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Justice Dept. Officials gather complaints of D.C. police misconduct for probe

(Published December 13, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

District residents turned out at two forums in the city last week to share their stories of police brutality with federal investigators charged with uncovering patterns of police misconduct in the city’s police force.

Residents from across the city showed up with scrapbooks, pictures, written testimony or just their recollections to tell representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice about incidents of police brutality to help investigators in their year-long federal probe of the Metropolitan Police Department.

The first of the two forums was held in Columbia Heights Dec. 7, just days after a police officer shot a man to death in the neighborhood. The death occurred when Officer Michael A. Harvey was flagged down at 13th Street and Clifton Terrace NW and told that a man was cutting himself with a broken bottle. When Harvey approached the man to try to persuade him to put down the bottle, the Guatemalan native reportedly turned on the officer. Police said Harvey fired several shots at the man, killing him. Harvey was placed on routine administrative leave with pay, pending the completion of an internal investigation of the shooting

Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, pointed out the shooting as a reason to remain vigilant against police misuse of force.

"We’re dealing with something that happens often enough that we should be concerned about it," Graham told the crowd gathered at All Souls Unitarian Church.

The Department of Justice has been conducting an investigation of the Metropolitan Police Department to try to uncover any patterns of brutality that might exist in the force. The investigation was started at the request of MPD Chief Charles H. Ramsey and Mayor Anthony A. Williams after newspaper reports last fall showed the District police fired their weapons at suspects at a much higher rate than other police departments.

The unique forums allowed citizens to talk one-on-one to officials from the Justice Department about instances of police brutality.

Steve Rosenbaum, head of the civil rights division of the Justice department, said the investigation is unique because it is the first time a police department has asked to be investigated. He would not comment on specifics of the ongoing investigation, but said the probe was about halfway through, adding, "we still have a ways to go yet."

Rosenbaum said that under a 1994 federal law, the Justice department is empowered to enact management polices to eliminate patterns of brutality in the police departments it investigates. He noted that his department is investigating the city’s police force because it found "sufficient preliminary evidence" of a pattern of police brutality. He also noted that this investigation is unusual because the justice department will write a final report of its findings when it completes its probe, something he said they have not done before. He would not say when the report is expected to be released.

Mark Thompson of the NAACP Human Rights Task Force, which co-sponsored the forum, pointed out that police shootings are only the high end of the spectrum of police brutality. He said residents need a system for reporting police brutality without fear of retaliation.

"People need to feel comfortable keeping the police accountable for their actions," Thompson said.

Because the District currently does not have an independent board that investigates police brutality cases, like most major cities, residents must report brutality cases to the police department.

"We know that not everyone feels confident complaining to the police department," Rosenbaum said. He said the forums offered residents a way of reporting brutality cases to an agency other than the police department.

Legislation was passed last year that re-established the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which was disbanded nearly a decade ago, to investigate police brutality cases. Because of funding problems and delays on the part of the Williams administration in nominating members, the board has yet to be established. The four civilian members were nominated last month, and the city council is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on their confirmation.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator