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Fight of His Life
DC cop Kevin McConnell was beginning to pass out. He had two thoughts: “I think I lost this fight” and “Not tonight—I’m not going to die tonight.”
Detective Kevin McConnell left his home in the hills of Southern Maryland about 9:45 pm on a Friday evening in August 2007. He drove his Ford Taurus along winding, two-lane roads, hit Route 5, and headed north toward Washington. He was working a midnight shift in DC’s murderous Seventh Police District, east of the Anacostia River.
McConnell was wearing a short-sleeved black shirt, gray slacks, and black dress shoes. He had a fresh buzzcut. He focused his blue eyes on the road, stuck his elbow through the open window, and eased into the hourlong drive.
Michelle, his wife of two years, was expecting their first child in two weeks. She was also a DC detective, working her last night before taking maternity leave. McConnell thought about his dad, who had retired after 21 years as a DC cop. He thought about his mom, who had begged him not to join the police department. He thought about the words he and his wife shared every time they parted to hit the streets: “Shoot first.”
McConnell pulled into the police-station parking lot on Alabama Avenue, Southeast, and went to his office. His partner, Marquis Queen, called. “I’m running behind,” he said. “You can get started without me.”
McConnell and Queen had been partners for about a year. An Irish cop out of central casting, McConnell liked to partner with African-Americans. It stopped anyone from playing the race card.
McConnell slipped his badge on a chain around his neck, holstered his 9-millimeter Glock-17 and his police radio, started an unmarked cruiser, and headed toward a nearby gated community. He was investigating a domestic-abuse case and wanted to show a picture of the alleged assailant to the woman involved. He knocked on her door. She didn’t answer, so he headed back. It was about seven minutes after midnight.
At the corner of Good Hope Road and 25th Street, Southeast, McConnell saw a commotion inside the Eddie Leonard carryout. For years it had been a trouble spot.
What happened next was described by McConnell and several witnesses; it is detailed and confirmed in police investigative reports.
McConnell saw an African-American man banging on the Plexiglas service window. The man was screaming and cursing, demanding that the proprietors serve him; they said the store was closed. He pulled on the door to try to get behind the counter. He spit into the lazy Susan through which the shop owner and customers exchanged goods and money.
Jason Taft, 25, had been drinking ethyl alcohol. He was in a rage. Chen Kongri, the owner of the carryout, called 911.
McConnell parked his cruiser and went into the store. He made sure his badge was visible. Taft was still pulling on the door to try to get behind the counter.
“Police! Police!” McConnell said.
Taft turned, lowered his head, spread his arms, and rushed McConnell. McConnell pushed Taft away; Taft fell backward.
“You’re under arrest,” McConnell said.
“Why did you hit me, officer?” Taft said.
McConnell tried to cuff Taft while he was down, but Taft rolled over, stood up, and rushed McConnell again.
“Stop resisting,” McConnell said. “You’re under arrest.”
McConnell got behind Taft and tried to cuff him again. They fell to the floor and started to brawl. The DC police department requires regular training for using weapons, but it rarely teaches hand-to-hand fighting.
“Call the police!” McConnell shouted.
Taft bit McConnell and tried to gouge his eye; McConnell bit him back. The detective was trying to maintain control in hopes that backup would arrive. They got up and exchanged punches, then wrestled each other to the floor again. Two girls watched through the window. McConnell saw a fire-department vehicle pass.
He yelled, “Go get the f—-in’ fireman!”
McConnell was exhausted, but he managed to get Taft into a full nelson. Taft stood up with McConnell on his back, lifted his arms, threw the cop off, then went toward the door. McConnell followed. When Taft fell down, McConnell flipped over him and landed on his head. They were on the sidewalk now. Taft looked up and started to run away, but suddenly he turned back and jumped on McConnell. He got the cop in a reverse choke—or “guillotine”—hold, his forearms on McConnell’s throat.
“I’m gonna choke you out, mother-f—-er,” Taft said.
McConnell was beginning to pass out. He had two thoughts: “I think I lost this fight” and “Not tonight—I’m not going to die tonight.”
Both men were going after McConnell’s pistol. McConnell managed to draw it from the holster. With his left hand he was pushing against Taft, and with his right he pointed the gun toward Taft and pulled the trigger. He heard a click and thought it had misfired.
The bullet tore through McConnell’s left thumb and hit Taft in the thigh. Taft got up, turned, and limped into Good Hope Road. On his knees, McConnell fought for breath and consciousness. Close to blacking out and fearing that his attacker would return again, he fired two more times.
The three shots were the first McConnell had fired during ten years in the department. He remembers squeezing the trigger but never hearing a bang.
One bullet hit Taft in his back. He collapsed in the street.
Police converged on the scene. McConnell never heard the sirens. One took McConnell’s gun; another saw his bloody thumb and sat him on the curb until an ambulance came to drive him to the hospital.
“Don’t call my wife,” McConnell said. “I’ll talk to her in the morning.”
An hour later, on August 3, 2007, Jason Taft, 25, was pronounced dead.
Detective Michelle McConnell came home from working the evening shift around 10 on Friday night. She figured her husband was working. She fell asleep and woke up to an empty bed.
Kevin McConnell called around 8 am. He had spent the night at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors said they’d have to operate on his thumb and put pins in to stabilize the bones.
“What are you doing?” he asked his wife.
“Just woke up,” she said.
“Feel like taking a ride?”
“I am at a hospital in Baltimore.”
“What did you do now?” she asked.
His wife’s hard-headed response was familiar to McConnell. “She’s the real police,” he says, “not just a cutie on duty.”
Michelle McConnell was born in DC and grew up in Silver Spring. She graduated from Wheaton High, joined the Air Force, and chose the Military Police. After working security for Montgomery County schools and a stint with the Federal Protective Service, she joined the DC police department in 2000 and worked her way up to detective.
Kevin McConnell was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Washington’s Maryland suburbs with his family in 1967. His father, George, joined the DC police department.
“He didn’t bring it home with him,” says McConnell, who was one of four kids. “He always showed up at our sporting events.”
After graduating from Meade Senior High, McConnell worked a series of computer-technology jobs for NASA, AlliedSignal, and Honeywell. In 1997, he was stationed in Scotland, where he was closing a US military base. He invited his dad to play a few rounds of golf. The son, then 33, said he was looking for a more satisfying job. They talked about police work.
Kevin McConnell returned to the states and applied for a job with the police.
His mother, Beverly, said: “Why would you want to do that?”
Her son reminded her how he had answered the question in his grade-school memory book about what he wanted to be when he grew up: “A policeman.”
McConnell started on patrol and then created a special squad to stop car theft. He became a detective in 2001.
He and Michelle met on the force, married in 2005, settled in Southern Maryland, and were starting a family.
“I shot myself in the thumb,” he said.
“Were you shooting at somebody?” his wife asked.
“There was a bad man behind my thumb.”
“Is he dead?”
“Want me to come up?"
“Tommy should be there in ten minutes.”
Officer Tommy Sepulveda, a friend, drove from Baltimore to St. Mary’s County, picked up Michelle, and drove her back to Baltimore. That evening, the McConnells were back home.
Two weeks later, Megan McConnell was born.
Following standard policy, the DC police department put Kevin McConnell on administrative leave for a few days following the shooting. He spent the next year on limited duty until his thumb healed and he could hold a pistol.
“I figured it would take a year to get through the investigation,” he says. “I was enjoying my time with the baby. She was my primary focus.”
He had no second thoughts about the shooting.
“I was sorry the guy was dead,” he says. “But I did the only thing I could so I could make it back home.”
Friends dropped off cases of beer. Officers and detectives called to see how he was healing. A captain and a sergeant came to see him—not chief Cathy Lanier, no assistant chiefs or deputies. Though McConnell had been injured in a fight for his life, the department’s “family support team” never contacted his wife.
Michelle McConnell heard the tale of that Friday night over and over. It sounded “legit,” she says: “I figured they would clear him quickly and he would get right back to work.”
On August 12, 2008, US Attorney Jeffrey Taylor sent a letter to assistant police chief Peter Newsham, head of internal affairs. Under law, federal prosecutors review every shooting case.
“We have decided to decline any criminal prosecution of this officer arising from this incident,” he wrote. “Accordingly, this matter is referred to you for whatever administrative action you deem appropriate.”
McConnell’s hand was healed. He headed to the shooting range and qualified to handle a pistol and was cleared for full duty. But when he returned to 7D and asked for his weapon, police chief Cathy Lanier denied the request and placed him on “non-contact” duty: no badge, no gun.
Still, Michelle McConnell thought her husband would be headed back to work: “Never in a million years did I think the department would turn its back on him.”
On a warm day in early April of this year, Kevin McConnell, 45, and I are sitting in Mr. Henry’s outdoor cafe on Capitol Hill, just off Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s taken a break from his desk job to tell me the tale.
He reaches into his pants pocket and takes out a neatly folded piece of paper with the Metropolitan Police Department letterhead, dated December 10, 2008.
“I haven’t slept a full night since I got this,” he says.
He points to the next-to-last paragraph: “ … considering the seriousness and outcome of Detective McConnell’s actions, it is recommended that this matter be remanded to an Adverse Action Panel with a proposed penalty of termination.”
The department wanted to fire McConnell.
When McConnell and I start discussing the case, he says: “I did what I did. I am not taking any discipline.” But the cop’s eyes tear up at the prospect of being punished for doing what he believed was his job—trying to keep the peace, following regulations, fighting for his life—and surviving.
“How can someone who wasn’t there decide a year and a half after the event that I should be fired?” he asks.
To find the answer, I reviewed all of the investigative material. I interviewed police officers who know McConnell, know the facts of the case, and understand the department’s discipline procedures.
“Kevin was fighting for his life,” says Beverly Anderson, a psychologist who specializes in treating trauma in cops. She has treated officers through the department’s Employee Assistance Program since 1989. “Now we have everyone second-guessing what happened to him in nanoseconds. It’s as if they are gunning for him. I am appalled.”
Less than a week after the August 3, 2007, shooting, the Force Investigations Branch of the department’s Internal Affairs Division began its probe.
On August 9, Kevin McConnell gave his statement to investigators. He was accompanied by police-union attorney Robert Ades. Police investigators took statements from nine witnesses, including the carryout owner, passersby, a firefighter, and cops. All corroborated and elaborated on McConnell’s story of being attacked, fighting for his life, and acting in self-defense.
More than a year later, in October 2008, Sergeant Scott Gutherie issued his report. In his “summary and conclusions,” Gutherie cited a Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Conner. It states:
“The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with 20-20 vision of hindsight.” Any assessment must take into account “that the police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments, in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving, about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
Gutherie corroborated McConnell’s account, including details such as Taft’s attacking McConnell rather than fleeing.
“Detective McConnell had a legitimate concern for his life while Mr. Taft was strangling him,” he concluded. “Mr. Taft intended to kill Detective McConnell by way of asphyxiation.” The report notes that “fair consideration should be given to Detective McConnell’s state of mind and physical condition during the latter two shots.”
McConnell displayed “signs and symptoms of a medical condition known as Cerebral Hypoxia,” the medical condition caused by deprivation of oxygen to the brain that leads to blacking out.
Despite these facts, Gutherie concluded that McConnell’s second and third shots were “not in the act of defending his life.” He classified them as “not justified” under department policy.
In cop terms, it was a “bad shoot.”
Gutherie referred the case to the Use of Force Review Board.
Six of DC’s top cops sit on the Use of Force Review Board. They’re expected to render the final word on cases in which police use force, especially deadly force.
After Gutherie judged McConnell to have shot Taft under “unjustified” circumstances, the board began looking into the case. Members read the reports and reconsidered the Gutherie ruling.
Meeting in open session with five members on November 24, 2008, the board overruled Gutherie. In a 3–2 vote, it ruled that McConnell’s second and third shots were “justified, within policy.”
It did, however, confirm that McConnell had broken department rules by not having pepper spray, which all cops are required to carry. It did not note that McConnell had requested the spray but the department had failed to issue it to him.
Board chairman Patrick Burke, an assistant chief, sent a memo the next day to the director of the Disciplinary Review Division. He reported the board’s determination that the shootings had been justified.
Less than three weeks later, on December 10, inspector Dierdre Porter, director of the Disciplinary Review Branch, reversed the Use of Force Review Board’s decision. She never interviewed McConnell.
“The initial discharge of your weapon was justified,” she wrote. “However, your two subject shots at the fleeing suspect were not justified and not within departmental policy. Therefore, for the above dereliction, the department proposes to terminate your employment with the department.”
Porter’s letter said McConnell could defend his actions before a trial board. McConnell engaged the police union’s counsel, Jim Pressler, and prepared to fight. The case should be heard this summer.
When and how cops use force is a major point of contention between police and the policed. Cops believe they’re doing their job to keep the peace; some citizens believe cops are thugs with badges.
What is too much force? What’s the difference between properly restraining a suspect and resorting to brutality? When and how should an officer use deadly force?
For the past 50 years, investigations of police brutality have rocked police departments and put some under federal supervision. Departments in both Prince George’s County and the District have had to answer to the Department of Justice. For ten years, until 2008, federal officials monitored the DC police department’s use of force.
In response, the department established a multilayered, self-policing apparatus. It investigates each use of force, from handcuffings to shootings. Any citizen can trigger an investigation. But the investigations can be subjective and arbitrary.
“The department has created a disciplinary system that scrutinizes every single action an officer takes,” says Kristopher Baumann, head of the police union. “Police officers in Washington, DC, are not able to do their jobs.
“Moreover,” Baumann says, “there are incidents where trained investigators have cleared an officer’s actions but a commander or high-ranking official has meted out harsh discipline. One of the criteria for being a good manager is how much discipline you propose.”Asked to respond, assistant chief Peter Newsham said by e-mail: “It would be irresponsible of the Department not to have managers carefully review uses of force, especially in cases where someone’s life was taken. I believe that members of this department would be offended by the suggestion that they ‘are not able to do their job.’ ”
Newsham also maintains that the department has not yet disciplined McConnell, even though the detective has been stripped of his badge and gun and strapped to a desk on “non-contact” duty for nearly two years.
Newsham says the Use of Force Review Board is charged only with analyzing and making recommendations: “The Chief of Police or her designee has the final word on disciplinary matters for the agency. To suggest that a member has been punished or disciplined before final agency action has been taken would be completely inaccurate.”
Yet the department’s own 2007 annual report says the opposite: “The Board is responsible for determining the final agency disposition for the use of force cases it reviews.”
Newsham declined to comment on Kevin McConnell’s case except to say, “No final agency action has been taken here.”
The family of Jason Taft took action on January 29. Taft’s sister, Christol English, filed a six-count wrongful-death suit against the District and McConnell. She asked for $25 million plus punitive damages and court costs.
The civil case alleges that McConnell never identified himself as a police officer. It says Taft tried to escape. “Unlike defendant McConnell,” it says, “plaintiff’s decedent was unarmed.” It describes McConnell as “out of control and deranged.”
DC attorney Gregory Lattimer represents Christol English. He also represents the family of DeOnte Rawlings, a 14-year-old shot by police in 2007. The department ruled that shooting to have been justified.
Lattimer says the department is treating McConnell with “kid gloves” and adds, “It’s mind-boggling to me. He shot a guy in the back when he was running away from him. Nobody can say he was facing a threat.”
Lattimer never met Taft, but he describes him as an electrician working for a construction company. “He was a regular guy making a living at a decent job,” Lattimer says. “He did have prior arrests for DUI and stuff. He wasn’t a thug.”
But Jason Taft had been arrested a dozen times since 2000. The charges included assault on a female, car theft, “terroristic threats and acts,” felony theft, and disorderly conduct. According to police records, Taft had pleaded guilty to assault and destruction of property.
Five months before his encounter with McConnell—on March 3, 2007—Taft was arrested and jailed for assaulting a police officer. Superior Court judge Jeanette Clark tried Taft on July 10. She found him guilty of two counts and ordered him to serve 80 days in jail.
If Clark had enforced the full sentence, Taft would have been in jail on August 3, when he attacked McConnell. But Judge Clark suspended 73 days, so Taft served a week in jail. He was on probation for assaulting a cop when he attacked McConnell.
Michelle McConnell says she’s not surprised her husband has been sued for $25 million. “Word on the street is DC pays,” she says. “If you sue the city, you are likely to get a settlement of some kind.”
Michelle sits in the screened porch of her hilltop home. Megan, almost two, plays with the family’s four Labrador retrievers and shuttles between her mom, McConnell, and their friend Eddie Wise. McConnell and Wise have been buddies since McConnell joined the force in 1997. Now they work on cars and talk about the department.
“I would like to see some changes made to the whole disciplinary policy,” says Wise. A patrol officer for many years, he now works in the forensics lab. “You can’t have higher-ups making rash decisions that disrupt the lives of officers for no good reason.”
Says McConnell: “The department doesn’t stand behind us. In every situation, it seems to say, ‘Let’s find out what this officer did wrong.’ They only look for the negatives.
“I went through a lot of emotional pain over almost being killed and then shooting someone,” he says. “But the way the department has treated me has caused even more pain.
“I feel the department would rather I was the one who had died that night. They could have made me a hero who died in the line of duty and been done with it.”
Michelle McConnell nods. “Now,” she says, “I have to go to work every day at a place that’s trying to fire my husband.”