On the evening of Jan. 17, 2005, a D.C. police officer pulled over a Domino’s delivery man along the 800 block of Alabama Avenue SE for running a red light. The pizza man denied the charge, asking which light he had run and demanding to speak to the officer’s boss.
The cop refused to answer any of his questions and wrote up a $75 ticket. The pizza man continued protesting until, without saying a word, the officer reached into the driver’s-side window, grabbed the man’s right wrist, and told him he was under arrest. He was taken to the 7th District police station and was eventually released without any charges filed against him.
This account is the pizza man’s, from a written narrative he turned in later that year to the city’s Office of Police Complaints (OPC), an independent city agency. It was OPC’s job to verify or disprove the pizza man’s allegations of false arrest and excessive force. An OPC investigator interviewed the officer in question and wrote up his side of the story—that he made the arrest because the pizza guy’s rantings posed a threat to his safety.
But only the pizza man would swear under penalty of perjury that his story was true. The officer refused to sign and swear over his.
By then, the officer’s allergic reaction to autographing his own account wasn’t a surprise: The cop was just doing what a lot of his fellow rank-and-file have done and what the Fraternal Order of Police and police department bigwigs have condoned. More than 70 times in the past two years, D.C. cops have refused to cooperate with OPC investigations—and few have suffered any disciplinary action as a result.
According to statistics provided by the OPC, there were three cases of cops not cooperating with its investigators in 2004, 19 cases in 2005, and more than 51 cases in 2006. At the current rate, the agency expects more than 100 cases in 2007. And an uncooperative officer doesn’t have to worry about repercussions from his bosses in the police department.
Of the 51 cases last year, department records show 26 involved officers refusing to sign statements; 18 involved officers failing to appear at a hearing; five involved officers failing to answer questions; and two involved officers refusing to participate in mediation sessions with complainants “in good faith.”
Philip Eure, the OPC’s executive director, says the steady increase in the number of stonewalling cops can be tied to the police department’s refusal to crack down. Eure says the department is running afoul of the D.C. code that helped establish his agency. It stipulates that cops “shall cooperate fully with the Office in the investigation and adjudication of a complaint. Upon notification by the Executive Director that [a Metropolitan Police Department] employee has not cooperated as requested, the Police Chief shall cause appropriate disciplinary action to be instituted against the employee.”
The department apparently sees a lot of wiggle room in the word “shall.” Of 51 cases, police records indicate the department failed to reach any decision in 22 of them because the inquiries went beyond a mandated 90-business-day limit on disciplinary investigations. In another 22 cases, the officer was exonerated. Four more cases are pending. Only three cases, all involving the same officer, merited a proposed 15-day suspension.
At the end of 2006, the OPC’s report stated that the department failed to discipline its officers in 92 percent of its noncooperation cases. And Police Chief designee Cathy Lanier has continued the policy.
Says Eure: “It’s throwing sand in the umpire’s eyes.”
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who oversees the police department as chair of the Judiciary Committee, says the trend is troubling. “If the public feels there’s a coverup or there’s a good-old-boy network or the public feels that no matter what they do, the police can thwart any independent investigation, they’re going to be angry,” he says. “And nobody benefits, including the police.”
When a complaint is filed, an OPC investigator begins by interviewing the complainant, then assembles a written narrative of events from the interview. The complainant then has a chance to go over the narrative, checking for accuracy. If something is not right, the investigator goes back into the document and makes the changes. The complainant must initial each paragraph and sign off on the entire document as accurate and true. Using the same process, the investigator then interviews any witnesses as well as the officers in question.
“They have complete control as to what they add or delete,” Eure explains.
But in spring 2005, OPC investigators noticed more and more officers were uncomfortable with the procedure. Some officers started to refuse to answer the most basic questions during interviews. Eure says his agency’s stumpers have included:
• “What is your height and weight?”
• “What is your previous law enforcement experience?”
• “What is your partner’s name?”
• “Do you wear corrective lenses?”
Investigators also began hearing Fraternal Order of Police representatives, who often accompany and advise targeted officers, telling their clients not to sign the final narratives. Suddenly, the OPC was sitting on a lot of cases that either couldn’t be completed or were saddled with asterisks. In a few cases, the officers’ noncompliance hurt their credibility; investigators concluded that their uncooperative interview only helped sustain the alleged victims’ claims.
In the pizza man’s case, for instance, harassment and excessive force allegations against the officer were sustained. In her final report, the examiner wrote: “In refusing to sign his statement, [the officer] refused to certify that it is true and correct to the best of his knowledge and recollection. A reasonable inference is that [he] did not sign the statement because he was not truthful and did not furnish correct information during his interview.”
Since the stonewalling issue surfaced, Eure says his office has repeatedly asked the police department for an explanation. Month after month, the department did some stonewalling of its own. The department’s brass, Eure says, told him they were going to discipline officers. Then they came back and said they had to check with the department’s lawyers, that they were looking into the issue.
Despite the OPC’s willingness to turn in stubborn cops, D.C. police union head Kristopher Baumann continues to advise cops not to sign the reports. “These aren’t the officers’ words,” he says. “These officers are asked under penalty of perjury to sign a statement they did not write themselves.”
Baumann argues that the current procedure is just too time-consuming. “You simply get worn down,” checking off each paragraph, analyzing every sentence, he says. “You are talking about pages and pages….You have to actually go back and structurally change every single sentence….This is like being handed a novel and going and being told now you go through and you change every single sentence in here to the point where you would have written it.”
The union suggested some solutions, Baumann says, like having the officers simply write out their own narratives or have OPC investigators tape interviews and have verbatim transcripts done. If investigators had follow-up questions, they could ask the officers to write out their answers. “This is an issue that could have been settled in a day and still could be settled in a day,” he says.
In November, Eure says, the OPC began giving officers the option of writing out their statements on a blank form after they’d refused to sign the investigator’s prepared narratives. Still, he says, many officers rejected the offer.
Detective Samuel McGee is one of them. In 2006, McGee went before the OPC twice, for allegations of harassment and demeaning language. Both times, he says, he answered investigators’ questions, and both times he refused to sign their write-ups. On the second occasion, he offered to sign if he could have a copy. The investigator said he could not and instead offered the blank-paper option. But there was a catch: The original write-up would have to be packaged with the new one. McGee recalls saying: “What do you think I am? An idiot? I’m going to give you two different statements, one in my words and one in your words?”
“The way that they handle things down there, you’re going against a stacked deck,” McGee says. “You know there’s going to be some craziness.”
Eure blames the police department for the delay in establishing a policy that all can agree on. Despite repeated requests through 2006, the department never outright stated its policy regarding uncooperative officers.
At a March 8 hearing before the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, Lanier said only that the issue was “ongoing” and that the delays in addressing the cases were a “tracking” problem.
In an interview after the hearing, Lanier said she saw both sides of the issue. “Exactness of a statement is important to us,” she said. But she added that taping interviews and transcribing them might not be feasible. And she says that officers who fail to show up or refuse to answer questions should be disciplined.
“That’s noncompliance,” she said.
Complicating matters, Lanier says, is that officers are not necessarily violating the department’s own policies by refusing to sign statements to investigators.
But, she says, “I am committed to a resolution on this.”
Even under Lanier’s watch, the department has been exonerating far more officers than it’s been disciplining. According to figures furnished by the police department, officers were cleared in 12 of 14 cases closed since Lanier took over. OPC figures show an even worse track record, with 27 of 28 officers exonerated.
“[The department] has not cited and cannot cite any legal basis for refusing to discipline officers in all these matters,” Eure says. “[The department] is breaking the law—clear and simple.”