The Washington Post
District Police Lead Nation in Shootings
Lack of Training, Supervision Implicated as Key Factors
The District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department have shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large American city police force.
Many shootings by Washington police officers were acts of courage and even heroism. But internal police files and court records reveal a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight, an eight-month Washington Post investigation has found.
Washington's officers fire their weapons at more than double the rate of police in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami. Deaths and injuries in D.C. police shooting cases have resulted in nearly $8 million in court settlements and judgments against the District in the last six months alone.
"We shoot too often, and we shoot too much when we do shoot," said Executive Assistant Chief of Police Terrance W. Gainer, who became the department's second in command in May.
The shootings involve a small proportion of the District's 3,550 officers. But the details of individual cases can be chilling even to police veterans: An off-duty police officer out walking his dog in August 1995 fired 11 times while trying to stop an unarmed motorist who had hit a utility pole and left the scene of the accident. An off-duty police officer fishing in May 1995 shot an unarmed man three times after arguing with him on the banks of Rock Creek. In August, an officer ended a police chase of an irrational truck driver who had rammed several cars by firing 38 times into the truck's cab, killing the unarmed driver.
The extent and pattern of police shootings have been obscured from public view. Police officials investigate incidents in secret, producing reports that become public only when a judge intercedes. In a small hearing room closed to the public, nine of every 10 shootings are ruled justified by department officials who read the reports filed by investigating officers but generally hear no witnesses.
The spate of police shootings in the District this decade is closely tied to the training and supervision of officers and the way the department investigates cases and holds officers accountable, records and interviews show.
Police shootings began to rise at the beginning of the decade with a huge infusion of new, ill-prepared recruits and the adoption of the light-trigger, highly advanced Glock 9mm handgun as the department's service weapon. By the mid-1990s, shootings by officers had doubled to record levels even as a succession of police administrations failed to accurately track shooting patterns or correct acknowledged deficiencies in firearm skills. . . .
District officers in the last five years shot at 54 cars they said drove at them or others in "vehicular attacks." The shootings have killed nine people -- all of them unarmed -- and wounded 19. Police officers in the District and elsewhere are instructed to get out of the way and not shoot at moving cars, except in the gravest circumstances, because bullets can ricochet and because cars with wounded drivers can become unguided missiles. In New York City -- with 10 times the number of officers and 14 times the population -- officers shot at only 11 cars in vehicular attacks in the last three years. . . .
No one disputes that D.C. police have had ample reason to draw their weapons in many cases, and there have been many dangerous incidents in which officers displayed restraint and discipline. The District has had one of the nations highest rates of homicide and violent crime. Some police officers suggest that police shotings are high in the District because the homicide rate is high. . . .
Indeed, eight District police officers were killed in Washington from 1990 to 1997 -- a number surpassed by only a half-dozen other U.S. cities, each much bigger than the District. . . .
Still, the District's violent streets do not entirely explain the rist of police shootings in this decade. . . .
Officer Terrence Shepherd said he shot and killed Eric Anderson, an unarmed 18-year-old sitting in a car at a traffic stop in June 1996, because he feared the man was both reaching for a weapon and getting ready to run him over. But evidence shows the officer fired while he stood behind a police lieutenant. Sheperd's captain said Shepherd told him that his finger was on the trigger and that his gun "went off."
"Things happened so fast," Shepherd said in a recent interview. "My only priority is to stop the threat. I've been in that situation. I know. You've got to have the police instinct." . . .
The rise in police shootings in the mid-1990s went largely unnoticed among the top officials charged with policing the police.... Shooting incidents and trends are supposed to be closely watched by the department's Use of Service Weapon Review Board.... But the Post found that the board was unaware of seven fatal shootings that occurred between 1994 and 1997....
Washington Post. 11/15/98