Armed and Unready
City Pays for Failure to Train Officers With Sophisticated
By Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 18, 1998; Page A01
Fourth of five articles
A decade ago, the District's Metropolitan
Police Department placed one of the most advanced pistols in the world into the
hands of hundreds of ill-prepared, undertrained police recruits.
The results have been unfortunate,
according to police reports and internal department records examined by The
In the 10 years since D.C. police adopted
the Glock 9mm to combat the growing firepower of drug dealers, there have been
more than 120 accidental discharges of the handgun. Police officers have killed
at least one citizen they didn't intend to kill and have wounded at least nine
citizens they didn't intend to wound. Nineteen officers have shot themselves or
other officers accidentally. At least eight victims or surviving relatives have
sued the District alleging injuries from accidental discharges.
In an extraordinary sequence over the last
six months, the District has settled three lawsuits for more than $1.4 million.
The District admitted no wrongdoing in the suits, but the cases highlight the
chronic neglect of Glock training by the D.C. police.
Last month, the District paid $250,000 to
settle a case brought by the family of an unarmed teenager shot and killed at a
traffic roadblock in 1996. The family's attorney argued that the officer's gun
had discharged accidentally.
In August, the District paid $375,000 to
settle another case in which a D.C. officer accidentally shot and killed an
unarmed driver at a traffic stop in 1994.
In June, the District paid almost $800,000
to settle a case from 1994, when a D.C. officer accidentally shot his roommate.
The officer had not been to the firing range to train with his weapon in more
than two years -- 20 months out of compliance with regulations.
"That's just poor on the department's
part to allow that to happen, and poor on the individual's part," Chief
Charles H. Ramsey, who took over the D.C. police in April, said in an interview.
"No wonder they settled."
Ramsey's recent efforts to bolster lax
training already have yielded significant improvements, police officials say.
But as the recent legal settlements show, the bill for past shortcomings is
still coming due.
The string of accidental shootings by D.C.
officers came amid 10 years of warnings from firearms experts about the Glock's
light trigger and propensity to fire an unintentional shot when handled
incorrectly. Such a sensitive gun was designed for highly trained users.
Yet the department stinted on training for
recruits and failed to keep veteran officers to a twice-yearly retraining
schedule that experts consider the bare minimum for firearms competence. A
Washington Post investigation found that 75 percent of all D.C. officers
involved in shootings during 1996 failed to comply with the retraining
regulation. One officer waited so long to come to the range that firearms
instructors found a spider nest growing inside his Glock.
Several factors contributed to this
neglect, including the reluctance of hard-pressed commanders to spare officers
from street duty, lapses on the part of officers themselves, problems with lead
contamination that shut down the shooting range in the early 1990s and poor
management, according to interviews with officials and independent studies of
D.C. police officials repeatedly studied
the phenomenon of accidental discharges, invariably concluding that there was no
fundamental problem with the Glock itself -- as long as users were properly
trained. Officials chose not to modify the Glock trigger, as New York City
police did in 1990, to require a more forceful tug to fire the gun. In 1994,
D.C. police recorded more accidental discharges than the Chicago or Los Angeles
forces, two far bigger departments, according to discharge records from the
departments. Last year, the accident rate for D.C. police was 50 percent greater
than that of New York police.
Former D.C. police chief Larry D. Soulsby
told The Post recently that he had planned to have the department switch from
the Glock to another pistol before his retirement last November. Safety, Soulsby
said, was "absolutely" a major factor in his thinking. In the past,
the police union had pressed for a change of service weapon, Soulsby and former
union officials said.
Glock Inc., the Austrian company's U.S.
subsidiary, did not respond to repeated phone calls or a letter sent to its
headquarters in Smyrna, Ga. A lawyer who has represented the company defended
the gun as a safe weapon, citing the pistol's enormous popularity with U.S.
"Glock has a market share probably in
excess of 50 percent of the law enforcement market out there in the United
States," New York lawyer John Renzulli said.
The Glock semiautomatic is, by all
accounts, a 21st-century gun. Made of steel and polymer plastic, the Glock 17
model carried by D.C. police is lightweight but powerful, able to deliver 18
bullets in nine seconds. It is sturdy, requires little maintenance and is very
easy to shoot.
Unlike many semiautomatics, the Glock has
no external manual safety. The pistol carried by D.C. police uses a five- to
six-pound trigger pull -- half the pull of most other semiautomatics for their
first shot. The features allow a shooter to fire quickly in dire circumstances
when getting off the first shot is critical. Glock's pride in its design and
precision is reflected in the company's motto: "Glock Perfection."
The Glock's unique features made the gun
attractive to D.C. police officials when slayings in the District soared in the
late 1980s. The D.C. department liked the lack of an external manual safety,
calling that "a paramount consideration" in selecting the Glock,
according to the department's Firearms Training Manual. Officers accustomed to
firing revolvers that lacked an external safety -- which included the entire
D.C. force -- could more easily switch to the Glock than to a pistol that
required them to learn how to disengage the safety before shooting, the
Department officials knew that diligent
training would be crucial to ensure a safe transition from revolvers to
semiautomatics. In February 1988, the departmental committee studying the
handgun issue noted that the revolver was safer "for the inexperienced
shooter" and that "the accidental discharge potential is greater for
the semiautomatic." But the committee predicted that "proper training
and clearly defined departmental policy" for the semiautomatic "should
negate this factor."
In December 1988, the department made a
surprise announcement that it was switching to the Glock. Police officials were
so taken with the gun's merits that they got the District to approve an
emergency procurement without competing bids. "Failure to procure these
weapons on an emergency basis could result in needless injury to police officers
and the public," a city procurement official noted of the department's
The District paid just over $1 million for
The decision was immediately
controversial. Dissenting voices were beginning to be heard about "Glock
Perfection." Perhaps the most significant criticism came from the FBI. The
FBI Academy's firearms training unit tested various semiautomatic handguns and
in a 1988 report gave the Glock low marks for safety. The report cited the
weapon's "high potential for unintentional shots."
Unintentional shots would turn out to be a
disquieting byproduct of Glock's unique design, according to many experts and to
lawsuits filed against Glock in the last decade. Even though the Glock does not
have an external manual safety, it incorporates three internal safeties intended
to prevent the gun from discharging if dropped or jostled. A unique feature of
the Glock is that a shooter disengages all three safeties at once by pulling the
"You can't blame the Glock for
accidental discharges," said former police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., who
took over the force a few months after the District switched to Glocks.
"The gun doesn't accidentally shoot. The officer has got to pull the
But officers found it difficult in tense
street situations to keep their fingers off the triggers of their Glocks.
"When they feel in danger or they
feel that somebody is in danger and they're really going to use that weapon,
they'll put their finger on the trigger," Detective Ron Robertson, former
head of the D.C. police union, said in a deposition in July. "It's kind of
hard to keep the finger out of there."
D.C. police are trained to carry their
Glocks in the "street-load mode" -- with a round in the chamber ready
to fire when the trigger is pulled. A Glock has an innovative "trigger
safety" -- a sort of trigger-within-a-trigger that makes it virtually
impossible for the Glock to go off unless the trigger is pulled. But officers in
stressful situations might begin the process of squeezing the trigger safety in
order to be primed to fire, several firearms experts said.
Then-Deputy Chief Rodwell Catoe wrote in
an internal memo in 1990, "An unholstered Glock in the 'street load' mode
with the trigger safety mechanism pressed is a profoundly dangerous weapon, even
in the most ideal conditions."
'It Bit Me'
Almost immediately after D.C. police
adopted the Glock, unintentional discharges increased sharply.
The first accident occurred in February
1989 -- less than a month before the guns reached officers on the street.
Officer Adam K. Schutz was helping to test and clean the first shipment of guns
when he shot himself in the fingers.
"It bit me," said Schutz, who
was left with permanent damage to a finger on his left hand. "I was moving
my hand to lower the slide and it jumped forward. I had assumed the gun was
Nine months later, the 2-year-old daughter
of a D.C. police officer died after accidentally shooting herself in the head
with her father's pistol in their Northwest Washington house.
By October 1989, the department had
experienced 13 unintentional discharges, double the rate of 1988, the last year
with revolvers, according to an internal police memo. Then-Assistant Chief Max
Krupo noted in the memo to the chief that such problems were to be expected in
departments switching to semiautomatics. Krupo suggested that increasing the
five-pound trigger pressure to eight pounds "would be satisfactory."
But after studying the issue, Krupo decided that a five-pound pull was just as
safe as an eight-pound one.
In February 1990, the Use of Service
Weapon Review Board -- responsible for monitoring department shooting trends --
issued a report by Catoe, the deputy chief, in response to "the increasing
number of unintentional discharges." The report examined nine incidents,
blaming "human error" in each case. The report found no deficiencies
in either the Glock or the department's training procedures.
But the report reached a troubling
conclusion: "The department is obviously experiencing far too many
accidental Glock discharges . . . [which] must be eliminated promptly so that
serious injury or death can be avoided."
By the early 1990s, the Glock's alleged
problems with unintentional shots were the talk of the gun world. Lawsuits
against Glock for accidental discharges piled up. The Firearms Litigation
Clearinghouse in Washington, an advocacy center against gun violence, currently
is monitoring about 60 pending lawsuits against Glock across the country -- 90
percent of all the cases the center is tracking, the center's executive director
Despite such publicity, many firearms
experts retain deep admiration for the gun.
"Some of the same factors that give
it tremendous high-speed hit potential while you're fighting for your life also
make it more prone to accidental discharges," Massad Ayoob, a New Hampshire
police captain who also runs a firearms instruction institute, said. "You
don't want your 16-year-old kid out of driver's ed driving a Corvette Stingray.
The Glock is like a Corvette Stingray."
Alexandria Police Chief Charles E. Samarra,
who as a D.C. assistant chief headed the committee that chose the Glock in 1988,
called it "the perfect weapon," but said training is essential.
"Training has a lot to do with
accidental discharges," Samarra said in an interview. "Our only
concern was training."
Three months after D.C. police started
carrying Glocks, the department began a crash program to hire 1,500 officers in
18 months. Police officials now acknowledge that the officers from those recruit
classes of 1989 and 1990 were, in many cases, poorly screened and trained by the
"They just rushed through this
stuff," said former lieutenant Lowell Duckett, who was a firearms
instructor at the police academy then. "We had taken firearms training up
to eight days. We were in the process of making it two weeks. After 1989, [with]
the big flood of recruits . . . firearms went to five days, maybe three in some
Of 93 accidental discharges studied by The
Post where information about the officers' academy classes was available, 49
involved officers from the Classes of 1989 and 1990. In other words, half the
accidental shootings involved a group of officers who never made up more than 35
percent of the force.
'He Had His Finger on the Trigger'
In the years after the department's 1990
report on Glock accidents, unintentional shootings continued to mount.
In October 1990, Officer Edward Wise fired
accidentally and grazed a man's head during an undercover drug operation at a
Southeast Washington housing complex, according to police and court documents.
Wise said he had been struggling with the man, Barry Braxton, who was unarmed.
Braxton sued and collected a $55,000 settlement from the District.
Sabrina Whittle, who was Wise's partner,
said in a recent interview that she and her partner were not taught to keep
their fingers off the triggers of their Glocks unless they intended to fire.
"The most we had to go on was common
sense," said Whittle, then a 21-year-old police rookie, now a security
guard. "It was dark and late and we were scared. I know that, both of us
being scared, he had his finger on the trigger. Obviously, [with] your finger on
the trigger, you're prepared."
Wise, who is still with the department,
did not respond to messages seeking comment.
In May 1991, an officer accidentally shot
Kenneth McSwain, 18, in the back when the officer slipped while serving a search
warrant in Northeast Washington, court and police documents show. McSwain, who
was unarmed and was not charged with any crime, collected a $42,000 settlement.
In August 1991, an officer accidentally
shot Stephen Wills in the chest during a drug bust in Southeast Washington,
according to court and police documents. Wills, who was unarmed and was not
charged with any crime, collected a $40,000 settlement.
Four officers were wounded with their own
guns in 1992. Over and over, officers fired unintentional rounds in the locker
rooms at their district stations, or at home while cleaning or unloading their
guns, according to police reports.
Officers are told during training to avoid
such accidents by being attentive to the Glock's unique, simplified design: An
officer cleaning a Glock has to pull the trigger before removing the slide to
get access to the gun barrel. In many other pistols, taking the magazine of
bullets from the gun renders it unable to fire. But the Glock has no
"magazine safety" -- if an officer leaves a bullet in the chamber, the
Glock will still fire if the trigger is pulled.
In March 1993, Officer Lakisha Poge fired
a round through her bed while unloading a Glock in her apartment, a police
report states. The bullet went through the floor and hit Glowdean Catching in
the apartment below. Catching, who was wounded in both legs, has a suit pending
against the District. Poge, who has left the department, could not be reached
"I submitted reports through channels
and said, 'You have problems with this gun,' " former homicide branch chief
William O. Ritchie, who chaired the department's Use of Service Weapon Review
Board in 1993, said in an interview. "I talked to the union and said,
'There is a hazard here.' "
In January 1994, homicide detective
Jeffrey Mayberry shot Officer James Dukes in the stomach at police headquarters.
"I hear a loud bang and Dukes is slowly falling to the floor,"
Detective Joseph Fox, Mayberry's partner, said in a deposition. "Jeff jumps
up and says, 'Dukes, I didn't mean to do it, I didn't mean to do it.' "
Dukes said in a recent interview, "He
was playing with the weapon. This was the second time I had told [Mayberry]
during that tour of duty not to point the weapon at me."
A lawyer for Dukes later said that
Mayberry had been trying out a laser sight on his Glock when the gun went off.
Mayberry denied that in a court proceeding.
Dukes, who took an early disability
retirement because of his wound, was awarded an $880,000 judgment against
Mayberry in D.C. Superior Court. But Dukes said he has been unable to collect
any money, including $80,000 owed for his medical bills. Mayberry declined to
Four days after Dukes was shot, Officer
Juan Martinez Jr. accidentally shot his roommate, Frederick Broomfield, in the
groin while awaiting dinner in their apartment, according to police and court
Martinez was unloading his Glock in his
bedroom when Broomfield came in and asked Martinez how he wanted his chicken
cooked. The gun abruptly went off.
"I looked down and I seen smoke
coming from my crotch and then after that, you know, I looked at Jay and I said,
'Damn, Jay,' " Broomfield said later in a deposition. "Then my leg
started shaking and I fell."
Broomfield, who nearly bled to death after
the bullet pierced an artery in his groin, sued the District and Glock Inc. His
attorneys compiled a voluminous case in D.C. Superior Court, marshaling gun
experts who gave statements about the alleged dangers of the Glock and the
deficiencies of the District's training.
In June, the District settled the case by
paying Broomfield $797,500. Glock also settled, but a lawyer for Glock declined
to disclose the amount. In court papers, Glock denied that its gun was dangerous
One factor that led the District to pay
such a large sum was that Martinez had not trained with his Glock in more than
two years. The department regulations requiring officers to visit the firing
range at least every six months were not enforced through most of the 1990s.
"You get a factor like that in a case
and you know your chances of prevailing before a jury are diminished," said
D.C. Corporation Counsel John M. Ferren, whose office paid the settlement.
Martinez left the department for a reason
unrelated to the shooting. He could not be reached for comment.
About the time that Detective Roosevelt
Askew accidentally shot and killed an 18-year-old driver during a traffic stop
in July 1994, then-Chief Fred Thomas publicly warned that lax firearms training
could cost the department dearly. Thomas announced his intention to require all
officers to comply with the semiannual training regimen or forfeit their
weapons. But Thomas retired a year later and the lax training continued,
documents obtained by The Post show.
A department committee examining the Glock
in 1994 found some design shortcomings but concluded that the gun was
"reliable." Still, the committee's report declared that "training
status must be improved" because less than 50 percent of the force had
complied with the semiannual qualification standard.
Accidents also continued in 1996 and 1997,
but at a slower pace -- dropping from a high of 27 in 1991 to eight last year.
Although the numbers diminished, the tragic nature of the incidents didn't. In
May 1996, Courtney Rusnak, the 3-year-old daughter of Officer George Rusnak,
died after she apparently shot herself with her father's Glock in their District
"It looks like she found the gun and
started playing with it," Mark Polk, a spokesman for the Prince George's
County police, said at the time. "The gun was fired once, and she was hit
directly in the head."
In June 1996, Officer Terrence Shepherd
shot and killed 18-year-old Eric Anderson as Anderson sat unarmed in his car at
a routine traffic roadblock in Southeast Washington. Although Shepherd said he
fired because he thought Anderson posed a threat, his captain testified that
Shepherd told him at the scene that he had his finger on the trigger and the gun
"went off." The shooting, the captain added, appeared to be
When an officer's gun discharges
accidentally, the shooting is generally ruled unjustified by the department, a
review of department records shows. Discipline can follow, but an officer is not
typically subjected to severe discipline unless the accidental shot kills or
badly wounds someone, or the officer lies about the shooting.
Of the 12 officers involved in the
shooting cases detailed in this account, two were charged or dismissed: Askew
was indicted and convicted of lying about his accidental shooting, and Shepherd
was fired for negligent use of force. Four other officers have left the
department. Six remain with the force.
By 1997, the safety issue had turned some
members of the D.C. police union against the Glock, according to Robertson, the
former union official. Several officials wanted to switch to the Sig Sauer, a
more expensive gun with a heavier trigger pull.
"Several kids were killed here when
they picked up their fathers' guns," Robertson said in an interview.
"A 2-year-old can pick up the Glock and kill someone. It doesn't take much
to fire the weapon."
The push to switch guns apparently died
when Soulsby retired as chief last year. But Robertson still thinks it is a good
"The only thing about the Glock is,
once you start pulling on that trigger, there's no coming back," Robertson
said. "You don't get a second thought with it."
Staff writer David Jackson, director of
computer-assisted reporting Ira Chinoy, database specialist Jo Craven and
researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Since D.C. police began carrying the Glock
handgun in February 1989, accidental discharges have resulted in the following
Feb. 2, 1989: Officer assigned to
armorer's office shoots self in fingers while unloading gun during test-firing.
Sept. 19, 1989: Officer suffers
lacerations when bullet ricochets off wall in 7th District station.
Oct. 10, 1989: Two-year-old daughter of
D.C. police officer dies after shooting self in head with her father's pistol.
March 25, 1990: Juvenile removes gun from
officer's briefcase, shoots self in hand.
May 31, 1990: Officer injures finger and
left arm at 2nd District station.
Sept. 21, 1990: Officer shoots self in
upper right thigh while unholstering gun.
Oct. 27, 1990: Gun goes off while officer
struggles with suspect, striking suspect in back of head.
Nov. 1, 1990: Suspect grabs officer's gun,
bullet strikes another officer in chest.
Dec. 5, 1990: Officer shoots self in right
foot after husband bumps her while she unloads gun at home.
Feb. 7, 1991: Officer shoots self in
stomach after he stumbles while chasing drug suspects.
May 23, 1991: Officer shoots 18-year-old
in back after slipping while serving search warrant.
Aug. 8, 1991: Officer shoots unarmed man
in chest during drug arrest.
Sept. 6, 1991: Officer shoots self in hand
Jan. 24, 1992: Officer shoots self in
thigh while holstering gun.
March 13, 1992: Officer shoots self in
hand and knee at home.
April 14, 1992: Officer shoots self in
thigh while unloading gun at home.
April 21, 1992: Officer shoots self in
hand while holstering gun at home.
March 10, 1993: Officer fires through
floor of her apartment, hitting resident below in thigh and ankle.
April 4, 1993: Officer shoots self in
forearm while unloading gun at home.
April 20, 1993: Officer shoots another
officer in foot after removing magazine when bullet ricochets at 2nd District
Aug. 17, 1993: Officer shoots another
officer in finger when gun goes off in holster as he exits patrol car.
Jan. 28, 1994: Officer shoots another
officer in stomach while handling gun inside department headquarters.
Feb. 2, 1994: Officer shoots roommate in
groin inside their apartment.
April 13, 1994: Officer shot in leg when
gun goes off during struggle with suspect.
June 17, 1994: Officer shot in stomach by
his wife at their home.
July 15, 1994: Officer fatally shoots
driver in head during traffic stop.
Nov. 9, 1994: Officer shoots self in the
right leg while approaching suspect.
Dec. 6, 1994: Officer shoots suspect in
lower back, says
gun went off when suspect grabbed it.
Feb. 6, 1995: Officer shoots suspect
accidentally during arrest.
Nov. 15, 1995: Officer shot in buttocks.
May 26, 1996: Three-year-old daughter of
officer shoots self in head.
Aug. 21, 1996: Officer shoots girlfriend
in stomach after struggle over his gun.
Nov. 7, 1997: Officer shot in upper left
Source: MPD police reports, Use of Service
Weapon Review Board records
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