When Cops Have to Battle Criminals and Guns—and Bureaucracy

Two earlier posts—Washington D.C.’s Police Department Was Once a Lot Like Many U.S. Police Departments Still Are Today and Diary of a Young Policeman— showed how the Washington, D.C., police department dealt with long entrenched police attitudes and how one idealistic D.C. policeman was forced out because he believed too much in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . .”

Then, while D.C. police were grappling with increasing racial tensions and violence, a new challenge arose—the bureaucracy of the U.S. Justice Department.

Harry Jaffe, longtime senior writer for the Washingtonian, describes below how good D.C. cops found bureaucracy to be the toughest enemy of all:

Police departments across the country are struggling with how cops use force in the line of duty. In the eyes of many activists aligned with Black Lives Matter, police draw their guns with little provocation and discharge them too often, especially at African Americans. That criticism of the police might be justified given the spate of high profile police shootings of black men who appear to present little threat—Philando Castile in Minneapolis and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge are the most recent examples.

But cops in Washington, D.C., are laboring under another threat. Since the Justice Department forced the D.C. Police Department in 1990 to accept a rigorous system for documenting and investigating use of force, DC cops have been disciplined and penalized for using force as simple as cuffing a suspect. As a result, many cops are reluctant to perform basic police tactics of search and seizure.

FBI Director Jim Comey angered the White House in May when he said many police officers are now hampered by fears their actions will become viral videos. They would rather not get out of their scout cars than be pilloried in social media. It’s called de-policing. Cops in the nation’s capital have been “de-police” for decades.

In this Washingtonian story, Why DC’s Best Cops Aren’t Protecting You, good cops suffered because they tried to protect themselves following a drug investigation. Praised? No. Terminated.

The two nut grafs from Harry Jaffe’s story:

The changes began in 1998 with a Washington Post series on DC police that described “a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay.” Chief Charles Ramsey had just taken over the department. Shocked by the newspaper series, he became the first police chief in the nation to invite the Justice Department in to review the police department’s use of force. In 2001 Justice drew up a memorandum of agreement with the DC police revising the regulations governing the use of force. The result put in place a system for controlling and disciplining cops, including the creation of special divisions and an outside monitor to investigate police behavior.

The apparatus seems to investigate cops with more rigor than it investigates criminals. What started in 2001 as a system to monitor cops who used their weapons too often has developed into a blunt instrument that punishes some of DC’s best and brightest and allows criminals to use the system against officers trying to make streets safe.

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