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An Open Letter to DC Residents on the MPDC Performance in Mass Demonstrations

Sunday, January 30, 2005
Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

To the Residents of the District of Columbia:

By now most of you are probably aware of the settlement between the City and seven plaintiffs stemming from arrests made by my Department in Pershing Park more than two years ago. In addition to providing for a monetary award to the plaintiffs, the settlement required that I write each of them a personal letter of apology. What was not required by the agreement, but is equally important to me, is a letter to all of you, the residents of the District of Columbia.

As taxpayers, each of you has the right to expect the very best from your Police Department, in every aspect of our operation. Policing here in our Nation’s Capital is a unique experience, and it is an honor for me to serve all of you. One of the things that makes DC so unique is the sheer number and variety of protests that take place here practically every day of the year. The vast majority of people come to our city to demonstrate peacefully. Unfortunately, a small percentage of demonstrators come intent on committing unlawful acts, as evidenced by the recent vandalism in Adams Morgan following the Inauguration.

But irrespective of whether a protest is large or small, lawful or not, the Metropolitan Police Department is responsible for ensuring that a safe environment is established and maintained, so that people can express their views and petition their government. We must also see to it that those with opposing viewpoints enjoy the same rights – all the while recognizing that the majority of people in DC don’t really care about most protests; they just want to go about their daily routines with minimal disruption.

And therein lies the challenge. The MPD, and law enforcement in general, must find the right balance in creating that safe environment not just some of time, but in each and every instance. In the case of Pershing Park we did not succeed, and for that I owe all of you an apology. I can assure you that no one intentionally violated anyone’s rights during this incident, and there was no malice on the part of any member of the Department. Initially, I felt the arrests were consistent with our internal policies and procedures; however, it subsequently became clear to me that we failed in that regard.

Following an internal review of the arrests at Pershing Park, the MPD revised our Standard Operating Procedures for handling mass demonstrations, and we will continue to make necessary changes based on the settlement, new laws and our ongoing review of best practices. I cannot guarantee that we will operate mistake-free in the future. But I can guarantee that as a Department, we will make every effort to come as close to perfection as humanly possible. The residents, taxpayers and elected leaders of our great City deserve no less.

I came to the District of Columbia almost seven years ago to take over a very troubled Department. We have made significant progress over time in numerous areas: crime fighting and community policing, use of deadly force, police-community relations, and the condition of our facilities, technology, equipment and the like. The men and women of the MPD are good, honest and hard-working. They care deeply about our city. And overall, our track record in handling large demonstrations has been exceptional, but it takes only one incident to tarnish that reputation.

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of protecting the Constitutional rights of our citizens. Hardly a recruit graduation passes that I do not stress that very theme in my remarks to the new officers. Unfortunately, in the case of Pershing Park, I did not “walk the talk.” As Chief of Police, it is my duty to ensure that situations such as Pershing Park do not occur. I failed in carrying out that responsibility.

I cannot change the past, but I can influence the future by providing the kind of leadership you expect from your Chief of Police. There will be demonstrations in the future, and undoubtedly a few arrests may occur. But I promise each and every one of you that I will do everything in my power to ensure that all people can take comfort in knowing that they can come to our city, peacefully protest and enjoy the Constitutional freedoms that generations of Americans have fought and died for. It is my sincere hope you will accept this apology.

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department