On other police forces, Officer Kristopher Payne’s penchant for kicking up complaints might have derailed his career. Many members of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), though, have developed their own view of citizen grievances. “When you got out on the street, the old saying was, ‘You’re not doing any police work if you don’t get complaints logged against you,’” says a lieutenant who insists on remaining anonymous. Despite Payne’s alleged shortcomings in protecting citizens’ rights in addition to citizens themselvesrepeatedly pointed out by Lt. William Corboy, his supervisor in the 6th Districtthe department’s disciplinary process never caught up with Payne. In fact, it never even came close.
Payne was the subject of five citizen complaints. None were upheldmost were denied for “lack of jurisdiction.” Throughout Payne’s first six years on the force, the conduit for disciplinary action against officers was the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a panel that was christened in 1981 and eventually folded in 1995. On paper, CCRB provided a legitimate civilian check on abuses of authority by patrolling officers: If the board found a cop guilty of misconduct, it could recommend disciplinary action to the chief of police and mayor. In most cases, the higher-ups concurred with the board’s recommendations.
But most cases didn’t make it that far. According to disciplinary documents, CCRB took between one and five years to process 75 percent of its caseload from 1988 to 1991. Some files languished without action for as long as seven years. During the panel’s legendary lag times, complainants and witnesses moved out of town or forgot the particulars of the case, evidence disappeared, or cops moved on to other jurisdictions.
Not that officers had much to fear even when CCRB got around to making a ruling. From 1982 to 1990, CCRB sustained only 86 cases out of a total of 630, or 14 percent.
“The whole citizen complaint review board had grown dysfunctional,” says George Lehner, a lawyer who brought a famous 1991 brutality civil case against the department. From 1986 to 1990, Lehner learned, only 490 of 1,850 cases had been processed. “The whole disciplinary function of the police department had fallen down,” Lehner says. “The police department had carte blanche. They didn’t have too much concern if they decided to take liberties with citizens’ liberties. It wasn’t even a slap on the wristnothing would happen. Nothing would happen for years.”
In 1995, the CCRB finally shut down, bequeathing more than 800 cases that had been sitting for years to the MPD’s Audit and Compliance Branch. The disintegration of ineffectual civilian review left cops in charge of adjudicating other cops’ behavior. Police officers tend to give a wide berth to a cop who is making instantaneous judgments out on the street. And a rash of citizen complaints sends a different message within the ranks.
“You might have an officer who’s an outstanding officer, who brings in your meat and potatoeshe does the job,” says the lieutenant. “There may be a conflict of interest where you don’t want to see your officer hemmed up, receive any type of disciplinary action. Your good officers are usually the ones that get the complaints. It’s the hard workers. It’s not showing favoritism, it’s, ‘Hey, I know this officer is out there doing his job.’”
The department’s current disciplinary procedures are no more expeditious than the civilian review process they replaced. Once a complaint is taken, it gets a log number from the MPD Office of Professional Responsibility. From there, the complaint is passed up to police administrators and the U.S. Attorney’s office. The entire process is supposed to take no longer than 45 days, but a single snag can set it back for months.
Capt. Kevin Keegan, director of the Audit and Compliance Branch, defends the process. “I think the investigations are being handled more thoroughly,” he says. “It’s certainly better than backlogging several years.”
Findings in favor of complainants are still rare. In 1996, the process sustained 45 of 347 complaints, or 13 percent of the processed cases, the same meager rate managed by the CCRB. Of 328 complaints in 1997, 29 were sustained, or just 9 percent.
The current chief of MPD, Charles Ramsey, is not a fan of the department’s efforts to police itself, calling it “substandard, if not negligent,” in part because the department does not have sufficient internal controls to resolve cases. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, more than 75 percent of America’s 50 largest cities have some form of civilian review. Last summer, the D.C. Council passed legislation to establish a new Office of Citizen Complaint Review and awaits executive approval.
But for the time being, keeping cops in line rests with the department itself. MPD’s Audit and Compliance Branch also administers another hedge against officer misconduct: the Early Warning Tracking System. Introduced in 1992, the system operates as a sort of insurance policy for the department. The office compiles a mark in each officer’s file for any recorded misstepwhether it be adverse action, a civil case, or a citizen’s complaint; officers don’t have to be found guilty of any offense.
Recently, officers who failed to show for court appearances have flooded the tracking system with marks, obscuring more extreme instances of misconduct, like excessive force and arbitrary arrests.
If an officer collects three marks within two years, he is placed in
the tracking system. The system is not used to weed out problem
officersno cop has ever been dismissed based on tracking data, according to Keegan.
Once cops are in the system, their supervisors fill out evaluations addressing behavior and training. The reports go through the chain of command and then undergo review to determine the officers’ psychiatric and training needs. Officers are tracked for two years, after which the marks against them are deleted from the system. If the officers have avoided other trouble, they are no longer tracked. Although the system doesn’t automatically trigger disciplinary action for officers who rack up marks, it does help supervisors keep an eye on troubled cops. According to one of Payne’s former supervisors in the 6th District, Cmdr. John Daniels, Payne was one of the officers who was being tracked. (The department does not reveal why a particular officer has been flagged and declined to comment on Payne’s status.)
Because the District’s oversight on police behavior has been so diffuse and ineffectual, civil suits often represent the citizen’s last line of redress. MPD officers are defended by the Corporation Counsel, which has represented Payne in three separate cases. Although the Corporation Counsel will defend Payne against the Williams family’s wrongful-death suit in court, it usually opts to pay settlements for excessive force and false arrest complaints. According to figures compiled by Martin L. Grossman, deputy corporation counsel, from 1994 through the third quarter of 1998, the city’s lawyers settled 310 of 495 cases, with the city paying out a total over $1 million annually, on average. Jane Carol Norman, an attorney who has represented a number of assault victims, says she never even gets to the deposition phase. Norman believes MPD and the District government simply consider these payouts part of the cost of doing business. Settlements for cases in which inappropriate deadly force is alleged to have been used are much more rare. During the same nearly five-year period, the city was served with 49 suits arising from police shootings and settled just eight of them. (Earlier this year, the city settled a shooting case for $150,000, far and away the largest payment in the past five years.)
The city’s settlement policy gives officers who regularly skirt departmental procedures a safety net. “I know officers who are considered by their peers to be excessively violent….[Their supervisors] find it easier to simply sweep them under the carpet than confront the problem,” says police watchdog Carl Rowan Jr. And he isn’t impressed by the department’s early-warning system.
“People who exhibit violent or threatening behavior, putting them on a list doesn’t do anything. At what point do you root them out?” Rowan asks.
Rowan claims the department’s disciplinary mechanismslike the tracking system and internal complaint reviewexist primarily for PR purposes. “I think it’s something done because they have to do it,” he says. “All the talk is there, all the rhetoric is there, but the action doesn’t match the words. You can go to any district in the city, and officers will tell you who the problem officers are. Everyone knows who they are, but they remain on the force unless they screw up so badly that they can’t fall between the cracks anymore.” Jason Cherkis