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New Incident Under Investigation Involving MPD Officer Disciplined in Terrence Sterling Death (the Internal Report the Public Never Saw)

Fritz Mulhauser | December 23, 2018

MPD has acknowledged they are again investigating questionable conduct by Officer Jordan Palmer, this time regarding a street stop December 5. A man allegedly carrying an open container of alcohol was stopped, became combative and was detained by Palmer and other officers. The man was tackled in the process and broke a bone.

According to Keith Alexander and Clarence Williams of The Washington Post who first reported the story Friday night (21), Palmer “used profanity and pulled out his police baton, prompting another officer to intervene. Investigators are trying to determine if Palmer threatened the man with the baton, the officials said.”

These are examples of fundamental daily judgment calls in the work of patrol officers. Both the public and police managers have an interest in officers’ correct use of the huge discretion they have in their work—who to stop and what to do in complex and uncertain situations, especially where force may be used.

MPD tracking of officers’ use of proper techniques, sound judgment, and also force has been an issue for years. “Early warning systems” that flag officers with conduct issues are widely recommended by police leaders and also reformers. But such systems rest on costly IT systems that can integrate scattered data. They can also trigger lengthy union negotiations and require extensive training if truthful reporting as a basis for heightened accountability is to flourish inside existing police culture of silence about the work and rare  acknowledgement of fault.

Under U.S. Department of Justice pressure, MPD in 2001 agreed to develop such a system. It was one of dozens of changes included in a Memorandum of Agreement signed by D.C. Mayor Tony Williams and Chief Charles Ramsey to avoid a federal lawsuit. A five-part Post series in 1998 showed MPD officers shot and killed more people per resident than any other large-city police force in the country in the 1990s–some heroic acts, but many not.

When the reform agreement ended in 2008, the independent auditor who had tracked the many individual goals found that better personnel data and performance tracking was not accomplished. When members of the original audit team checked again in 2015 in a follow-up study commissioned by the D.C. Auditor there had been some progress under Chief Cathy Lanier.

Government openness can allow the public to play a role in evaluating police conduct, even if internal methods are less developed.

Palmer is the same officer who earlier received a 20-day suspension for an unauthorized pursuit.  He drove a police cruiser in a high speed chase, despite orders to stop, that ended tragically. After the cruiser blocked the way, motorcyclist Terrence Sterling died September 11, 2016, from gunshots by Palmer’s partner, Brian Trainer. Trainer was fired for the unjustified shooting and the District paid Sterling’s family $3.5 million to settle a lawsuit about the high-profile incident.

Why discipline for the two differed greatly is unknown. Details of Officer Trainer’s conduct emerged from the report of internal review that the press obtained and also from detailed coverage of testimony at the public police trial board. Yet MPD denied requests by the press and the Open Government Coalition under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act for the equivalent file showing facts and conclusions from the investigation of Officer Jordan’s role and how those linked to his very modest recommended punishment.

The mayor’s office upheld the denial, citing an exemption in the law for records that would invade an officer’s privacy. But can there be a legitimate expectation of privacy regarding official misconduct?

It’s hard to see how such records are not the public’s business, and courts elsewhere have agreed–even one bellweather legislature. 

Under a new law passed in California, police records of serious misconduct investigations will be open beginning in 2019. In S.B. 1421, the legislature declared “The public has a right to know all about serious police misconduct, as well as about officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force. Concealing crucial public safety matters such as officer violations of civilians’ rights, or inquiries into deadly use of force incidents, undercuts the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement, makes it harder for tens of thousands of hardworking peace officers to do their jobs, and endangers public safety.” 

Overturning years of legally-mandated secrecy (at police unions’ request “to protect officers against angry citizen reprisals”), California public records law will now allow access to the full files (complaints, video, interviews, etc.) from investigations and discipline in situations involving discharge of a firearm, use of force resulting in death or serious injury, sexual assault and some kinds of dishonesty. (The law allows some kinds of redactions as usual in FOIA-type laws, such as where there is ongoing investigation, to protect witnesses, and others.)

Considering the 2016 D.C. car chase and shooting of Terrence Sterling, records of the officers’ actions could well be open to the public under the California law if it were in effect here.

But without the facts to reach their own conclusions, D.C. citizens can only hope that MPD officials take a close look at situations of repeated problems in the field (if violations of policy are proved in Officer Jordan’s new case) and take appropriate action.