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With the shooting of 14-year-old DeOnté Rawlings by off-duty cop James Haskel this week, Mayor Adrian Fenty has been faced with a classic test of urban political mettle. A police-involved shooting is full of pitfalls—-step up to defend the cops too vigorously, and neighborhood anger gets stoked; don’t give enough support to the cops and you’ve got a pissed-off force to deal with.
Fenty’s first move: Let the feds figure this out.
On Wednesday, Fenty held a press conference on the John A. Wilson Building steps with police Chief Cathy Lanier, where he announced that the U.S. attorney’s office would be conducting an independent investigation. The mayor’s announcement got great press: The next day’s Washington Post story led with “Federal prosecutors assumed the lead role yesterday in the investigation into a D.C. police shooting” and was accompanied by a photo of Fenty and Lanier with a caption about how the U.S. attorney “is conducting an independent investigation.”
The accolades have continued. For instance, on today’s D.C. Politics Hour on WAMU-FM, Examiner reporter Michael Neibauer credited Fenty for “quickly moving it out of their hands, into the U.S. attorney’s office.”
LL agrees that Fenty deserves credit, but more for his PR skills than for his principled decisionmaking. You see, the U.S. attorney’s office oversees just about all criminal investigations in the city. After all, the District doesn’t have its own criminal prosecutor; one of the vagaries of the District’s colonial status is that the federal Justice Department is charged with prosecuting crimes under District law.
Every fatal shooting involving a police officer is referred to the U.S. attorney’s office, says Channing Phillips, spokesperson for that office. “That’s the standard procedure in these types of cases,” he says.
In fact, city police will continue to play a pretty central role in the investigation. It’s the police department’s Force Investigations Team who will actually do the nitty-gritty of interviewing witnesses and reconstructing what happened on Monday evening. The FBI will also be involved in the investigation, but even that, Phillips says, is not an uncommon occurrence.
The only thing out of the ordinary, Phillips says: “Usually you don’t have the mayor’s office announcing [it].”
Fenty spokesperson Carrie Brooks says there was no decision made in the mayor’s office or elsewhere in city government to change any procedures.
Says Brooks: “We wanted just to highlight that this was not the police department investigating themselves.”