Despite Department Rules, Officers
Have Used Gunfire to Stop Drivers
Second of five articles
By Jeff Leen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 1998; Page A01
Hopping sidelong and holding his pistol in a two-handed grip, the man with the
gun fired two shots through the side window of a Hyundai amid Monday morning
rush-hour traffic on Florida Avenue.
One horrified witness thought he was
seeing a drug hit. But the shooter was D.C. police officer Vernell Tanner. His
dead victim: an unarmed 16-year-old wanted for driving recklessly and running
red lights. Tanner said the youth had tried to run him over.
The death of Kedemah Dorsey on May 15,
1995, was not an isolated incident.
A year earlier, Detective Roosevelt Askew
had shot and killed unarmed 19-year-old Sutoria Moore as he sat in his car
during a routine traffic stop.
A year later, Officer Terrence Shepherd
would shoot and kill unarmed 18-year-old Eric Anderson as he sat in his car
during a routine traffic roadblock.
In each case, the officer said he was
forced to fire to prevent a "vehicular attack" by the driver. But the
department eventually determined all three of the shootings to be unjustified.
In the last six months, the District has agreed to pay $775,000 to settle
lawsuits brought by survivors in the three cases.
Like their counterparts in cities across
the United States, D.C. police are instructed to shoot at unarmed people in cars
only in extremely rare cases, to protect their lives or the lives of others. Yet
since mid-1993, D.C. police officers have fired their weapons at cars 54 times
in response to alleged vehicular attacks, killing nine people and wounding 19,
an eight-month Washington Post investigation has found. In the overwhelming
majority of those cases – and in all of the fatal shootings – the driver was
"That's really chilling," said
James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University and former New York City police
lieutenant who has researched police shooting patterns for two decades.
"What's happening is the District is bearing the cost of the errors of the
past, the way they've hired and trained these officers."
Despite the discipline imposed on officers
in some individual cases, the overall pattern of car shootings has continued
throughout the 1990s. On Aug. 21, D.C. police surrounded a motorist on
Interstate 295 who had vandalized one car and rammed three others, including two
police cars, police said later. The trapped driver rammed a car carrying three
passengers. To protect them, Officer Jacques Doby killed the unarmed driver by
firing repeatedly into the truck. Doby shot 38 bullets, reloading twice,
according to a police official.
"I'm really concerned about all these
shootings," said Terrance W. Gainer, the department's new executive
assistant chief. "What we're seeing in these cases are officers
inappropriately putting themselves in harm's way because we haven't trained them
On Friday, Chief Charles F. Ramsey
announced a new policy on the use of force placing even further restrictions on
officers attempting to stop cars. "When confronted with an oncoming
vehicle, [the] officer should move out of its path," the new policy states.
Car Cases Conflict With
Police in Washington and throughout the
country are restricted in shooting at cars for both common-sense and legal
reasons. Bullets tend to ricochet off car bodies. And if an officer hits a
criminal driving a car, the officer may only succeed in turning the vehicle into
a 2,000-pound unguided missile.
"To successfully fire at a vehicle,
let alone a moving one, is something that only seems to work well in the
movies," a training manual produced for the D.C. police warns. "In
real life your odds of 'killing' a car are about as good as becoming the next
chief of police."
Finally, District law – reflecting
common practice across the country – does not permit police to shoot even at
fleeing felons in cars unless they pose an imminent threat to lives. The 9th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996, for example, reinstated a $259,000
judgment against a San Francisco police officer who shot and killed the driver
of a slow-moving car. The officer said he fired because the car was about to run
him over. But the court found that "a reasonable officer could not have
reasonably believed that shooting a slowly moving car was lawful," even
though the driver was wanted for a purse snatching.
"Our policy is you never fire at a
vehicle," said Detective Walter Burnes, spokesman for the New York Police
Department. "The contention here is if a vehicle is coming at you, you have
the option to get out of the way."
The number of car shootings by District
police far exceeds the numbers for other high-crime cities like New York City
and Miami, The Post found. "Most departments have moved to prohibit these
kinds of shootings, unless somebody in the cars was armed and shooting at the
officers," said Michael Cosgrove, a former Miami assistant chief who has
testified as an expert in police shooting cases.
None of the 54 Washington car shootings
examined by The Post involved drivers or passengers shooting at officers,
according to police and court records. In nine cases, the department ruled the
shootings unjustified and disciplined officers, The Post found. Of the nine
fatal car shootings, five were ruled unjustified, one was ruled justified and
three are pending.
Of the 29 car-shooting cases in which
detailed information could be culled from police and court files, The Post found
that 16 occurred after traffic stops and an additional 11 when police made
felony arrests, three of them for alleged violent offenses. In five cases, the
driver was found to be armed but did not shoot at police. In three cases,
officers made statements that investigators considered false about the
circumstances surrounding fatal car shootings.
The Post examined 13 cases from the last
five years in which a driver who was shot at by police was charged with
assaulting an officer with his car. Only one of the 13 was convicted.
Officials Fail to
Notice Rising Problem
The parade of incidents has not generated
much official reaction. Not at the department, which investigated all the
incidents. Not at the corporation counsel's office, which has defended police in
more than a dozen lawsuits related to car-shooting cases in the last three
years. And not at the U.S. attorney's office, which reviews all fatal shootings
involving D.C. police.
"I do kind of remember more than a
few in cars," said Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who was
the District's U.S. attorney when the cases were reviewed. "I don't know if
that's typical of what you find in police shootings outside D.C."
It isn't, according to experts and
officials in other departments. From 1995 through 1997, for example, D.C. police
officers fired at cars 29 times to defend against vehicular attacks, according
to department documents. In the same period, New York City police, with more
than tenfold the number of officers, fired at cars 11 times.
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the
University of South Carolina who reviewed a dozen summaries of car-shooting
cases prepared by The Post, said he saw a pattern of D.C. officers approaching
suspicious vehicles from the front on foot, making themselves vulnerable.
"Clearly, officers are putting themselves in bad positions," said
Alpert, who has advised large city police departments on the use of force.
"They're putting themselves in harm's way as a justification for using
Lowell Duckett, a former D.C. police
lieutenant who was a firearms instructor at the police academy, said training
for firearms and "vehicle skills" – how to stop vehicles involved in
felonies, when to shoot at cars – was cut back just as a record influx of new
recruits arrived in 1989 and 1990. Officers from those classes were involved in
more than half of the 54 car shootings examined by The Post.
"We said then, 'You're going to have
more police shootings and they're going to be unjustified,'‚" Duckett
said of the training cutback.
Other D.C. officers say that criminals in
the District often use their cars to try to escape and that fast-moving
circumstances may force officers to shoot.
"The mind-set was to get away from
the police," said Claude Beheler, a retired deputy chief. "You can't
shoot at a fleeing vehicle. There are strict guidelines to never shoot at a
moving vehicle unless the vehicle could cause serious bodily injury or death.
But these things happen in split seconds. Things move quickly. These cases are
Most departments don't track the number of
times their officers shoot at people in cars. Alpert at the University of South
Carolina collected data showing that the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida
had 49 car shootings from 1984 to 1994. Miami-Dade's 10-year total is less than
the District's five-year total, even though Miami-Dade has twice the population,
nearly as many officers and more crime.
D.C. officers in five years killed nine
people in cars, compared with four in 10 years for the Miami-Dade officers. The
D.C. officers also fired three times as many bullets per car shooting – an
average of six, to two for the Miami-Dade officers.
The D.C. shootings differed in another
way: Twelve of the D.C. car shootings occurred while the officers were off duty,
compared with one for the Miami officers. Off-duty shootings generally are
considered more problematic than on-duty shootings because citizens may be
unaware they are dealing with police officers and because officers without
adequate backup often feel more vulnerable.
What follows is a look at five D.C. police
car-shooting cases that left four people dead and one person wounded. The first
case involved a conspiracy, and two officers were criminally indicted and
convicted. The middle three shootings were declared unjustified by the police
department, and one officer has been fired. The last shooting was ruled
justified even though officers' accounts conflicted.
In each case, according to witness
statements and forensic evidence, the threat to the officer who fired appeared
minimal. In the five incidents collectively, the sum total of jail time for the
officers involved was 15 days.
'Come On, Sarge, Help Me Out'
Police searched for evidence in May 1997
at 16th and Newton streets NW after Officer Rayford Larkin fired six
rounds at a suspected car thief who allegedly tried to run Larkin down.
The man was wounded; police declared the shooting justified.
(Craig Herndon – The Washington Post)
At 1:41 a.m. on July 15, 1994, Detective Roosevelt Askew pulled up to help Sgt.
William Middleton, who had stopped a 1993 Geo Prizm in the 3400 block of 15th
Street SE. The Geo had run a stoplight and had tags that did not match the
vehicle listed in the police computer.
The driver "gunned the engine and
took off at a high rate of speed, driving directly at an officer who was
surrounding the vehicle," a police report said. Askew fired once "in
an effort to stop the assault" on Middleton, the report said. The driver,
Sutoria Moore, 19, was hit in the back of the neck. He was taken to D.C. General
Hospital and pronounced dead at 3:29 a.m.
The police report was a series of lies:
Middleton had not been standing in front of the car. The unarmed driver had not
tried to run him down. And Askew had not fired to protect Middleton.
Prosecutors soon found themselves
confronted by a coverup that used a "vehicular attack" story to
conceal an unjustified shooting. Suspicions were raised because the officers'
accounts conflicted with the physical evidence. Askew acknowledged to a
prosecutor in early 1995 that his gun went off accidentally when he pushed
himself away from the car body as Moore suddenly revved the engine. He later
said his conscience had been bothering him.
"I knew in my heart that the truth
had to come out," Askew said in a civil deposition.
Askew said Middleton suggested the
vehicular attack story while they were sitting alone in Middleton's police
cruiser minutes after the shooting. Askew said he was in shock at the time and
"had the mind of a child. I believe Sergeant Middleton took advantage of
Middleton, in his civil deposition, said
it was Askew who concocted the story. Middleton said that Gregory Archer, the
first homicide detective on the scene, questioned Askew in Middleton's patrol
car while Middleton sat in the front seat, a violation of the department's
requirement that officers involved in shootings be separated during the
investigation. Archer said in an interview that he did not recall whether he
placed the officers in the same car.
As Archer interrogated him, Askew told the
vehicle attack story and appealed for Middleton's support, saying, "Come
on, Sarge, help me out," according to Middleton's account.
Middleton also discounted Askew's
subsequent version that the gun discharged unintentionally. "He had to have
fired the gun on purpose," Middleton said. "But his reason for it, I
Exactly three years after the fatal
shooting, Askew pleaded guilty to lying about it. A Marine Corps veteran with 24
years on the D.C. force, Askew, 51, was sentenced to two years' probation and a
$5,000 fine on the misdemeanor charge. Askew did not respond to messages seeking
Three days later, Middleton, 47, also
pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for saying that he had been in front of Moore's
car during the shooting when he actually had been on the driver's side. He got a
six-month sentence, with all but 15 days suspended. Like Askew, he is no longer
on the force.
Middleton said in an interview he had
never worked with Askew before and had no reason to lie for him.
"I felt like he thought he saved my
life, so I kind of put myself in a position that I wasn't really in,"
"I was in for 27 years [on the police
force]. I was out there making traffic stops, arresting people, writing tickets.
I always felt that when I got my paycheck, I wanted to earn it," Middleton
said. "You'd be surprised the heartache I had behind this death. It really
hurt. It really, really hurt."
The car Sutoria Moore was driving turned
out to have been stolen in a carjacking three days before the shooting, but
Askew and Middleton did not know that when they made the traffic stop. Moore had
only one charge on his police record, a traffic citation for driving without a
permit when he was 16.
After Moore's death, his mother sued. The
District settled the case last summer by paying her $375,000.
'Here's Someone Getting
Shortly before 9 a.m. on May 15, 1995, Officer Vernell R. Tanner was outside
Banneker Senior High School at 800 Euclid St. NW, where he was assigned as a
beat officer. Tanner saw a white Hyundai heading the wrong way up a one-way
street, doing about 50 in a 15-mph zone, he later said in a sworn deposition.
Two girls told Tanner the car had almost hit them. Tanner, 47, a 26-year veteran
of the force, drove after the Hyundai in his private car, a Toyota Camry.
Because he was working on foot at the school, he was not required to have a
After unsuccessfully trying to stop the
Hyundai without the benefit of a siren or a police light, Tanner radioed that he
was pursuing a car that had nearly struck two pedestrians. He later said in a
sworn deposition that he was told to break off the pursuit; D.C. police permit
officers to chase suspects only when they believe a felony has been committed
and the suspects are dangerous. Moreover, officers must be in a marked patrol
car to participate in a chase.
Despite the dispatcher's instructions,
Tanner continued the pursuit. His intent, he said later, was to keep the car in
sight until a marked police car arrived. He eventually pulled up behind the
Hyundai, blocking it behind a line of rush-hour traffic on Florida Avenue.
Climbing from his car, Tanner confronted the driver. Tanner said he pulled his
gun when the Hyundai backed up and rammed his car.
Lawyer Doug Sparks, sitting in traffic a
few cars behind Tanner's and the Hyundai, said he saw Tanner standing next to
the Hyundai driver's door talking to the driver. Tanner had his back to Sparks,
who did not know he was a police officer.
Sparks heard a shot as the Hyundai began
to pull out of the line of traffic. A few seconds later, Tanner fired a second
shot as he "sidestepped," hopping with his gun pointed into the car,
to keep up with the Hyundai as it moved across the oncoming lane of traffic,
Sparks said in an interview.
"It was basically at point-blank
range," Sparks added. "I thought, here's someone getting murdered in
front of me. I thought it was some kind of drug shooting."
The first shot hit the driver in the chest
at close range, a police investigation later concluded. The second shot hit the
driver in the back. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward.
Tanner said later he fired the first shot
because he feared that the Hyundai was about to run him over. "He turned
the wheel to a hard left and then he accelerated, and I discharged my
weapon," Tanner testified in a civil suit brought after the shooting.
In a recent interview, Tanner said he did
not remember firing the second shot that hit the driver in the back. "I was
not conscious of the second shot, which is common in most police
shootings," Tanner said.
After the shooting, eyewitness Sparks said
he saw Tanner pick his hand-held radio off the ground and heard him shout into
it: "The guy tried to run me down!" Sparks told The Post: "That's
not what I saw. That kid didn't have to die."
The dead driver was Kedemah Dorsey, 16, a
Bladensburg High School dropout who worked at a Roy Rogers restaurant. He was
scheduled to be at work two hours after he was killed, his father said after the
"I want someone to explain to me how
an officer walks up to a car for a traffic violation – and a child gets
killed," Dorsey's father, Joseph, told The Post at the time.
"My reaction was out of fear – fear
that he was either going to crush my leg or run me over," Tanner said in a
A lawyer hired by the Dorsey family
"It's somewhat difficult to use the
car as a weapon when it is wedged in rush-hour traffic and the officer is
standing to the side of it, not in front of it," said attorney Michael
Morganstern, who sued the police on behalf of the Dorseys. The District settled
the case for $150,000.
The car technically was stolen, but Tanner
did not know that. Dorsey had borrowed the car without permission from his older
brother, a Marine stationed in Italy. Dorsey's mother had reported it stolen to
"scare" the boy, according to his father.
Tanner, a Marine veteran himself, was put
on administrative leave with pay, pending an investigation. He had previously
fired his weapon twice in his police career, he later testified. One of those
shootings also involved a car and was ruled justified.
After two years and seven months, the U.S.
attorney's office decided not to bring charges against Tanner.
"You can't prosecute the officer for
putting himself in the wrong spot where he becomes vulnerable and then has to
react," Ramsey Johnson, special counsel to the U.S. attorney, said of
car-shooting cases in general. Training and supervision deficiencies, Johnson
said, are not relevant to the making of a criminal case.
But a department administrative
investigation, not bound by the standards of a criminal prosecution, found the
shooting unjustified. The District is now attempting to fire Tanner through
police trial board hearings scheduled to resume Dec. 7.
'Fearing for My Life, I
Two teenagers were speeding in a Plymouth to a liquor store called the 51 Club
on Naylor Road SE, trying to beat the 2 a.m. closing time. They swerved to miss
a braking car and hit a Potomac Electric Power Co. pole at 1:50 a.m. on Aug. 20,
The driver, Damon Henry, an 18-year-old
construction worker, flattened the left rear tire of the Plymouth with the
impact. But he and Davon Williams, 17, drove on to the liquor store. They did
not know it, but an off-duty police officer had witnessed the accident. Rodney
Daniels, 29, was a three-year member of the force. Daniels lived in an apartment
nearby and had taken his dog out for a late-night stroll.
While Daniels checked the utility pole for
damage, Henry and Williams got someone to buy them liquor and left the store
within 10 minutes. Daniels heard the grinding of the Plymouth's tire rim coming
down the road; a bystander, he later recounted, told him the hit-and-run car was
Daniels stepped into Naylor Road and
raised his police badge above his head in one hand. In the other, he held his
Glock 9mm, being careful not to point the gun at the oncoming car, he later told
Daniels said he yelled "Police! Stop
the vehicle!" three times. The car slowed when it was about 30 feet away
and then sped toward him, Daniels said.
"After the driver refused to stop and
fearing for my life, I fired several rounds at the driver of the car,"
Daniels said in a written statement to investigators after the shooting. Daniels
said the car was 20 feet away when he started to fire, and that he then
"jumped" out of the way before firing more shots.
The car missed Daniels, but Daniels –
who fired 11 times – did not miss the car.
Daniels's bullets hit the front and driver
side of the Plymouth. Henry was hit in the back with a bullet that lodged in his
spine, paralyzing his legs, according to a surgeon's report. Henry was charged
with assaulting a police officer with a dangerous weapon – his car. His
mother, Terri Henry, said at the time that passenger Davon Williams – who was
not injured – said the two teenagers didn't realize Daniels was a police
Damon Henry, a ninth-grade dropout, had
three previous felony arrests – two for assault with a deadly weapon – all
of which had been dropped. His only conviction had been for misdemeanor
destruction of property.
Henry's injuries kept him from appearing
in court, and the assault charge against him was dropped in January 1996. After
months of rehabilitation, he was still unable to wash or dress himself and
required close care for most of the day, according to court papers filed by his
Henry's injuries led to infections that
caused septicemia, and he died on Feb. 5, 1997. Before he died, he sued the
police. After his death, his mother took over the lawsuit, which is pending.
Michael Cosgrove, a former Miami police
assistant chief hired as an expert by the Henry family, said that Daniels used a
"self-initiated threat" as a justification to fire. The District's
expert, former D.C. police chief Jerry Wilson, said Daniels's actions were
"consistent with the proper standards of care."
On June 18, 1997, nearly two years after
the shooting, the department's Use of Service Weapon Review Board concluded that
the shooting was not justified. In a deposition in the civil suit, Daniels said
his commanding officer had accused him of negligent use of a firearm.
"He stated that I placed myself in
that position," Daniels testified in the deposition. "As though I
created the danger or the threat."
Daniels received a nine-day suspension. He
served four days of the suspension, and the rest were held in abeyance. He said
in the deposition that he disagreed with the punishment "because I was in
fear of my life. And also I was taking police action."
Daniels said through a police spokesman
that he could not comment because of pending litigation.
'I Pulled My Gun Out, It Went
Four 6th District officers were working
overtime on a routine traffic roadblock on June 9, 1996, at 50th and C streets
SE, checking whether drivers had valid licenses and were wearing seat belts. At
2:20 a.m., a blue 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme pulled up. The driver, Eric
Antonio Anderson, 18, of Landover, was alone in the car.
Lt. Stewart Morris approached the Cutlass
and asked the driver for his license and registration. Morris later told
investigators he got "a bad feeling" and thought the driver was going
to flee. Morris asked him to turn his engine off.
"What do I got to do that for?"
Morris said the driver responded.
"I think we have got a problem,"
Morris shouted to the other officers at the roadblock.
What happened next surprised Morris as
much as it did Anderson, Morris said later.
"I saw a flash coming from my left
side and heard a single gunshot at the same time," Morris told
investigators. "I looked to my left and saw Officer Terrence
Shepherd, 22, who had been on the force
two years, had come to back up Morris, but Morris said he was unaware of that
until after the shot was fired. "I didn't hear Officer Shepherd say
anything before, during or immediately after the shooting," Morris said.
The bullet from Shepherd's gun passed
through Anderson's left shoulder, aorta and esophagus before lodging in his
right shoulder blade. Anderson's car went 50 feet in reverse and struck a tree.
He was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center and pronounced dead at 2:55 a.m.
He had a .04 percent alcohol level in his blood, well below the legal limit.
No weapon was found in Anderson's car.
Immediately after the shooting, Capt.
Joshua Ederheimer, the commander of the roadblock, ran into Shepherd.
"I said, 'Shep, what
happened?'‚" Ederheimer later told police investigators. He said Shepherd
responded, "Captain, I pulled my gun out, it went off, my finger was on the
trigger." Ederheimer said he believed Shepherd was telling him the shooting
Shepherd was placed on administrative
leave with pay pending a criminal investigation into the shooting.
Shepherd told prosecutors he had switched
places with Morris, stepping in front of him and questioning Anderson himself.
This contradicted Morris's statement that he didn't see Shepherd until after the
shot. Shepherd said he intentionally fired because he feared for his and
Morris's safety. The driver refused commands to put his hands on the wheel,
Shepherd added, and had rummaged in the car's console as if he was trying to get
Shepherd also said he heard the vehicle go
into reverse and start to move. He said the car was now a threat to him and
Morris and other officers on the scene. "Once he put the car in gear and
went back, it was easy enough for him to put the car back in the driver's
position and strike us," Shepherd later testified in a police disciplinary
hearing. He said he fired after the car moved back three to four feet, according
to an investigative report by police.
But two other officers on the scene, James
Minor and Jacques Doby, said in statements to investigators that the car did not
start moving until after the shot. Both officers said they saw Shepherd slightly
behind Morris after the shot – not in front of the lieutenant.
The evidence also contradicted Shepherd:
The gunpowder residue on Anderson's shirt indicated that he was shot from less
than 24 inches away – not the three to four feet in Shepherd's account to
investigators. The left-to-right path of the bullet through Anderson's torso
also indicated he had been sitting still, not moving backward, when he was hit.
Finally, a stain on the back left side of
Morris's white uniform shirt turned out to be lead residue – "probably
from gases emitted from the ejector on the right side of the weapon,"
according to a police laboratory report. That undermined Shepherd's story that
he fired after moving in front of Morris.
Eighteen months after the shooting, the
U.S. attorney's office decided not to prosecute the case criminally. A spokesman
for the office declined to comment.
The police department started its own
internal investigation and found that Shepherd's reasons for firing were
"unsupported by witnesses or the evidence," Lt. Rodney Parks wrote.
Parks said Shepherd should face
administrative charges of using unnecessary force and making false statements.
John C. Daniels, the 6th District commander, agreed with the force charge but
disagreed with the false statement charge.
After a disciplinary hearing before the
department's trial board, Shepherd was fired on Oct. 23.
At the hearings, Shepherd was portrayed as
an officer with several commendations who had started his career in 1990 as a
17-year-old cadet in the police museum. Shepherd had had few complaints lodged
against him; he had shot and killed a man who threatened him with a knife while
he was off duty in 1994. He also had shot at a car in a previous incident. Both
earlier shootings were ruled justified, according to his trial board testimony.
Shepherd told The Post recently the police
investigation was flawed. He disputed several of its findings and questioned the
stain on the back of Morris's shirt, saying the shirt was not turned over to
homicide until four days after the shooting.
Shepherd said he plans to appeal his
firing to an arbitration process.
"There are other cases like
this," he said. "The penalty they gave me I think was unjust. The only
thing I did was assist another officer and it's like I'm the sacrificial lamb
out of this ordeal."
'Unable to Escape ...
At 8:01 p.m. on June 10, 1996, the 6th District vice unit interrupted an alleged
drug deal in the 5500 block of B Street SE. The brief police report written that
night said officers saw one man give another what appeared to be drugs; both men
were arrested and taken to the 6th District station for processing. The report
also noted that one of the men, while trying to escape, "aimed his vehicle
in the direction of the police officers."
Left out of the report was the fact that
Lt. Elliott Gibson, the supervisor on the scene, shot the driver, James Theodore
Willis, in the face. Willis was taken to D.C. General Hospital and later
Willis, a 38-year-old department store
receiving clerk who had a history of petty drug crimes, was charged with
possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and assault on a police officer
– for allegedly using his 1990 Buick in a vehicular attack.
Officer Anthony McGee signed the police
report. Gibson signed as the supervisor.
McGee gave prosecutors a more detailed
sworn statement on June 11, 1996, the day after the shooting, so they could
formally charge Willis. McGee noted that 12 crack rocks were found in the car
and six more in Willis's hand. Of the shooting, McGee simply wrote: "While
Willis was driving on the sidewalk towards a group of children, a police officer
The next day, McGee altered that account
in a written statement to investigators probing the shooting. This time, he made
no mention of children. His statement indicated that he didn't even see the
shooting. "I then heard one gun shot and looked back and observed that
Gibson had his weapon out," McGee said.
Investigators never asked McGee to resolve
the conflict between his two versions of the shooting, according to the
department's final investigative report on the incident.
McGee's second statement may have differed
with his earlier sworn statement, but it did not contradict Gibson's: He told
investigators he fired because the car was coming toward him and he was trapped
on the sidewalk by a four-foot wall.
"Unable to escape the path of the
moving car, Lt. Gibson fired one round from his service [weapon] through the
front windshield of the car," police documents filed in Superior Court
But another officer on the scene, Carol
Queen, contradicted Gibson. She said in a statement to investigators that the
car was not moving when Gibson fired. Queen also said two officers were standing
atop the four-foot wall that Gibson said had trapped him.
In addition to McGee, three other officers
at the scene told investigators they had heard but had not seen the shot. Among
the five officers who said they had seen the shooting, three said the car had
started to move forward, one said it had moved "slightly forward" and
one said it came "directly at Lt. Gibson." Gibson said in his written
statement to investigators that he fired from six feet away and that the car
stopped six feet from him, an indication that the car had little forward
Gibson was ruled justified by police
investigators and later was promoted to captain. Gibson and McGee did not
respond to messages seeking comment.
Willis sued the District for assault and
negligence, claiming he was shot while "sitting in his stationary
On Dec. 8, 1997, Willis appeared in court
before Judge Mildred Edwards on the criminal charge.
Willis's criminal defense attorney, Mark
Rochon, said the police story changed "180 degrees" – dropping the
original justification of shooting to protect children – because that version
would have gotten Gibson in trouble with internal investigators for endangering
the children with his gunfire.
Rochon said that if Gibson had "fired
his gun and there were kids behind the car, he wouldn't be keeping his job, he
wouldn't be a captain now. He would be a sergeant."
The next day, after negotiations with the
government, Willis struck a plea bargain. In exchange for his guilty plea to
lesser charges of cocaine possession and assault on a police officer – without
the dangerous weapon component – Willis was sentenced to unsupervised
probation. He walked out of court a free man.
The next day, Willis dropped his civil
suit against the department.
Staff writers David Jackson and Sari
Horwitz, database specialist Jo Craven, researcher Alice Crites and Metro
Research Director Margot Williams contributed to this report.
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