D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said Monday that a violent incident caught on camera Sunday, in which an officer is shown repeatedly punching a man as other officers tried to handcuff him, has been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution.
“This is not the way we train our members to get illegal firearms off the streets,” Contee said during a news conference.
The department “prides itself on treating everyone with respect,” the chief added. “Even when we are recovering guns and taking some of our most violent criminals off of our streets, it will be done constitutionally and respectfully. Our standards as police officers are intentionally set high.”
While a firearm was recovered from the man officers had restrained, the chief said the way it was recovered “is not consistent with our training; it’s not consistent with our tactics; it’s not consistent with our policies, with our procedures; it’s certainly not consistent with the values of this agency or my own personal values.”
“And when we have someone engaged in that type of behavior, it brings discredit to our entire agency,” Contee said.
The D.C. police’s Internal Affairs Division will also be investigating.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. has declined to pursue charges against the man that was seen on the video being struck by the officer.
As for the case against the police officers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it’s examining the actions of the officers involved, but because it is a pending matter, the office said it would be inappropriate to comment further on the case.
In response to the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s decision, D.C. Police Union Chairman Gregg Pemberton said: “This is an anecdotal example of what we go through every day. Our elected officials demand that defendants be held accountable for possessing and using illegal guns.
A suspect is found to be in possession of an illegal ‘ghost gun’. A fully loaded .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and he is released back onto the street within hours with no charges at all. The prosecutors have absolutely no intention of holding anyone accountable. In this revolving door criminal justice system, violence will continue to escalate.”
Contee, the police chief, said earlier Monday that he would not be releasing the officers’ names at this point. Three of the officers, including the officer who punched the man, have had their police powers revoked and they’ve been placed on non-contact status — meaning no contact with the public — pending criminal and administrative investigations.
Body camera footage of the incident exists, Contee said, but “I don’t think there’s anything that’s more damning than what I’ve already seen, quite frankly,” referring to a bystander video widely shared on social media.
The chief said a review of the body camera footage will be done as usual, and it could be released.
‘What happened took us 10 steps back’
Regina Pixley, a first responder and former Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Ward 8, runs a nonprofit that supports victims’ families. Speaking to reporters after Contee’s news conference, Pixley said the incident sets back efforts to bridge divides between police and the community.
“[Sunday], what happened took us 10 steps back,” Pixley said. “We will never be able to have positive community policing in our community with police behavior like that.”
She added, “I don’t believe in defunding the police … I want them to fight every crime. Let’s be clear: I want them to get every freaking gun off the street. I’m tired. Get the guns out but follow the protocol — do it the proper way. They didn’t know that young man had a gun on him till after they whooped his ass and assaulted him and violated him … That’s somebody’s son.”
She said the city, which is experiencing a wrenching uptick in gun violence, needs to do more to address the “social ills” of the community, including mental illness, drug abuse and homelessness.
“Hear me clear: I support our police department because we have some great officers every day out there doing their job and going above the call,” she said. “But we have this few who are not used to working in this kind of community who’s been getting away with this mess.”
The D.C. Police Union released an initial statement Monday evening, saying it is in “full cooperation” with the investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the department’s Internal Affairs Division.
“We are confident that when the facts come to light, the actions taken by the officers will be understood and deemed justifiable,” said the statement from Pemberton, the union chairman.
The union said it would also conduct its own review.
The statement said the man in the video was found to have a fully loaded .45 caliber “ghost gun” in his front waistband at the time he was arrested. The statement also claimed that officers knew the man was armed at the time the one officer punched him.
“In this case, these officers used a minimal amount (of) force to subdue a violent suspect in possession of an illegal firearm,” Pemberton said in the original statement.
“The officers in the video were deployed to the neighborhood in which the arrest took place specifically with orders to ‘get guns off the street’ in reference to recently launched gun violence prevention programs,” the union wrote in the statement. “Additionally, they were in this location because it has experienced a recent, dramatic increase in violent crime … With specific orders to target illegal guns and gun crimes, the officers conducted a stop of the suspect with reasonable suspicion that he was involved in selling drugs and also in possession of a firearm.”
DC Council reaction
D.C. Council member Trayon White, who represents Ward 8, told WTOP’s Mike Murillo that he was “completely shocked at what I saw on a video from the officer repeatedly striking a gentleman in the face.”
“I do agree that we have to get guns off the street, but we have to do it the right way. And that’s not the right way.”
White said he thinks the chief’s response to the incident was correct: “Being transparent and open about what happened is always good for the public.”
Trayon White added that he’s received calls about the striking officer from community members before.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he supports Contee’s decision to give the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“There’s nothing in the video that justifies this use of force. Our police officers have to be held to a higher standard because of their ability to deprive liberty and life,” Mendelson wrote in a tweet.
D.C. At-Large Council member Robert White called the video “disturbing.”
“It’s the type of thing that we have seen too many times. But when I reached out to Chief Contee, he immediately let me know that he was going to push for accountability, and that the video made him angry as well, and that he saw it as unacceptable,” Robert White said.
He added that accountability was key in repairing relationships with the community.
Council member Charles Allen, who represents Ward 6 and chairs the Public Safety Commission, said that what he saw in the video was “outrageous” and “inexcusable.”
“I think Chief Contee came out strong today and really spoke to how damaging this is,” Allen said. “I think he certainly wants to see accountability for his own officer. … But I think the chief also understands that this act by this one officer does damage to all of us, it does damage to every other officer out there, it damages community relationships, it damages the efforts to rebuild the community relationships. So, I think that the chief understands how serious this is.”
In an email, Council member Janeese Lewis George said: “We’ve seen this before. The officer will be on paid leave while the US Attorney’s Office for the District takes months or years to investigate. If Officer Sutton is still at home collecting paychecks 9 months after Karon Hylton Brown died, how will this be any different?
There is legislation introduced at the DC Council that was also recommended by the DC Police Reform Commission to have the Office of Police Complaints continue administrative investigations of officers while the USAO determines whether to prosecute. I hope we can pass this legislation in the fall so we can actually have accountability.”
What the video shows
Before the incident, Contee said, the officers were in a car and witnessed a hand-to-hand drug transaction Sunday afternoon near the Ketcham Recreation Center, on U Street in Southeast.
Editor’s note: The following video contains graphic language
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An Instagram video shows police trying to restrain the man when one of the three officers punches the man in the face and then the torso.
During the struggle, a group of men recording the incident on their phones yell at the officers for punching the man. Someone then throws a chair, boxes and a garbage can at the officers while they continue to try to handcuff the first man.
One man can be heard: “You know, under protocol, if someone’s being restrained that’s no reason for you to hit him!”
At one point, one of the officers takes his gun out of his holster as he tells the crowd to back away.
At the end of the video, once the man is in handcuffs, the officers appear to take a firearm out of the man’s waistband and show it to the crowd.
WTOP’s Mike Murillo, Gigi Barnett and Jack Moore contributed to this report.