[Hpn] Prince George's Officers Killed With Impunity

coh coh@sfo.com
Tue, 03 Jul 2001 14:31:21 -0700


http://washingtonpost.com:80/wp-dyn/metro/crime/A64231-2001Jun29.html

Officers Killed With Impunity
Officials Ruled Shootings Justified in Every Case -- Even of Unarmed
Citizens 

By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 1, 2001; Page A01


First of four articles

By any measure, Prince George's County police have shot and killed people at
rates that exceed those of nearly any other large police force in the
nation.

Since 1990, they have shot 122 people, killing 47 of them.

By one standard  the number of fatal shootings per officer  they killed
more people than any major city or county police force from 1990 through
2000.

Almost half of those shot were unarmed, and many had committed no crime.
Unlike many departments, Prince George's top police officials concluded that
every one of the shootings was justified.

Among the shootings ruled justified:

An unarmed construction worker was shot in the back after he was detained in
a fast-food restaurant. An unarmed suspect died in a fusillade of 66 bullets
as he tried to flee from police in a car. A homeless man was shot when
police mistook his portable radio for a gun. And an unarmed man was killed
after he pulled off the road to relieve himself.

An investigation by The Washington Post found that during the past decade,
Prince George's police miscalculated the threat they faced dozens of times 
mistaking an object for a gun or a sudden movement for an act of aggression.
Moreover, the police department defended shootings by issuing reports that
were riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and half-truths.

In many cases, official police accounts were at odds with witness statements
and facts contained in autopsy reports, court documents and other records.

For example, in 1995, police shot and wounded a man who allegedly tried to
run over an officer with a Chevy Blazer. A jury acquitted the man of assault
after he and other witnesses testified that the vehicle was not moving and
that he had raised his hands to surrender when he was shot.

In 1997, police said they shot and killed a distraught college student
because he attacked them with a knife. When his family sued years later, the
officers admitted under oath that the dead man never touched the alleged
weapon  which turned out to be a butter knife sitting on a kitchen counter.

In 1998, two officers said they fatally shot a Landover teenager in
self-defense after he tried to grab their guns. In fact, records indicate he
was shot 13 times in the back while he was unconscious and lying facedown on
the floor.

Encounters that result in gunfire often are more dangerous for police
officers than they are for civilians. Police routinely put their lives at
risk to protect the public, and most Prince George's officers who have
resorted to lethal force did so to protect the innocent or themselves.

Officers must make split-second decisions whether to fire, and if they
freeze or flinch, they can end up dead. Two Prince George's officers have
been shot and killed in the past decade.

But in Prince George's County, many of the same officers shoot again and
again. Almost 20 percent of the shootings examined by The Post involved an
officer who had wounded or killed someone before. One officer killed three
unarmed people and fired at two others.

Police Chief John S. Farrell said he has ordered the entire 1,400-member
agency to undergo retraining in the past year to reduce the use of deadly
force.

"We're not sitting around here in a cheering section for officers who use
excessive force," he said. "We're spending lots of time and lots of money on
training. And I think we've turned the corner."

While proper training is critical, law enforcement experts said shooting
rates also are shaped by the depth of internal scrutiny and the willingness
to discipline officers.

They said it was highly unusual for a police department to have as many
shootings as Prince George's and find fault with none of them. Since 1990,
no officer has been fired or demoted for shooting someone.

The Prince George's County Police Department has a history of violence that
spans four decades, a period in which the county evolved from a rural
expanse east of Washington into a densely populated home to more than
800,000 people.

The department has been dogged by controversial shootings and beatings since
the 1960s. A succession of county executives and police chiefs have promised
reforms, but the problems persist.

The Post began its investigation 15 months ago, after a year in which
officers shot 10 people, five of them fatally.

Eight months later, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would
conduct a comprehensive review of the Prince George's Police Department.
Federal investigators are studying the use of deadly force, as well as
alleged patterns of brutality, racial discrimination and abuses by the
canine squad.

The FBI collects statistics on fatal police shootings from each police
department in the country, but criminologists consider the figures to be
unreliable. The Post conducted its own survey of the nation's 50 largest
local law enforcement agencies, which includes the Prince George's Police
Department, to determine how many fatal police shootings occurred in those
jurisdictions from 1990 through 2000.

The results showed that Prince George's police shot more people to death
during those 11 years than their counterparts in Dallas, San Antonio, San
Francisco, Seattle, Nashville, Cleveland, Milwaukee or Boston.

When measured by six standards commonly used to evaluate use of deadly
force, the Prince George's police ranked at or near the top in almost every
category.

No other police department ranked so high across the board.

Prince George's police led the nation in fatal shootings per officer and
fatal shootings per arrest. Based on the number of shootings per resident,
only four departments ranked higher: the District, Baltimore, Detroit and
New Orleans.

Farrell did not dispute the numbers but said shootings have become less
frequent since he became police chief in September 1995.

Although the number of fatal shootings has dropped since his arrival, the
same thing has happened across the country. From 1996 through 2000, for
instance, Prince George's police still shot and killed people at rates as
high as four times the national average.

Prince George's officials refused to disclose records about police
shootings, saying it would be "contrary to the public interest" to do so.
County lawyers used the same justification to withhold many other police
records.

In reporting this series, The Post interviewed more than 500 people and
relied on autopsy reports, workers' compensation files, FBI documents and
several thousand pages of court records to find details about people who had
been shot or beaten to death by Prince George's police.

Wrong Move Proves Fatal

After a night of drinking May 20, 1998, Gary Leonard Sanford Sr., 42,
decided to stop his truck along U.S. 1. He got out of the vehicle next to a
closed gas station.

A county police officer pulled up. The officer later said he thought Sanford
was reaching for a gun, so he shot him in the stomach and left thigh.

It turned out Sanford was unarmed. He either was reaching for his wallet or
pulling up his pants when the officer fired, police investigators later
concluded. Sanford bled to death.

The officer, Cpl. Joseph M. Palmieri, was cleared of wrongdoing two months
later by police investigators and a grand jury. It was the second time in
five years he had shot at an unarmed man who had reached in his pocket for
something that turned out to be harmless. Palmieri did not respond to phone
calls and letters seeking comment.

"The officer shot my dad for no reason except that he was taking a leak,"
said Stacy S. Schroth, Sanford's daughter. "Don't they go to training for
this?"

Sanford was a casualty of what police call a "waistband" shooting  an
encounter in which officers open fire because they think someone is reaching
into a pocket or a belt for a concealed weapon.

The scenario has repeated itself scores of times in Prince George's County.
Almost as often as not, the officers were mistaken about the potential
threat: Since 1990, 45 percent of the people shot by county officers were
unarmed, records show.

Prince George's police are trained on a computerized simulator that tests
their reactions to hundreds of lifelike situations. The program teaches
officers that they put themselves and others at risk if they do not react
quickly and decisively.

But outside experts who have studied the police department's training
programs said there is a lack of emphasis on self-restraint.

"What they're doing is almost setting [police] up to shoot people," said
Robert W. Klotz, a retired District police commander. "If you teach them
they can shoot at a furtive movement and that everybody they deal with is a
bad guy who can kill them, then you shouldn't be surprised when they shoot
people."

For example, Officer Kendrick Bailey and Cpl. Howard M. Thompson fatally
shot Burl Courtney, an ice cream salesman, on June 28, 1991, after they
found him hiding in the attic of a house in Largo. Authorities said
Courtney, 32, lunged out of a dark corner as though he had a gun.

He did not. An autopsy report shows that he was shot 24 times, with 22 of
the bullets striking him from behind. Both officers involved declined to
comment.

Marvin Partee, a District man, made the wrong move twice in one encounter
with Prince George's police.

Partee, then 35, and a friend were driving a Pontiac station wagon through
the Glassmanor section of Oxon Hill early May 23, 1996. Two officers
followed them for several blocks before pulling over the car for going 43
mph in a 25 mph zone.

As they stopped, Partee reached for something under his seat and bolted from
the car, according to court records. Sgt. Richard Logue picked up the chase
on foot.

As they turned a corner, Partee stumbled on a curb and clutched a
"glistening black object" in his hand, Logue later testified. The officer
said he was sure it was a gun, so he raised his Beretta 9mm semiautomatic
pistol and squeezed the trigger once.

The bullet missed. Partee threw away whatever had been in his hand and tried
to crawl away on all fours. Logue circled around him and, after watching
Partee reach into his pants for another "black object," fired three more
shots.

This time, Logue struck Partee in the back of each leg.

The first black object turned out to be an address book with a shiny black
cover. The second black object was a small pouch containing heroin and
marijuana, according to court records. There was no gun.

"I just saw this shiny object in his hand," Logue testified at Partee's
trial. "In my whole heart, the thousands of times I've pulled people over,
the thousands of times I've chased people through the woods or streets, the
only time I shot was at people that I honestly believed had a weapon in
their hand."

Circuit Court Judge Darlene Perry said Logue had no cause to shoot. "There
are a lot of black objects that may or may not be guns," the judge said from
the bench. "The officers were not threatened at all."

Partee, who declined to comment for this article, was found guilty on drug
charges and sentenced to 16 years in prison. The Maryland Court of Special
Appeals overturned his conviction, declaring the arrest and shooting
"illegal actions."

Conflicting Accounts

In numerous cases, police officials attempted to justify shootings by giving
explanations that were later undermined or contradicted by eyewitnesses,
physical evidence and even the officers' accounts, court records show.

Cpl. Alita V. Robinson was wearing her Prince George's police uniform while
moonlighting as a security guard at a Popeyes fried chicken restaurant in
Lanham on Nov. 20, 1998. Just before midnight, she said, she saw a customer
walk up to the counter with something perched behind his ear that looked
like a blunt  a marijuana-stuffed cigar.

She said she watched the man, Daniel Jose Torres, a 32-year-old construction
worker, for about 20 minutes as he waited for an order of french fries,
according to court records. When she confronted him, the object behind his
ear was gone, she testified later.

Robinson commanded Torres to look on the floor for the alleged contraband,
thinking he had dropped it. He complied at first, but when he tried to walk
away, Robinson ordered him to his knees.

Torres resisted, the officer said.

"He pushed back toward me  real hard  so I sprayed him with pepper spray,"
she testified. "Then he reached into his waistband, like he had a gun . . .
so I shot him. I thought he was going to shoot me and the customers in the
store."

Torres was hit by one bullet in his back and another in his buttocks. His
lawyer later said he was blinded by the pepper spray and was trying to wipe
his eyes with his shirt when Robinson shot him. He was unarmed.

Police charged him with second-degree assault and resisting arrest.
Prosecutors tacked on two more charges: failure to obey a police officer and
drug possession. Police said they found marijuana in the restaurant but not
in Torres's possession.

At the trial, Robinson testified that she arrested Torres because he was
disorderly.

"He was talking very loud in the store," she said. "I asked him to get on
his knees, and he refused. So I had to take control of him."

That was a different story from the one Robinson told internal affairs
detectives. In a 10-page written statement, she made no mention of loud or
disorderly conduct by Torres. She declined to comment for this article.

Prince George's District Judge Thurman Rhodes found Torres not guilty on all
counts. He ruled that police had no right to arrest Torres and that he was
legally entitled to defend himself.

"The defendant had a reasonable right to resist," Rhodes said from the
bench.

The Wounded Face Charges

About 40 minutes after the New Year had arrived in 1995, Cpl. Warren M.
Hayes was breaking up a fight outside a Capitol Heights dance club when he
said a man in a Chevy Blazer gunned the engine and tried to run him over.

"I felt that I was about to die," Hayes testified later.

Hayes said under oath that he fired several shots as the Blazer hurtled
straight toward him, striking the driver in the arm and shoulder. The
officer was not hurt. It was the third time he had shot at someone.

Police charged the wounded man, Michael Otis Mills, 24, with assault with
intent to murder, assault with intent to maim, assault with intent to
disable and reckless endangerment.

The case crumbled in court. Mills acknowledged that he was inside the
Blazer, watching the fight, but he said the vehicle never moved. He said
that he put his hands in the air to surrender when Hayes yelled, "Freeze!"
but that the officer shot him anyway. Several witnesses backed up his
account.

A jury found Mills not guilty. Hayes declined to comment.

Defense lawyers say Prince George's police routinely pile on criminal
charges after shooting someone to make it appear justified. Of the 75 people
who survived their wounds, all but six were charged with crimes, according
to court records.

"If someone can't see a pattern in these cases, they don't have eyeballs,"
said Joseph M. Niland, the county public defender. "The pattern has existed
for a long time  years  where police fire at people and then as an
afterthought they realize they have to justify it. And then the defendant
gets a whole lot of charges he wouldn't have gotten otherwise."

Police Accounts Stand

The Post's examination of police shootings during the past decade also
reveals a pattern in which investigators rarely challenged officers'
accounts and dismissed evidence that raised questions about their actions.

On May 20, 2000, police said, Officer Michael A. Arnett shot a burglary
suspect who refused to drop a knife during an attempted break-in in the 2400
block of Gaither Street in Temple Hills.

The suspect, Kendell Grant, 42, bled to death.

Neighbors said little about Grant's appearance that night suggested that he
was a burglar: He was stripped down to his underwear as he stood on a
friend's porch and banged on the door about 12:15 a.m., yelling things no
one could understand.

Kenneth Coleman, a neighbor who saw the incident unfold, said officers were
30 or 40 feet away from Grant when they opened fire. Grant was struck by
eight bullets: five of them to the back of his hips, legs and buttocks,
according to an autopsy report.

"The cops . . . they asked me all these questions," Coleman said. "The last
question was, 'Do you think the officers were justified?' I said it all
depends on what you call justified."

Police officials cleared Arnett of wrongdoing. He did not respond to phone
calls and letters seeking an interview.

Three weeks later, on June 9, 2000, police officials said Cpl. Charles K.
Ramseur shot and wounded an unarmed man outside a Hyattsville pizza parlor
after he ignored orders to stop running from the scene of a fight.

The wounded man, Jose Buruca-Melgar, said the officer overreacted and shot
him without warning. His account was supported by a witness who told The
Post that the man was not fleeing and that Ramseur opened fire from inside
his police cruiser.

Police officials exonerated Ramseur after they said they could not locate
the witness. Ramseur did not respond to written requests for comment.

The reluctance on the part of the police department to conduct rigorous
investigations has persisted for many years.

Cpl. Archie D. Joiner opened fire on a man sitting in a wheelchair on the
front steps of a Suitland apartment complex on May 17, 1992. He struck the
man twice in the midsection and once in the arm.

Police said the man, James E. Minter Sr., 19, had been "verbally abusive"
and disobeyed Joiner's commands to keep his hands behind his head. Joiner
pulled the trigger because he feared that Minter was reaching in his
waistband for a gun, police said.

But Minter didn't have a weapon. Moments before, Joiner and the other
officers had frisked him and searched a bag in his lap, taking a pellet gun,
Minter said.

Minter said that police ordered him to keep his hands in the air but that he
got angry when Joiner called him "a cripple."

"That's when I said, 'What are you talking about, fat boy?'" he recalled.

Minter said that he spat a few curse words and that Joiner responded with
gunshots. The wheelchair toppled onto the sidewalk.

"They patted him down and were talking trash to him," said Alexis Allen, 28,
a friend of Minter's who saw the shooting. "That's when the shots rang out."

Joiner, who is no longer on the force, declined to comment. In a petition
for a restraining order filed in court last year, Joiner's ex-wife wrote
that he was forced to retire from the police department "for brutality."

"He had already frisked me and knew I didn't have no weapon. He was mad
because I was talking back to him," said Minter, who was not arrested or
charged with a crime.

Investigations Clear Officers

The police department investigates each shooting to determine whether the
officers committed a crime or violated internal regulations. The findings
are kept confidential.

The reality, however, is that Prince George's police who use their guns
almost always are cleared of wrongdoing, records and interviews show. No
Prince George's officers have been fired or demoted for shooting someone
since 1989, according to court records and the local chapter of the
Fraternal Order of Police.

Farrell confirmed that no shooting has been ruled unjustified since he
became chief. Police union officials said a few officers have been cited for
related violations  such as failing to notify dispatchers immediately after
a shooting  but that none has been disciplined for pulling the trigger.

Experts said police departments rarely punish officers for using deadly
force. But they added that agencies that never find fault with a shooting
are probably not scrutinizing them closely enough.

"Police administrators, many of them are reluctant to challenge an officer's
version," said Lou Reiter, a former Los Angeles deputy police chief. "They
are afraid of creating civil liability, but by not being aggressive, not
seeking the truth, they are creating more civil liability."

In Montgomery County, where police have shot 28 people since 1990, officials
concluded that four of the shootings were unjustified, records show. Last
year, District police officers shot seven people; one case was found to be
unjustified.

Elsewhere, police in Harris County, Tex., ruled that one of the 27 fatal
police shootings in the Houston suburb between 1990 and 2000 was
unjustified. And five of the 49 shootings by police that resulted in death
or injury in DeKalb County, Ga., outside Atlanta, were ruled unjustified
during the same period.

Prince George's police can take several months to complete a shooting
investigation. But police officials don't always wait that long to make up
their minds about whether a shooting was justified.

Officers Matthew C. Barba and Harry W. Oldfield III said they acted in
self-defense when they shot and killed an unarmed teenager in a vacant
Landover apartment May 13, 1997. Police said Tyrone Antwon Harris, 18, of
Fort Washington, had attacked the officers and tried to grab their guns.

The next day, though they had yet to interview Barba and Oldfield, the
police brass said they had no doubt the officers had acted properly.

"There was no provocation [by the officers] whatever," said police spokesman
Royce D. Holloway. "The suspect immediately charged them. . . . One can only
imagine what the outcome would have been had he gotten an officer's gun."

"Both officers are a credit to their agency and to the community," said
their commander, Maj. Clifford Holly. "I am very, very proud of them."

Three months later, Barba and Oldfield were formally exonerated.

Interviews and documents obtained by The Post shed a different light on the
officers' actions that day  and on the manner in which Harris was killed.
For example, police did not examine the officers' guns for fingerprints to
see if Harris had grabbed the weapons. Nor did they test Harris's clothing
for gunshot residue to verify the officers' account that he was shot during
a hand-to-hand struggle.

Richard Fulginiti, the homicide detective in charge of the investigation,
said he thought the tests were unnecessary.

"I didn't see a need," he said in a deposition for a lawsuit filed by
Harris's parents.

Fulginiti also said he didn't try to question Barba or Oldfield because he
didn't want to violate their constitutional rights against
self-incrimination.

Instead, he said he concluded that the shooting happened exactly as Barba
and Oldfield described it in their written accounts.

Officers are required to fill out a form called a Discharge of Firearms
Report immediately after a shooting. One reason it must be completed so
promptly is out of concern that if officers have the chance to talk to each
other, they might agree to a false version of events if they had done
something wrong.

Copies of the reports obtained by The Post show that the officers' written
narratives were nearly identical  word for word in many places.

Wrote Oldfield: "The subject attempted to take this officer's weapon. This
officer shot the subject in self-defense."

Wrote Barba: "The suspect attempted to take this officer's weapon. This
officer shot the suspect in self-defense."

Both officers declined to be interviewed for this article.

Police investigators also dismissed the account of an eyewitness.

Standing in an unlighted corner of the vacant apartment was a friend of
Harris's named Antione Glasgow, 19, of Landover. Glasgow was not involved in
the struggle or charged with a crime, but he said he saw the whole thing.

According to court records, he told detectives that Harris was leaving the
apartment just as the officers came in. There was a brief confrontation,
followed by gunshots.

Harris was shot in the head and crumpled to the floor, facedown. As he lay
there, badly wounded and unconscious but still alive, the officers stood
over his body and fired a volley of shots into his back, Glasgow said.

Glasgow declined to speak with a reporter, saying he feared retaliation from
police.

But his account was backed up by Harris's autopsy report. It showed that
police had fired 13 rounds into Harris's back, striking his heart, lungs,
stomach, right kidney, intestines, liver, spine and ribs.

Glasgow's statement also was supported by the crime scene report, which
showed that several bullets had been fired into the apartment floor.

In addition to the 13 shots in his back, Harris was struck four times in the
arms and once in the right cheek, the latter wound occurring after someone
had jabbed a gun barrel in his face, the autopsy found.

In August 2000  three years after the police department declared the
shooting justified and put Barba and Oldfield back on the street  lawyers
for Prince George's County agreed to pay the Harris family an undisclosed
sum of money to settle their lawsuit.

Since then, the county has agreed to confidential settlements in two other
lawsuits that accused Barba of using excessive force, court records show.

Indictments Are Rare

Responsibility for policing the police rests with Jack B. Johnson, the
Prince George's County state's attorney. Under a policy put in place by his
predecessor, a grand jury reviews every police shooting in the county.

Since he became the top prosecutor in 1995, Johnson said, he has stepped up
scrutiny of police shootings and misconduct cases.

"No one began to deal with this issue until I began to deal with it," he
said. "We've come a long way, and I think we've been pretty forceful."

But court records show that police officers are rarely indicted. Punishment
is even rarer.

Since 1990, three officers have faced criminal charges as a result of the
evidence brought before a grand jury.

One of them, Brian C. Catlett, was indicted on a charge of manslaughter in
the Nov. 27, 1999, death of Gary A. Hopkins Jr., an unarmed college student
who was shot outside the West Lanham Hills fire station. Catlett was found
not guilty by a judge in February. Police officials later gave him a special
award related to the shooting.

Two other officers were indicted after they shot their girlfriends, one
fatally, with their police-issued Beretta 9mm pistols. Both resigned after
pleading guilty.

Only one served time behind bars: a total of 13 hours.

By their own admission, prosecutors are handicapped in their grand jury
presentations because they rely heavily on detectives to investigate their
fellow police officers. Last year, Johnson blamed "a blue wall of silence"
for his inability to bring charges against officers who beat a man to death.

In the past, Johnson said, the county moved too quickly to exonerate the
police. He said the grand jury was used "as a rubber stamp" to clear
officers when he was a deputy state's attorney between 1989 and 1994.

"There were a number of shootings that I remember vividly in my mind and I
felt an indictment was absolutely in order, but it wasn't my call," he said.
He declined to identify those cases.

Grand jurors themselves have questioned whether prosecutors take police
misconduct seriously.

In 1994, a grand jury issued a report criticizing prosecutors for not giving
it more information about police shootings and openly wondered whether such
cases were "being buried until forgotten."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt, director of computer-assisted reporting Ira
Chinoy and database editors Sarah Cohen and Dan Keating contributed to this
report.

 2001 The Washington Post Company

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