Posted: Sept. 7, 2016 | Tags: police
Photo by Jeff Watts, American University
Patrick Madden at work at WAMU-FM, a partner with the Workshop on "Assault on Justice" about the potential over-use of the charge in Washington, D.C.
When reporter Patrick Madden heard about the case of Dwight Harris being charged with assaulting a police officer from his motorized wheelchair, he knew something was amiss. He wanted to know how and just how often how often this happens. To find out, Madden and WAMU teamed with the Investigative Reporting Workshop and Reveal to launch an unprecedented examination of nearly 2,000 assault cases in the District.
The review told the public for the first time that police routinely charge people with assault for as little as turning away. The investigation brought immediate results, changes Police Chief Cathy Lanier herself urged in 2014.
The results of the WAMU-Workshop five-month investigation in 2015 raised concerns about the use or overuse of the charge of assaulting a police officer. Some defense attorneys saw troubling indicators in these numbers, alleging that the law was being used as a tactic to cover up police abuse and civil-rights violations.
A team of researchers and reporters analyzed court records from 2012 through 2014, including charging documents, case summaries and police affidavits. The investigation, written by Madden and Christina Davidson, found:
• Ninety percent of those charged with assaulting a police officer were black, although black residents comprise only half of the city's population.
• Nearly two-thirds of those arrested for assaulting an officer weren't charged with any other crime, raising questions about whether police had legal justification to stop the person.
• About 1 in 4 people charged with a misdemeanor for assaulting a police officer required medical attention after their arrest, a higher rate than the 1 in 5 officers reporting injury from the interactions.
• The District uses the charge of assaulting a police officer almost three times more than cities of comparable size, according to a 2013 FBI report and Metropolitan Police Department numbers.
• Prosecutors declined to press charges in more than 40 percent of the arrests for assaulting an officer.
When the written story and audio documentary, “Assault For Justice,” aired in May 2015, several legislators called for the city to immediately narrow the definition of what constitutes “assault on a police officer.”
In October 2015, the Washington chapter of the ACLU cited the investigation at a public hearing calling for criminal justice reform. WAMU’s reporting was also cited nearly 50 times in an outside audit, "The Durability of Police Reform, The Metropolitan Police Department and Use of Force: 2008-2015," which was conducted by the Bromwich Group, a DC-based law firm. The report, released in January 2016, also called for the city to change its law based on this report.
Last fall, formal legislation was introduced by the D.C. Council to narrow the definition of what constituted an assault on a police officer. The council committee that crafted the language in the bill cited the investigation for prompting the reform.
In March 2016, the bill finally became law.
The new law removes the "resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates or interferes" language. It added another line that you can't "intentionally resist" arrest when an officer is making a lawful arrest. ( In the past, you couldn't resist even if the arrest was unjustified.) Also, the bill gives the defendant the right to a jury trial for an arrest under the “assault on a police officer” ordinance.