t have to shoot him that many times, motherfucker!” according to a 6th District police report. The bystander had to be restrained by police officers on the scene.
Greg Williams was one of the first to reach his brother’s side. He says he saw Payne and another officer standing over Antonio; his brother’s legs were still wiggling. Greg Williams also had to be restrained and was eventually ordered to go home.
When the paramedics arrived, they couldn’t do anything for Williams. He was transported to D.C. General Hospital and pronounced dead at 7:38 a.m., according to a police report.
A Glock is a big gun that makes big holes, and Williams had been hit seven times. Crime-scene photos depict Williams sprawled on the ground, his neck, head, and face perforated and smeared with blood. Although Richardson claimed he never saw Williams holding a gun, Payne testified otherwise. He told homicide investigators that he had shot Williams only after the boy turned and aimed his gun at him.
Payne later testified that he had never checked for a pulse or attempted CPR on Williams after he shot him. The boy’s pants were found pulled down; the Williams family lawyer, Charles Parsons, suggests that his gun was removed from his waistband after the shooting. The police report states that Williams’ gun wasn’t loaded. Why would he point an empty gun at a cop whose Glock was obviously ready to go?
When Corboy arrived at the scene, about a half hour after the shooting, he heard the sound of fists banging on the windows of a squad car. The Williams family, who lived just two blocks away, had heard about the shooting and hustled over to find out what was going on. They were almost immediately locked in a cruiser. Despite the objections of his colleagues from Homicide, Corboy opened the doors and sent the family home. A few hours later, the police arrived at their doorstep with Antonio’s bloody body for identification.
After the shooting, Payne got a ride down to the Homicide Branch to give a statement. He stopped off at a convenience store at the corner of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE to use the bathroom. He later testified that he was too scared and shaken up to wait.
His statement to Homicide was a study in police self-defense. “As I was chasing him I was telling him to drop the gun, drop the gun repeatedly,” Payne said in his statement. Throughout the chase, said Payne, Williams was “holding his right hand in front of him near his waist area.” As they neared the end of the alley, Payne said, he could see that Williams had pulled out his gun. As Williams turned toward him, Payne opened fire. “I was so scared that I was going to get shot,” Payne noted.
Payne refused to say how far away the suspect was from him at the time of the shooting. “I was concentrating on trying to stay alive and not be shot,” he said in a later deposition. “I didn’t have a tape measure out at that time.”
Ballistics tests were much more specific. According to a muzzle-to-garment test conducted by Firearms Examiner Leon Krebs, the shots to Williams’ head and shoulder traveled between 24 and 30 inchesvery, very close rangeand the other shots came from a distance greater than 30 inches. Even though Payne testified in a later deposition that Williams had been rolling when he was shot, the wounds formed a jagged line down Williams’ left side only. According to the police report, investigators found “a cluster of six additional shell cases around the body.” The crime-scene investigation, conducted by technician Louis Cooper, stated, “The seventh shell casing was recovered from under the feet of the decedent. Technician Cooper also recovered metal fragments, a cooper [sic] jacketed slug, which was located under the body of decedent.” The physical evidence seemed to corroborate the eyewitness’s claim that much of the shooting that had gone on in the alley was at very close range, while Williams was on the ground.
As is consistent with departmental policy, Payne was immediately placed on paid administrative leave. The day after the shooting, Payne followed protocol and went to his post-shooting debriefing with a psychiatrist at the police clinic in Blue Plains. That same day, Corboy checked up on Payne at 6th District headquarters to see if his subordinate was OK. Payne sat unfazed. “He wasn’t jumping out the window,” Corboy remembers.
Payne may have felt justifiedthat it was either him or Williams in that alleybut the neighborhood concluded that the incident hadn’t had to end the way that it did. Within months of the shooting, about 50 people marched from 6th District headquarters on Benning Road NE to the alley where Antonio Williams died, according to Terry Williams. Community activists held a candlelight vigil at the scene. They passed out protest fliers and petitions. They got few answers.
The Williams family, unimpressed by the 6th District’s response, sued Payne and the department for $5 million in a wrongful-death suit. The case is scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 4, 1999.
The incident clearly upset Payne, who said in a later deposition, “I felt sad for the family” as well as “society as a whole.”
His former partner, Jose Rivera, says that Payne knew that, given the amount of effort he spent pursuing guns and the people who possess them, it was only a matter of time before he had to deploy his own weapon to mortal ends. “We talked that it finally happened,” Rivera remembers. “Not that he was really happy about it, but it was foreseen that it was going to happen sooner or later.”
The investigation of the Williams shooting followed departmental protocol: The homicide unit conducted an inquiry, the results of which it passed along to the U.S. Attorney’s office for any potential criminal prosecution. Given what he knew about Payne and his history, Corboy tracked the investigation closely. Aware that there were facts in dispute over the shooting and frustrated by the slow investigation, he went to Homicide in search of answers the first week of July.
He learned that Homicide Detective George Kucik had released his findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Grand Jury Section .A May 22 memo by Cmdr. Lou Hennessy read, in part: “Based on all available information, an adverse decision by the Grand Jury is not anticipated.” That memo was circulated to then-Chief Larry Soulsby’s desk. By June, Soulsby had ordered Payne’s reinstatement.
Corboy later testified in a civil deposition that he told Homicide he thought they needed to rethink the case. There were enough conflicting statements, he suggested, to raise serious questions about Payne’s version of events. “My view of it was that Homicide should have rescinded [its findings] on its own,” Corboy stated. He had other concerns that were only intensified by the Williams shooting. He appealed to his supervisors in the 6th District, Cpt. Kim Dine and Cmdr. John Daniels, briefing them on Payne’s erratic behavior, the chest beating, and the two shootings. They seemed convinced that the matter was worthy of further investigation.
In the second week of July, Dine told Corboy to write a letter to Soulsby detailing his concerns. When Corboy checked with Kucik, who had headed the investigation, he urged Kucik to talk to Payne and others involved in the case in search of answers. According to Payne’s later deposition, Kucik talked to him only once and never challenged his version of the shooting. By this time, Corboy was convinced that the investigation was flawed from the crime scene on down the line.
“There were a lot of breakdowns,” says Corboy. “Mistakes were made.”
Corboy convinced Kucik to re-canvas the scene of the killing. Corboy says he wasn’t necessarily looking for clear answers, but for enough reasonable doubt to force another look at the evidence.
“I never had all the facts. I never did have all the facts,” Corboy says. “I raised questions and suggested they go out…and get to the bottom of those things.”
In spite of Homicide’s clearing of Payne, Soulsby called a meeting in early August to address Corboy’s concerns. Corboy was pleasantly surprised: Cases like Payne’s usually just disappeared.
In the chief’s office, Corboy was allowed to give a full presentation. He reviewed Payne’s record again, point by point. He covered his disturbing meeting with Payne, the Thomas complaint, the Johnson shooting, and the Williams shooting. He called Payne’s mental stability into question. According to Corboy’s later deposition, Soulsby was convinced enough to probe the case further.
Through the chain of command, Soulsby instructed Corboy to head to Blue Plains and tell his story to the psychiatrist who was working with Payne. But that’s where things stopped. The psychiatrist refused to meet with Corboy and asked that he put his thoughts in writing. Corboy went back to Daniels befuddled.
“Frankly, I didn’t think that preparing a report was the way to go in all of this, anyway,” Corboy remembers. “As it turned out, the issue was moot, because I never [was asked] to do anything….I never had discussions with anybody else.”
Corboy, however, did find an audience with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Prosecutor Steven Mellin spoke with Corboy several times about the Williams case. Along with Corboy and Kucik, Mellin went to the police property section to examine the white coat Williams had been wearing on the night of his death. Kucik and Mellin also conducted their own ballistics tests at the police firing range to chart the dispersal of shell casings off Payne’s Glock. Mellin never presented his findings before a grand jury, according to his later deposition.
Parsons, the Williams family’s attorney, scoffs at the notion of a prosecutor doubling as a forensics expert. “[The test-firings outing] was just the biggest crock that I’ve ever seen,” says Parsons. “I think that the evidence was overwhelming that the case should have been presented to a grand jury….They were looking for a way to get Payne out. They didn’t want to present Payne to a
Ramsey Johnson, special counsel to the U.S. Attorney, says sorting out a fatal shooting involving a police officer is no simple matter.
“Normally, when one person has used a firearm to take the life of another, it is criminal. But that’s not true with police officers. Their job is to protect all of us, and sometimes that requires that they use deadly force,” he explains.
Johnson would not comment specifically on the Williams case, but says, “If we hear there is a man with a gun running down the street, most of us would head in the other direction. But the police officer has to chase that person and resolve the situation….This is something society requires of a police officer, and to move [from that] to criminal intent is a pretty good distance.”
Johnson, who has worked extensively with MPD, says it’s important to remember that hindsight offers second guesses that a cop on the beat doesn’t have.
“These events take place on the street with blinding speed. We tend to parse them out step by step, [but] everyone knows how quickly an event can happen,” Johnson says.
From 1995 through 1998, the MPD’s Weapons Review Boarda panel that investigates all individual police shootings regardless of whether there are fatalitiesheard 266 cases. Of those cases, 227 were ruled justified, and 39 were ruled unjustified. The unjustified cases were dealt with through departmental measures, although MPD would not provide any specifics about their resolution.
According to Phillips, the U.S. Attorney’s office reviewed 36 cases of civilians killed by police officers from 1995 through 1998. Phillips reports that none of the officers were indicted.
The U.S. Attorney’s office dropped Payne’s case on Nov. 30, 1995, and referred it to the department “for appropriate administrative action,” according to a police report. Payne’s fate rested solely with the 6th District.
Lt. Sheila Hutchins, the 6th District investigator assigned to the case, was new to all of the details and circumstances surrounding the shooting, and by that time, witnesses and leads were getting stale. Corboy, meanwhile, had been transferred from the 6th District to Homicide. Since it was a departmental investigation, Hutchins was under serious time constraints. She had 45 days to make a case.
Corboy made repeated visits to Hutchins’ desk, but by then, Payne’s case was all but closed. Hutchins, busy with her new assignment, clearly believed that if Homicide couldn’t find anything wrong with the Williams shoot, then the 6th District wouldn’t either. (Hutchins declined to comment for this story.)
Payne’s initial statement was taken at the Homicide unit at 11:45 a.m. on the day of the incident. Despite all of Corboy’s prompting and conflicting statements from witnesses, Payne was never questioned further by Homicide.
The 6th District was apparently satisfied that its officer had done nothing wrong. With Hutchins’ blessing, Daniels ruled in favor of Payne’s reinstatement, according to a memo written by Daniels. In spring of 1996 Payne was off administrative leave and back on the streets.
The Williams family still runs into Payne from time to time. Last year, Jonelle Williams, Antonio’s sister, spotted him slamming a suspect against the wall of their Lincoln Heights project. Jonelle just stood there, her jaw dropped, her eyes fixed on Payne. The officer’s partner took notice and joked that maybe Jonelle knew him personally, says Jonelle. Jonelle says she refused to drop her gaze and Payne refused to meet it. He walked away without looking back at her. The family has requested a transfer out of the project from housing authorities, but they are still stuck on Payne’s beat.
Terry Williams, Antonio’s mother, tries to keep a record of the family’s conflicts with police in order. Along with report cards and pictures of first steps and first friends, Terry keeps track of her offspring’s run-ins with 6th District cops. On a recent Sunday afternoon, she filed through dusty duffle bags overstuffed with MPD memoranda and homemade complaint records and photos. She showed off a picture of Greg with a bloody cut just below his right eye. She said he had gotten that gash from an officer’s boot two months after Antonio was killed. “I try to keep Antonio’s and Greg’s stuff separate,” she explained, combing through the stacks of papers.
Another member of Terry Williams’ extended family died after a run-in with D.C. Police. Off and on for the past 20 years, Terry Williams has lived with Joseph Cooper. In November 1995, less than a year after the death of Antonio, Cooper’s son, Joseph Cooper Jr., was shot by an off-duty police officer, Sgt. Gerald Neill Jr., along East Capitol Street outside RFK. The family has requested records and reports concerning the shooting, but has yet to receive any information on how their son was killed. According to a Post story, the officer and Cooper got into a brawl, and then Neill pulled out his weapon and shot Cooper in the struggle. The family disputes the police version of events.
The Williams family’s suit has provided some answersalbeit conflicting onesabout what happened to Antonio Williams in the alley that night. Parsons is preparing for the standard government argument in defending a cop accused of shooting when he shouldn’t have: The kid had displayed threatening behavior toward his friend, Monts, and was prepared to fire on Payne. The defense will surely mention that a blood sample extracted from Williams after the shooting tested positive for PCP.
In order to dramatize Payne’s version of events, the city’s Corporation Counsel has shelled out $10,000 to produce an animated re-enactment of the incident. The re-enactment differs significantly both from Payne’s initial statement to homicide investigators and from his deposition before Parsons.
The video starts with Payne chasing after Williams. The teenager trips after the first shots are fired and then falls to the ground. He tumbles once and then gets up, gun in hand, facing the officer. Payne reacts by pumping several shots into Williams. In the video, the figure representing Williams stands for 10 seconds, taking bullet after bullet in a Terminatorlike display of stamina.
In his deposition with the Williams family’s lawyer, Payne described a different scenario. In that deposition, he said Williams had never stopped running to turn and face him with gun in hand. “What I’m saying is he was hit, he went down, he rolled, he turned over facing me now, and then he landed on his back once more and he rolled over again,” Payne stated of Williams’ movements.
“I just recall shooting and then when he was no longer a threat, I stopped shooting….He was rolling and tumbling, and I was shooting and running.” Payne testified that he stopped firing when Williams stopped rolling. “I don’t know where the shots went to.”
No one except Payne knows what kind of danger he faced in the alley that night or whether Williams was actually still presenting a threat after getting hit with the first few 9 mm bullets, but Payne’s varying accounts don’t do anything to clear up the confusion.
While on paid administrative leave, Payne was able to finish his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Maryland. According to Rivera, Payne hopes to leave patrolling Lincoln Heights for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Corboy has never seen any final report. He has never gotten answers to his questions, and he has never heard Payne’s deposition. He doesn’t even know where Payne is. “Let [MPD] explain how this stuff gets so screwed up,” he says.
Questions about why Payne needed seven shots to defend himself against a fleeing Antonio Williams aren’t the only thing that has lingered. The yellow police ribbon, with its black letters reading “Police Line Do Not Cross,” dangled on trees around the shooting scene for two years. Antonio’s brother Greg finally took the tape down in the early summer of 1997. CP