In 1998, an eight-month Washington Post investigation found that the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department had shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large municipal police force in the country. According to the investigation, 85 people were shot and killed by the D.C. police between 1990 and November 1998.
The problem, one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning articles noted, was “a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight.”
But today the number of fatal police shootings has declined sharply, from 16 in 1995 to two in 2006.
The D.C. police officials say the decline is due to a number of dramatic changes that were implemented following publication of the Post’s investigation by then-chief Charles H. Ramsey.
In 2001, the D.C. police signed a memorandum with the U.S. Department of Justice agreeing to cooperate with a review of police shooting cases throughout the 1990s.
According to Matthew Klein, the current director of internal affairs for the D.C. police, a number of new policies were also created to clarify when the use of force is appropriate and how to document it.
“The problem that we had was officers, supervisors and managers within their own chain were investigating these uses of force,” Klein said.“We created an independent unit that specialized in just investigating force. We took away their ability to justify shooting that weren’t necessarily justifiable.”’
This unit, named the Force Investigation Team, was similar to an internal affairs unit, except that it focused exclusively on issues of force, said Klein, who commanded the team from 2002 until he took on his current position in 2004. Since its inception, the unit’s scope has expanded beyond officer-involved shootings. It now investigates the department’s canine bite policy and the deaths of suspects in police custody.
This is a far cry from the department’s old system. The Post investigation found that nine out of every 10 shootings in the 1990s were ruled justified by “department officials who read the reports filed by investigating officers but generally hear no witnesses.”
But the investigation of police shootings was only half the problem, Klein said. According to the Post investigation, the District added 1,500 officers— 35 percent of the force—in 18 months beginning in the summer of 1989 in a crash hiring program mandated by the U.S. Congress. These officers were inadequately screened, trained and supervised, the police department told the Post. Especially lacking, it said, was training on the department’s new standard- issue firearm, the Glock 9mm, intended to combat the increased firepower wielded by drug dealers.
“In ’98, really no one could account for how many officers received firearms training, and the training itself was just lacking,” he said. “You showed up at the range, you fired your gun and you left.”
To correct this gap, Chief Ramsey ordered new firearms training for all 3,500 members of the force. Training was expanded to cover not only how and when to shoot, but also how not and when not to shoot, Klein said. A roleplaying component was also added.
The number of police shooting fatalities declined from 12 in 1998 to one in 2000, leveling out to between two and five in the years following.
Ramsey stepped down in January 2007, handing the reigns over to Cathy Lanier. Klein said that Lanier has continued pushing the importance of complying with the department’s agreement with the Justice Department. In addition, the D.C. police is now negotiating an amiable close to the agreement with the Justice Department.
“Overall, since we implemented these policies, the number of [officerinvolved] shootings has gone down proportionally,” Klein said. “They leveled off from the really high numbers of the late ’90s.We’ve probably plateaued.”
In Chicago, Gerald Frazier, president of police watchdog group Citizens Alert, said the city’s problems are different from the District’s and require a different solution. “As much as you hate to, you have to play the cultural card, you have to play the race card and you have to play the lack of discipline card,” Frazier said. “Those three…make for bad and unprofessional policing.”
Frazier said police shootings and issues of police brutality could be quelled with a new recruiting philosophy and more consistent discipline after complaints of police abuse.
Placing officers in communities that they are already familiar with could lead to a more understanding and cooperative relationship between police and the community, Frazier said.“There’s a huge lack of understanding between cultures,” he said. “[We need] people who are going to take a stake in the community that they serve.”