blue, red, and white police lights
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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You may recall Sgt. Matthew Nickerson from a few weeks ago—he’s the D.C. police officer who was called out by name during one of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s press conferences for a violent arrest of a man in his living room. Lennon English, the man who called Nickerson out, was arrested for assaulting a police officer in January 2021, but prosecutors declined to charge him.

English reported the incident to the Office of Police Complaints, which adjudicates complaints against officers independently of MPD, and an investigator cleared officers of wrongdoing, he says. But OPC sustained a different complaint against Nickerson stemming from a traffic stop in 2016, according to records provided to City Paper via a Freedom of Information Act request.

In that case, OPC complaint examiner Laurie Kohn determined that Nickerson and another officer harassed a man who they stopped for driving without tags. The man, who is not identified by name in OPC records, complained that officers illegally searched his car and parked it on the side of the road without his permission. Kohn sustained the complaint of an illegal search against two of three officers, including Nickerson, who was the supervisor on scene, according to OPC records.

Although Nickerson did not search the vehicle himself, he told Kohn the search would have been justified because the man told officers that he was affiliated with a “domestic terrorist organization.” Police were therefore justified in conducting a “pat down” of the vehicle to look for weapons, Nickerson claimed, according to OPC records.

The officer who actually searched the car gave Kohn a different explanation. That officer, who is unnamed in OPC records, said it was common for police to search vehicles after a person is arrested “to see if the subject had hidden or disposed of any other element of criminal activity,” OPC records say.

Neither of these explanations cut it, Kohn writes, and they “reveal a lack of understanding regarding the permissible parameters of vehicle searches incident to arrest.”

She cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. Gant, which established that officers can search vehicles of arrestees “only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest.”

Kohn determined the search was unreasonable because the driver was initially stopped for driving without tags. He was also handcuffed and standing outside of the vehicle when the officer searched it, according to OPC records.

Kohn ruled that the man’s accusations that officers mishandled his vehicle by parking it without his permission before taking him to jail were unfounded. She noted that MPD’s general orders do not easily apply to this particular situation, and officers were caught in a “catch-22.” But Kohn also noted that two of the officers who were with Nickerson that day, were unfamiliar with the proper protocol in the first place. But Nickerson, she writes, was aware of MPD’s protocols, “but was comfortable issuing orders that conflict” with them.

Officers’ lack of familiarity with the department’s internal rules, and Nickerson’s willingness to violate those rules is “regrettable,” Kohn writes, but that evidence does not amount to a sustained complaint.

“Not only was this search unreasonable harassment, it reveals a strong need for training and education of officers to understand this critical issue,” Kohn says in her report.

OPC’s sustained complaints are sent to the chief, who has sole authority to issue discipline for officers. OPC has no say in that process, leaving it powerless to enforce its own determinations of police misconduct and appear, at times, to let officers off the hook.

In March, OPC Director Mike Tobin called attention to Chief Robert Contee’s failure to suspend any officers without pay for any cases that OPC sustained since he was confirmed in May of 2021. Those cases involved “verified complaints of excessive force, harassment, [and] language and conduct,” Tobin says in his March letter. In at least four cases, Contee failed to issue any corrective action, Tobin writes.

Contee is following the trend set by his predecessors established in the years since OPC was first set up in 2001, Tobin notes.

“This trend has directly contributed to a lack of accountability and community mistrust of MPD,” Tobin writes. “Our current system of civilian oversight is clearly not as effective as it should be. Particularly with citizen complaints, MPD has demonstrated on repeated occasions over many years and several police chiefs that the department is not willing or able to provide proper accountability of its members.”

Tobin tells City Paper he would like to see the current structure changed so that OPC has some say in discipline. A bill introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson last year makes some changes to OPC’s operations but does not give the office authority to discipline officers.

As for Nickerson, MPD typically reports to OPC what discipline the chief has issued in connection with sustained complaints, and those actions are recorded in OPC’s annual reports. However, OPC’s report for 2017 shows the disciplinary decision for this particular complaint is “pending,” and no subsequent reports provide an update, so it is unclear whether Nickerson or the other officer faced any repercussions.

MPD did not immediately respond to City Paper’s email seeking an answer. We’ll update this post if we hear back.