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The story seemed familiar to me: A stolen vehicle. Two off-duty police officers. The officers chase the man they suspect took their property and shoot him. When I first heard the news story about the shooting last month of DeOnte Rawlings by D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer James Haskel, my mind flashed back 10 years to a strikingly similar case that I investigated as an assistant U.S. attorney. The lessons of that case have echoed through my mind as I’ve followed the coverage of the Rawlings case. Two points in particular stick with me: Investigating police shootings is more complex than many recognize; they often produce no clear conclusion. And shootings like these are bound to happen again unless police change the way off-duty officers handle the theft of their property. GIVING CHASE In December 1997, I had been in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for 2 years. As part of my duties in the grand jury intake section, I processed arrests that had occurred the night before. The intake section determines whether and what charges should be brought against an arrestee. One morning, I was presented with a seemingly straightforward case. The suspect was caught red-handed in a car stolen only minutes before and had tried to run over the officers arresting him. The first sign that this would not be a routine case of unauthorized use of a vehicle/assault on a police officer came when the detective presenting the matter told me that the suspect had been shot. Somewhat taken aback, I asked how he was. “Oh, he’s fine,” replied the detective. “He was only shot in the back and the thigh.” Not yet as jaded as the officer was or as I would later become, I began to think there was going to be more to this. Sure enough, when I asked the detective if he had checked with the car’s owner to determine that the suspect did not have permission to use it — this being a legal element of the offense — the detective assured me that was no problem because the suspect “stole the car from a cop, and the cop’s the one who shot him.” OK, now he had my attention. Over the next several weeks the detective and I investigated the case. This is what happened (I think): On the evening of Dec. 20, 1997, Officer Smith (whose name, along with that of the other officer, I’ve changed) was watching a Wizards game at a friend’s apartment in Prince George’s County, Md. Suddenly he heard his car, a very distinctive souped-up Monte Carlo, being started in the parking lot. He rushed to the window just in time to see two men drive off in his car. Smith borrowed his friend’s vehicle and began searching the area. Along the way, he reported the car stolen to a U.S. Park Police officer he saw on patrol. After a while, Smith returned to his friend’s apartment and reported the car stolen to the Prince George’s County police. He then called a fellow policeman, Officer Jones, who came to pick him up in Jones’ Mustang. Together they looked for Smith’s car. Neither of them was wearing a uniform. Within 20 minutes, they spotted the Monte Carlo heading for the Maryland-D.C. border. They called both the D.C. and Prince George’s police to send marked cruisers to stop the car. Incredibly, while Smith and Jones trailed the stolen car, the driver waved them forward, gesturing and revving the engine as if wanting to race, obviously not aware that Smith and Jones were police officers. Soon the uniformed police closed in. They blocked the stolen car at Southern Avenue, the border between the District and Prince George’s County. But the suspect refused to get out of the car. Jones ran up and yanked open the driver’s side door. As he leaned in to pull the suspect out, the car began to back up, dragging Jones. Smith ran up to the passenger side and fired once into the car. The suspect drove onto the sidewalk to get around the marked cruisers. Smith, nearly pinned between a stone wall and his own stolen car, fired several more times into the car. The suspect kept driving forward with Jones still holding onto the driver’s side of the car. Cutting a stop sign in half, the car turned a corner. Jones was either thrown or fell from the car. The suspect then accelerated too quickly and crashed into a stone wall. The suspect was arrested. He spent a week in the hospital, having been shot once in the thigh and once through his upper right back. Officer Jones had injuries to his hands and leg and missed a week of work. Officer Smith was treated for injuries to his right leg. This all happened before the D.C. police department established a Force Investigation Team to look into police-involved shootings. Little extra investigation of these cases was done by the department. But then, as now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was often called on to reach a determination of the reasonableness of an officer’s use of a firearm. The inquiry we conducted in the 1997 case focused both on what the suspect had done and on what the officers had done. It was my first police shooting. Having investigated several since then and been a witness to one myself, I’ve learned several key lessons. UNDER STRESS First, cases in which an officer has shot at someone are among the most difficult to investigate. Firing a weapon is an incredibly stressful event even for a police officer, and watching another officer fire a weapon is nearly as stressful. Stress play tricks with memory. And as DNA evidence proves to us nearly every day, relying on eyewitness testimony is already a dicey proposition. Nowhere is this truer than in police shootings. An officer firing a weapon often has a distorted picture of what occurs before, during, and after he fires. In a split second, under a perceived threat, he must make a life-or-death decision. The adrenaline soars, and the vision narrows to focus on the threat. As a result, honest recollections are not necessarily accurate recollections. Moreover, multiple officers involved in the same shooting often have completely different recollections of what happened. In virtually every police shooting I’ve investigated or known about, there were varying, sometimes wildly varying, accounts. Indeed, several years after the 1997 incident, while accompanying a police officer trying to serve a subpoena, I saw an officer shoot a man wielding a machete. Certain of my own powers of observation, I was convinced I knew what had happened. But through forensic evidence, I was proved flatly wrong. Needless to say, it’s common for shooting victims to have yet another view of who did what to whom. Second, officers involved in or witnesses to a police shooting will almost always tell a version of events favorable to the police and unfavorable to the victim. Of course, this is partly “the thin blue line” at work, where no one wants to be at odds with a brother or sister officer. But I found this consistency was also an unconscious product of the prism through which the police see the world: He is the bad guy who tried to kill us. We are the good guys who had to shoot him. Given the dangers that officers in this city face every day, it’s hardly surprising they might think this way. It’s incumbent, however, on any investigator to account for that view. That’s why analyzing forensic evidence and interviewing every witness, both police and civilian, is critical to building a complete picture of the event. Third, determining whether a shooting was justified is not easy if you’re honest. Making judgment calls about the use of force and the quality of reasonableness is one thing while sitting in an office after the fact. Making a split-second decision in the dark, under stress, while your fellow officer is being dragged by a car is another. By their very nature, these crime scenes cannot be duplicated, and figuring out what an officer was actually thinking (and seeing and understanding) at the time of the shooting is hard. While forensic evidence can be helpful, it can’t always answer key questions: Where exactly was the officer standing when he fired? Could the suspect have harmed him? Was it reasonable for the officer to think the suspect could harm him, even if this belief is later proven wrong? CALM DOWN Fortunately, we can reduce the chances that shootings like the 1997 incident and the Rawlings case will happen again. What is required is some adjustment to police practice. First, absent life-threatening danger, off-duty officers, particularly those in plain clothes, should not be permitted to chase suspects on their own. In the 1997 case, the officers properly reported the theft and called for uniformed police to stop the stolen car. But then they tried to arrest the driver themselves. They should have left that to the uniformed officers — both for their own safety (Did the suspect know they were police? Did the uniformed police know they were police?) and for the suspect’s safety. Second, officers, in or out of uniform, must exercise more caution when chasing down someone who has apparently stolen their own property. Whose judgment is not clouded when something of ours is stolen? Smith and Jones admitted being angry at the theft of Smith’s beloved car. But a police officer must act as a dispassionate agent of the law, not a vigilante tracking down someone who has disrespected him. Third, absent a life-threatening situation, officers should let car thieves flee rather than end up with an injured officer or a dead thief. Far too often, suspects are shot in cars. Despite the obvious danger in blocking a car’s path, officers continue to put themselves in harm’s way when confronting suspects who are trying to drive away. Many times officers are hurt or forced to shoot suspects only after they deliberately positioned themselves so that they’re at risk of being run over. Fortunately, the suspect in the 1997 case lived. DeOnte Rawlings did not. Now the D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are investigating what happened on Sept. 17, 2007. Both DeOnte Rawlings and Officer James Haskel deserve nothing less than a full and fair investigation. Any recriminations over the event should await the conclusion of that inquiry. At the same time, police departments should issue strict guidelines for the conduct of off-duty officers and the recovery of stolen property so that future shootings are prevented. I hope that 10 years from now, there will be no need for the prosecutor who investigated the Rawlings case to wonder whether anything had been learned at all.
Thomas A. (Tad) DiBiase, an associate with Shapiro, Lifschitz and Schram, served in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia for 12 years, most recently as deputy chief in the homicide section.

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