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Joint Public Oversight Hearing on Investigation into Use of Police Mobile Digital Computers

Sunday, April 29, 2001

Joint Public Oversight Hearing on Investigation into Use of Police Mobile Digital Computers

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Committee on the Judiciary
The Honorable Kathy Patterson, Chair

Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs and Property Management
The Honorable Jim Graham, Chair

Council of the District of Columbia
Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Chairwoman Patterson, Chairman Graham, members of the Council and guests ... I appreciate the opportunity to update you - and the community, watching on Channel 13 - concerning the Metropolitan Police Department's continuing investigation into inappropriate and offensive messages exchanged by a small number of officers over our Mobile Digital Computer, or MDC, network. Under the direction of Assistant Chief Brian Jordan, who commands our Office of Professional Responsibility, we are making good progress in this investigation, which I have pledged would be thorough, exacting and wide-ranging. We continue to follow those standards, as I will outline in my testimony this evening.

For the record, let me state once again my feelings on this matter, which I have shared with members of our Department in both a videotaped message and a special newsletter: there is no place in the MPDC for racist, sexist, homophobic or malicious speech - or actions - of any sort. I generally dislike the term "zero tolerance" as it is has been used in policing. But in this matter, there will be zero tolerance for intolerance in the MPDC. Members who spew profanity, perpetuate ugly stereotypes, or make references to - or engage in - biased policing in any form will be identified, and strong disciplinary action will be taken - up to, and including, termination for the most serious violators.

As our investigation progresses, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are talking about only a small number of police officers who may be involved in the most egregious conduct. I realize the actions of this small group in no way reflect the integrity and professionalism of our Department as a whole. And I know that the vast majority of our members share my outrage and embarrassment over this matter. Still, the actions of a few can - and do - tarnish the image of the entire Department, and we simply cannot sit back and do nothing. So we have committed to doing three things in response to this situation: 1) deal - in a fair, but strong and swift manner - with the small minority of officers engaged in inappropriate or possibly illegal conduct; 2) ensure that this type of conduct never happens again; and 3) work to heal the wounds and restore the trust in the community that has been breached by this whole matter. Briefly, I want to explain the process we are following to achieve these objectives.

Approximately two months ago, I asked our Office of Quality Assurance to conduct an audit of some of the car-to-car communications over the MDC network. As you know, the MDCs have been a critical component of our technology plan. We purposefully designed the network to allow officers not only to run vehicle checks and other inquiries directly from their scout cars, but also to communicate with one another, car to car, in a secure environment that does not tie up radio traffic. I knew other police departments had experienced problems in the area of car-to-car messaging, and I wanted to assess the situation in our agency. A few weeks later I was presented with a sampling of messages that had been identified based on a relatively small set of "key words" that are clearly offensive. What I saw shocked, disgusted and saddened me.

I immediately directed OPR to initiate a confidential investigation into the matter - by "confidential," I mean an investigation in which we are not required to notify the subjects that they are under scrutiny. Just a few days later, Fox 5 News aired a story about the investigation, which included transcripts of some of the offensive messages. While this and subsequent news reports did compromise the confidentiality of the investigation, the investigation itself is proceeding.

One of our first steps was to notify critical partners of our actions, including the US Department of Justice, the US Attorney's Office, and the FBI. OPR established a management work group, consisting of ranking officials throughout the Department, to identify the nature of the problem in our Department. To give you some context for the scope of the investigation, between March 2000 and February 2001, there were some 4.1 million MDC records generated, of which nearly 971,000 were car-to-car communications made by 917 members. So our investigators are faced with a tremendous volume of material to scrutinize.

The group identified a total of 157 "key words" that would be run against the MDC database of messages. These words include curses, slurs, slang and words (such as "money," "slap" or "gun") that might indicate biased policing or other forms of misconduct. The team then initiated key word searches of the 971,000 transmissions, focusing on everything from inappropriate language to possible criminal civil rights violations. This initial search generated approximately 27,000 key word hits. This does not mean that there were 27,000 inappropriate messages. In fact, as many as half or more the transmissions that contain these key words may, in fact, be legitimate. Sorting out the legitimate messages from the inappropriate ones is a major part of our ongoing investigation.

Based on this initial key word search, investigators have begun to classify the hits as falling within one of three categories:

  • Level I represents the most severe violations, indicating possible criminal civil rights violations directed toward members of the community, as well as violations by sworn managers or chronic system abusers.
  • Level II represents serious violations directed toward other members of the Department.
  • Level III represents less serious violations, including profane or inappropriate language or superfluous conversations carried out on "company time" using our equipment.

Following this initial process of categorizing the key word hits, our investigative efforts are focusing on the possible Level I violators, with Level II and III investigations to follow. Given the resources needed for this project, we have to prioritize, and the Level I group is clearly our top priority.

There are two critical elements to this investigation. First, we need to carefully analyze the key words in the appropriate context. As I have mentioned before, one of the more harsh messages I reviewed turned out to the verbatim lyrics from a popular rap song that I was unfamiliar with. While sending those lyrics to another officer certainly represents an inappropriate use of the MDC technology, it probably does not indicate criminal conduct or civil rights violations. So looking at each and every message in context is an important next step in the investigative work that is been carried out.

The second critical factor is to cross-check MDC messages with other records involving the affected officers. Are there citizen complaints, current or prior investigations, arrest reports or other information to suggest that the words contained in the offensive MDC messages are connected to inappropriate or illegal actions on the part of the officers? This is a key question that investigators are attempting to answer as they pore over the records in each case.

During the course of this review process, it is likely that some transmissions initially classified as Level I will turn out to be Level II or Level III. Conversely, our subsequent investigation of Level II and III cases may reveal that some of these are actually Level I violations.

Currently, OPR managers are in the process of analyzing all Level I transmissions in depth, organizing them into sub-categories and entering them into a database. Within the next few weeks, investigators should have identified the most egregious Level I cases. At that time, we will begin the process of reviewing the duty status of the individual members who are involved. Where appropriate, administrative and/or criminal investigations will commence in these Level I cases. As I mentioned, Level II and Level III investigations will begin as soon as possible.

It is clear that the additional caseload created by this priority investigation is taxing OPR's existing resources. The office has only so many agents, and it must continue to investigate other misconduct complaints that come in. Case investigation responsibilities will be assigned to corruption teams based on the agents' current responsibility areas and expertise. Throughout the investigation, OPR managers will also be on the lookout for systemic problems, such as lax supervision, violations by managers themselves and "macro-level" opportunities for improvement in training and procedures. The purpose of this investigation is really two-fold: to discipline members who have violated the law or Department policy, and to learn from past mistakes so that we will never repeat them.

In the meantime, we have taken a number of immediate preventative measures. Assistant Chief Jordan has instituted quarterly audits of MDC transmissions, to be carried out by OPR's Audit and Compliance Branch. In addition, OPR's Office of Internal Affairs will conduct random integrity checks of MDC transmissions. When additional transgressions are discovered, we will continue to take swift action. Where new procedures or additional training are needed, we will provide them as well. We have already added a log-on warning message to the MDCs themselves, and we are looking into adding filtering software to the MDC network. And although it is my belief that MDC transmissions are covered by existing Departmental orders pertaining to officer conduct and regular e-mail transmissions, we are in the process of publishing a new Special Order specifically on MDC usage.

Of course, when all is said and done, maintaining professionalism at all times is up to each and every one of our members. No police officer should need a training course or a special policy to tell them that offensive language, racism or biased policing in any shape or form are wrong ... period. Those members who are incapable of getting this message will be dealt with harshly.

In addition to these measures, I announced earlier this month that our Department will soon begin collecting data on contacts our officers have with members of the community during traffic stops, field interrogations and other activities. I have met with a variety of experts - from the law enforcement and civil rights communities - to determine the best methods for collecting, analyzing and using this type of data. While data collection by itself is no panacea, it will provide important insight into the daily activities of officers. More importantly, it will help ensure our officers are not engaging in any form of biased policing. I will keep this Committee apprised of the implementation of this important policy decision.

We are also committed to keeping key stakeholders up to date on the direction and progress of the entire investigation. OPR has held briefings with a number of organizations and individuals, including MPDC's Command Staff, our Internal Affairs agents, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the D.C. Office on Human Rights, the Office of Citizen Complaint Review, as well as members of the Administration and the Council. These briefings, I believe, are critical to ensuring stakeholder confidence in the integrity of an investigation as sensitive and important as this one.

In closing, I want to reassure the Committee - and the community - that the language and conduct displayed by a small minority of officers in no way reflect the professionalism and integrity of our Department as whole. The MPDC is not a racist Department. We are not a sexist Department. We are not a homophobic Department. We are not a Department that engages in widespread biased policing of any type. In fact, my biggest fear is that the actions of a small group of police officers will serve to undermine, or at least set back, three years of progress our Department has made in reducing crime, implementing community policing and rebuilding public confidence in its police.

As I have told our employees, members of the MPDC are held to a higher standard - as well we should be. The vast, vast majority of our police officers and civilian employees understand and accept that challenge. And they perform at an extraordinarily high level, day in and day out, serving the community and keeping the peace. These dedicated men and women are the primary reason that crime in our city is down for the sixth consecutive year in 2001, including a 36 percent reduction in homicides so far this year.

These dedicated men and women are the primary reason that the MPDC continues to be held up as the industry standard for how to handle large-scale demonstrations such as the continuing protests against the IMF, World Bank and other organizations. And these dedicated men and women are one of the primary reasons that public confidence in the police - and in our city as a whole - has rebounded in recent years, as the District has attracted new residents, new housing and new businesses.

I am very proud to serve alongside these members, and I am very concerned that their reputations may have been unfairly sullied by this whole matter. At the same time, I am confident in their ability to learn from this experience and to continue moving forward, as we strive to make all of our neighborhoods even safer and healthier. With the continued support of our Mayor and the Council, and especially our partners in the community, I am sure we will succeed.

Thank you again for the opportunity to present his statement.

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