Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Will Police Misconduct in DC Finally Be Addressed?

As reported in the Washington Post, on January 24, the D.C. City Council will hold an oversight hearing to address issues related to police misconduct in the District.  Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee said he wants Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) Chief Cathy L. Lanier to answer questions about whether police officers who are engaged in unsavory behavior are being identified. 

Wells, who is running for mayor, stated “[i]t is very important to me that residents have confidence in our police officers to be upstanding citizens who are on the side of angels and not people who commit crimes.” 

Wells’ statements and the scheduled hearing come on the heels of three recent arrests involving MPD police officers.  Two Seventh District Officers were recently arrested and charged with sex-related crimes (one of those officers died shortly after his release from what initially appears to be a suicide in the Potomac River).  Another officer was recently charged with attempted murder stemming from an apparent incident of domestic violence in Prince George’s County.

Chief Lanier acknowledged that two of the three officers were hired more than 20 years ago when MPD had more lenient hiring standards in order to increase the size of the police force.  Lanier also stated that she would like to have “as many meetings as possible to let people know the facts,” help stop rumors and reassure the general public about the quality of MPD officers.  Chief Lanier will be available at the Seventh District on January 9th to speak to District residents. 

In total, 18 MPD officers were accused of criminal misconduct in 2013, according to an op-ed written by Chief Lanier published in the Washington Post.

As a Washington, DC Criminal Lawyer, I am all too familiar with the fact that not all police officers are model citizens.  But while criminal misconduct is certainly a major cause for concern, I am more troubled by conduct that although not always criminal in nature, certainly violates the public trust bestowed upon the police.

I’ll preface this by saying that I have very good professional and personal relationships with numerous police officers in the District.  I believe that the majority of officers who protect the District and its citizens are honest and upstanding men and women, who strive to perform their duties to the best of their abilities without infringing on the civil rights of the individuals they are sworn to protect.   Being a police officer is an extremely difficult and dangerous job and I salute all those individuals who choose to put on a badge and carry a gun to protect the citizens of the District.  And to those officers who perform their duties properly, I say thank you.  While it would be preferable to end this blog here, unfortunately there is another side of law enforcement –  a side that is not quite criminal, not as honorable, is often deplorable and all too often infringes on the rights of the District’s residents and visitors.   

I have been involved in the criminal justice system in DC for long enough to know that there is a substantial percentage of officers who, on a daily basis, engage in conduct that cuts against everything that law enforcement is supposed to stand for, namely, integrity, honesty and the idea that all citizens should be treated with respect no matter where they live or what color their skin is.  Every day there are police officers who are making traffic stops without cause, searching individuals on street corners for absolutely no reason and making arrests despite an utter lack of any evidence of wrong doing.  Further, there are officers who are falsifying police reports, destroying evidence and sometimes much worse. 

And while this type of behavior certainly is not standard practice for law enforcement, this is the behavior of a small (but much too large) subset of law enforcement officers who unfortunately create a poor public perception of their profession as a whole. 

What is particularly troubling is that the misconduct is often most highly concentrated in lower income areas of the city.  Although crime is often more concentrated in those areas and therefore police officers are faced with a more difficult job, it is hard to overlook the fact that the residents of these neighborhoods are also those individuals who have less of a public voice and less financial and political means to shed light on police misconduct. 

Regardless of what quadrant of the city you reside, it should never be the case that law enforcement personnel would abuse their authority and violate your civil rights.  But this type of thing happens everywhere, from ClevelandPark to Anacostia to Capitol Hill.  Until police officers start being held more accountable for their actions (something that I unfortunately do not believe is in the immediate future) the community as a whole will suffer. 

While it is commendable that Council member Wells wants to address the rising problem of police criminal misconduct, I think a better use of time and resources would be spent on police misconduct as a whole.  Particularly, MPD – as well as all other law enforcement agencies in the District – should focus on making sure that none of its officers ever engage in conduct which deprives any individual in the District of his rights.  This would truly serve to better the community and keep DC residents safe from both criminals and those police officers who have given themselves carte blanche to police our streets in any manner they choose.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of police misconduct or is facing criminal charges in Washington, DC, please contact Sean J. Farrelly for a full and free consultation.

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