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Chief Cathy Lanier says cops wearing cameras will make investigations easier. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Tommy Wells.

Starting next week, some DC police officers will be patrolling the streets while cameras are rolling. DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Mayor Vince Gray announced Wednesday the launch of a Metropolitan Police Department pilot program that will test out body-mounted cameras on cops making their rounds.

Lanier said 160 officers, spread across MPD’s seven districts, have volunteered to wear cameras while they’re on duty as part of the initial launch. The officers will be testing out five different camera models mounted on their shirts, shoulders, or heads. If the $1 million pilot goes well, Lanier said, MPD’s entire roster of nearly 4,000 officers could be sporting cameras within two or three years.

Outfitting officers with constantly recording video cameras could greatly increase the police department’s transparency. Currently, much of the available footage of DC police is taken by bystanders and shared online, which can lead to ugly encounters such one earlier this month in which an officer hassled a person legally recording an arrest outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown.

“It’s not like we’re not being taped every day,” Lanier said. “We’re the last ones to get cameras.”

Lanier said she’s consulted with both the Fraternal Order of Police and the American Civil Liberties Union on the camera program. But putting cameras on cops doesn’t allay every concern about police transparency. The ACLU has voiced concerns about cameras recording when officers enter private residences without planning to use force (such as a SWAT raid) and whether officers could be able to “edit on the fly.” Lanier said MPD will destroy footage after 90 days unless it’s part of an investigation. The videos will also be available for public access under the District’s Freedom of Information Act, she said.

Body-mounted cameras could also make police work less murky, Lanier said, by allowing supervising officers to review video rather than rely only on witnesses’ after-the-fact recollections. There’s also been a growing public desire for police everywhere to visually document their moves since August 9 when a Ferguson, Missouri police officer fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Gray said the MPD camera pilot was planned well before Brown’s shooting.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 12:53 PM/ET, 09/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Severance is accused of killing regional transportation chief Ron Kirby and two other Alexandria residents. By Benjamin Freed

Charles Severance. Photograph via West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Authority.

Prosecutors in Alexandria filed homicide charges Monday against Charles Severance in connection with three murders carried out over an 11-year span. Severance, who is currently in a Loudoun County jail awaiting trial on a gun charge, is suspected of entering the home of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato on February 6 and shooting her fatally.

Lodato’s murder bore similarities to the slaying last November of Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and in 2003 of Nancy Dunning, wife of former Alexandria Sheriff Jim Dunning.

The Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney is charging Severance with 10 counts, but will not seek the death penalty.

Alexandria Police started looking for connections between the three killings in March, a few weeks after Lodato’s death. Severance became a suspect while in custody in West Virginia, where he was arrested on an unrelated weapons count issued by Loudoun County. Severance was arrested in 1997 and 2005 on Virginia gun charges, and as a convicted felon, is prohibited by state and federal law from possessing a gun. A former Alexandria resident, Severance, 53, ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2000.

Posted at 02:10 PM/ET, 09/08/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The former governor of Virginia and his wife were charged in January on 14 counts of taking gifts from the CEO of a nutritional supplement manufacturer. By Benjamin Freed
Bob McDonnell, as seen in Johnnie R. Williams's Ferrari. Photograph via US Department of Justice.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were found guilty Thursday in federal court for illegally accepting cash, luxury goods, and vacations from the chief executive of a nutritional supplement manufacturer in exchange for promotion by the state government.

A jury in federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia found the McDonnells guilty after a five-week trial that exposed long-simmering rifts between the McDonnells and Johnnie R. Williams, the former CEO of Star Scientific, who lavished the McDonnells over several years in exchange for their promotion of Anatabloc, a tobacco-based supplement made by Williams's former company.

Bob McDonnell was found guilty on 11 corruption counts while Maureen McDonnell was found guilty on eight corruption counts plus one count of obstruction of justice. Both faced a total of 14 counts. The jury of seven men and five women took a little more than two days to deliberate more than a month of testimony and arguments.

The McDonnells were charged in January, just days after leaving the governor's mansion in Richmond. Many of the allegations against the couple stemmed from their former chef, who was profiled in the February issue of Washingtonian.

Among the trials revelations were images of Bob McDonnell cruising around in a Ferrari borrowed from Williams, testimony that Maureen McDonnell had an "obsession" with the businessman, and an argument by the defense that the McDonnells' marriage was too fractured for them to build a conspiracy to cover up Williams's largesse. In total, prosecutors say the McDonnells took over $200,000 in cash, clothing, jewelry, and vacations for pushing Anatabloc on everyone from state government underlings to Ann Romney, the wife of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

According to the Washington Post, the McDonnells were visibly emotional after the verdict was announced. The former governor "sobbed throughout the proceeding" and stared at the floor as he exited the courtroom. The McDonnells will be sentenced January 6 and each face up to 30 years in prison.

While an appeal is already considered "inevitable," the verdict marks a low point for the McDonnells and Virginia politics at large. Once short-listed as a potential vice-presidential nominee, Bob McDonnell became the first governor of Virginia to be charged—and now convicted—of a felony.

UPDATE, 3:55 PM: "Of course we will appeal," Bob McDonnell's attorney, Hank Asbill, told reporters outside the courthouse.

McDonnell's downfall is so jarring to the Virginia political establishment, it's making his successor, Terry McAuliffe, a bit misty-eyed. "I am deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government," McAuliffe said in a statement released by his office after the verdict. "Dorothy and I will continue to pray for the McDonnell family and for everyone who was affected by this trial."

One person for whom the McAuliffes can spare their prayers: Johnnie R. Williams, the tobacco-derivative huckster turned star witness who got immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 02:34 PM/ET, 09/04/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Bowser's campaign has cut its ties to Lindenfeld. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

 

Hours after being implicated in a Philadelphia political corruption scheme, DC political strategist Tom Lindenfeld found himself cast out of Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser's inner circle.

Bowser, who touts her patience and loyalty with people, cut her ties with Lindenfeld not long after he was identified as fitting the description of a political consultant who served as the bagman in a plot to hide an illegal $1 million loan. Such a role would be a big turn for a longtime DC political operative who relished walloping Mayor Vince Gray over the scandal surrounding his 2010 campaign and was enlisted by the Washington Post to write a high-dudgeon editorial about cleaning up municipal politics. But it appears a campaign that Lindenfeld advised in Philadelphia did not always follow his published advice.

According to documents entered in federal court Wednesday in Philadelphia, ten-term US Representative Chaka Fattah’s 2007 mayoral campaign did not disclose $1 million borrowed from a benefactor believed to be Al Lord, the former chief executive of student-loan giant Sallie Mae. The guilty plea for Fattah aide Greg Naylor states that he and his boss attempted to pay off the $1 million and other campaign loans by funneling federal grant money through nonprofit organizations and political consulting firms.

Naylor’s plea document lists “Person B,” described as “a founder and partner in a Washington, D.C. political consulting firm,” serving as the courier. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News reported Wednesday that this characterization fits Lindenfeld, who consulted for Fattah’s 2007 race. According to plea, this individual and his company took the money around April 2007, when Fattah’s campaign looked doomed. Person B spent about $600,000 on Fattah’s behalf, including $200,000 in “walking-around money.” ("Walking-around money" is not alien to Lindenfeld's DC campaigns. Bowser's finance reports list hundreds of people who were paid up to $200 for canvassing the District in the days leading up to this year's Democratic primary on April 1.)

Person B returned the $400,000 balance after Fattah lost the 2007 election, but soon after, the source of the loan called in the other $600,000, which was not included in the campaign’s outstanding debt. With Fattah’s illicit benefactor pleading “acute financial difficulty,” prosecutors say Fattah arranged for a nonprofit organization to transfer money it received from the Sallie Mae Fund and federal grant programs to a company run by another individual identified only as “Person C.” That person’s and Person B formed a “strategic partnership” in January 2008, with the Sallie Mae and federal money first going from the nonprofit group to Person C’s company, and then onto Person B’s company, which resembles Lindenfeld's LSG Strategies, before finally being paid back to the original donor.

It was a stressful, high-stakes scheme, according an e-mail from Person B to Person C with the subject line, “You are killing me.”

“I made a commitment based on yours to me,” Person B wrote in the January 30, 2008 message. “Please don’t drag this out. I have a lot on the line.”

The transfer went through the following day, but the scheme started to unravel two months later, when the Justice Department started auditing the grant it issued to the nonprofit. Naylor’s guilty plea states that Person B’s District-based political consulting firm never did any work to justify a $600,000 payment from Person C’s outfit. Fattah is currently running for his 11th House term.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 11:45 AM/ET, 08/29/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
In the wake of Ferguson, a cop argues in the Post that it's up to the people, not the police, to prevent police brutality. By Benjamin Freed
Image via Shutterstock.

“Here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.”

Ferguson, Missouri? 

Try the Washington Post.

The advice comes from a veteran police officer, writing on the Post’s PostEverything site, which since its launch been a reliable bucket of patently offensive takes on issues that are consuming the rest of the internet (recently, two university professors wrote on PostEverything that marriage is the best antidote to domestic violence). Los Angeles Police Department officer Sunil Dutta takes up the question of how to avoid running afoul of the police,  Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot at least six times and killed August 8 by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson

“Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names,” Dutta writes. “Don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.”

In other words, shut up and take it, because even the slightest bit of intransigence is grounds for the cops to unleash a world of hurt. If you've got complaints, shelve them for later, Dutta says.

"Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you," he writes. "We have a justice system in which you are presumed innocent; if a cop can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated." Or, wait for your complaint to get buried under mountains of paperwork and or dismissed outright. In DC, for instance, only 66 of the 358 complaints filed last year against Metropolitan Police Department officers were sustained, according to figures released this week.

Dutta admits that he, like nearly every other observer in this case, doesn’t know exactly what transpired before Wilson fired his gun, but Dutta’s take on the Ferguson situation is dosed with enough experience—in addition to spending 17 years with the LAPD, he also moonlights as a college instructor in Colorado—to make his points at least appear logical. But to say that putting up a verbal argument warrants bringing out the billy clubs, stun guns, or actual guns only stokes what’s been seen coming out of Ferguson in the past week—images of peaceful demonstrators being met with a lines of officers rigged with military-grade equipment, marchers being fogged with canisters of tear gas, and people being slugged with rubber bullets after not moving quickly enough.

Dutta tries to generate some sympathy for the cops, writing, “An average person cannot comprehend the risks and has no true understanding of a cop’s job.” Neither does Dutta, however, if he thinks encounters with police officers can only end with immediate submission or the deployment of overwhelming force. 

That’s the argument by New York Police Department Sergeant Jon Murad, another scholar-cop who wrote on his blog over the weekend that even if Brown did physically engage the officer who shot him, if he signaled his surrender, Wilson’s gun should have remained holstered.

“Shooting someone trying to take your gun is lawful, especially if he’s a significant physical threat; shooting someone surrendering with their hands up is not, even when it’s the same guy and mere seconds separate the events,” Murad writes.

Murad assessment is more sober, though far less click-baiting than something that screams “I’m the police! Do as I say or else!”

Posted at 04:17 PM/ET, 08/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
An annual report shows that homicides and sexual assaults were up in 2013. Plus, a look at the demographics of DC's police force in the wake of Ferguson. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Matt Johnson.

One of the many issues at play in the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after a police officer there shot and killed an unarmed black teenager is that the police department in the St. Louis suburb is 94 percent white in a town where two-thirds of the population is black. The disparity has exposed deep faults that can arise when a police force is not representative of the community it serves.  

For all of the Metropolitan Police Department’s faults, though, that doesn't appear to be one of them, according to an annual report made public Monday. Fifty-seven percent of the department’s nearly 4,000 sworn officers are black, 33 percent are white, and seven percent are Hispanic. Two of the department’s six assistant chiefs are black, as are six of the seven district commanders.

The Metropolitan Police Department investigated 35,499 crimes in 2013, about the same number as in 2012, according to an annual report made public Monday. Beneath that generally stable number, though, were sharp increases in homicides, sexual assaults, and rapes.

One hundred four people were murdered in DC last year, an 18 percent jump over the 88 who lost their lives in 2012. While the 104 slain last year includes the 12 victims of the September 16 massacre at Washington Navy Yard, it picks at a general uptick in the city’s homicide rate after several years of decline. The District has recorded 73 murders so far in 2014, up from 57 at this point a year ago, or a jump of 28 percent.

Via Metropolitan Police Department

For yet another year, an overwhelming majority—78 percent—of DC’s homicide victims were black men.

Police also report a 15 percent increase in the number of sexual assaults reported citywide, from 259 to 298. Meanwhile, the number of reported rapes leaped from 236 in 2012 to 393 last year. But MPP spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump tells Washingtonian via e-mail that those figures cannot be accurately compared because last year’s figure reflects a long overdue update in how the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, which police departments use to record crime data, defines “forcible rape.” The new definition covers any penetration, no matter how slight, without consent of the victim; the previous terminology, defining rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will,” hadn’t been changed since 1927. Crump says 27 percent of rapes reported last year fell under the new definition.

The 41,747 arrests MPD made last year is a slight drop from the 42,471 in 2012. Of the total arrests, 3,177 were of juveniles. What were the most common causes of arrest?

  • Simple assault: 6,720
  • Narcotics: 5,866
  • Traffic violations: 4,656
  • Warrant charges: 4,624
  • Other: 2,210
  • Disorderly conduct: 2,194

Arrest data is not broken down by race, but external reports in years past show deep racial divides among who gets arrested. More than eight out of ten people arrested in DC between 2009 and 2011 were black, according to a report issued last year by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. The division is even more extreme for drug arrests, with blacks accounting for nearly 90 percent of marijuana-related arrests, according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union. With a decriminalization law now in effect for possession of one ounce or less, the number of drug-related arrests could fall greatly in next year’s MPD report.

The annual report also contains a few other fascinating statistics about the city’s crime rate and the police department that patrols it.

Traffic fatalities:

Via Metropolitan Police Department

There were 10 more deaths caused by motor vehicles in 2013 than the year before, including 12 pedestrians and two cyclists.

Use of force:

Via Metropolitan Police Department

District police officers shot and killed five suspects last year, including Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis, who was taken down by Officer Dorian DeSantis. DeSantis and 55 other officers who responded to the massacre were given MPD’s Medal of Valor in February.

Complaints:

There were 358 complaints lodged against police officers in 2013, but of those, only 66 were sustained upon review, while another 75 remain under investigation. Of the total number of complaints filed, 50 were for abuse of authority, 34 were for excessive use of force, and 53 were for rude and unprofessional behavior. There were also eight complaints of illegal searches. The report does not break down which complaints were dismissed and which were verified according to category.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 03:06 PM/ET, 08/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A medical examiner ruled Brady died from wounds he suffered in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. By Benjamin Freed

Brady. Photograph via Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence.

The death this week of James Brady—the White House Press Secretary who was critically wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan—will be investigated by the Metropolitan Police Department as a homicide, a DC police source tells Washingtonian.

Brady, 73, died in Alexandria on Monday and underwent an autopsy at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. Virginia officials then turned their findings over to DC authorities, the medical examiner’s office says.

The homicide finding means that would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. could be charged with Brady’s murder more than 30 years after the shooting outside the Washington Hilton in Dupont Circle. Brady took a bullet to the head and was left with permanent brain damage, short-term memory loss, and partial paralysis that forced him to rely on a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Hinckley, who now resides at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill, in Southeast DC, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in his 1982 trial for his assassination attempt. Now 59 years old, Hinckley has been permitted to leave the hospital—with a Secret Service tail—to visit his elderly mother in Williamsburg, Virginia. Last December, a federal judge ruled Hinckley could spend up to 17 days a month outside the hospital.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 05:15 PM/ET, 08/08/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The fake cabbie stole more than $200,000 by swiping his passengers’ ATM cards. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

A Maryland man pleaded guilty Monday to scamming drunk Washingtonians by offering them late-night rides and convincing them to give him their ATM cards and personal banking information, racking up more than $200,000 in the process. The twist? Nyerere Mitchell conducted his scheme wearing a woman’s wig and padded breasts, pretending to be a female taxi driver behind the wheel of his silver Land Rover.

Mitchell, 50, ran his faux-taxi operation from April 2009 to November 2013, says the office of US Attorney Ron Machen. After donning his disguise, Mitchell drove to bar-heavy neighborhoods including Chinatown, Adams Morgan, and Dupont Circle, offering rides to young people who appeared to be intoxicated and looking for a way home. In order to get cash from his victims, Mitchell would pull up to drive-through ATMs that could only be accessed from the driver’s side. Mitchell would then ask his passengers to turn over their ATM cards and personal identification numbers and withdraw several hundred dollars rather than the $10 to $40 fares he advertised. He would then usually give back a different card he had stolen from someone else and use freshly swiped cards over the next several days to withdraw more money. Prosecutors say Mitchell conned enough people that he could easily substitute similar-looking bank cards so his victims didn’t realize until they sobered up.

Police turned up a shoebox containing 205 stolen ATM cards when they arrested Mitchell last November. They also found a wig he appeared to be wearing in a bank surveillance video. Mitchell pleaded guilty to five counts of felony fraud, each of which is punishable by up to ten years in prison. He was ordered to repay $228,036, and will remain behind bars pending his sentencing in October.

Posted at 02:22 PM/ET, 08/04/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Supreme Court’s recent reaffirmation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulatory powers shouldn’t be taken lightly. By Michael Gaynor

Since 2008, the EPA has circulated a most-wanted list—like the FBI’s, only these crimes sound like plots from a Captain Planet episode. Here are some outlaws recently bagged by EPA agents, and the most notorious still on the lam.

Photograph courtesy of EPA.

Peter Kuhn

Crime: Allegedly conspired to dump mining waste on public land.

Background: The German-born former president of a Ne-vada mining company, Kuhn fled the US after being indicted for illegally disposing of arsenic and lead in 2010. Though the EPA works with Interpol and other foreign agencies to bring in fugitives like Kuhn, “these folks may never set foot on US soil again,” says Parker.

Status: Believed to be in the Vancouver area.

Photograph courtesy of EPA.

Larkin Baggett

Crime: Dumping corrosive chemicals and industrial cleaners on soil and in sewers.

Background: This owner of a Utah chemical company fled before his 2008 trial could begin, but eight months later a tipster gave up Baggett’s hiding spot in the Florida Keys. He was arrested after a shootout with EPA agents and local law enforcement.

Status: Serving a 20-year sentence for polluting and for aggravated assault on law-enforcement officers.

Photograph courtesy of EPA.

Omran Alghazouli

Crime: Charged with selling R-12 Freon, a banned cooling substance smuggled from Mexico.

Background: In response to a 1987 international agreement to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals, Congress slapped prohibitive taxes on certain aerosols. “On the street, a cylinder the size of a gas-grill tank can sell for $300 or $400,” says EPA Criminal Investigation Division director Doug Parker. “They may be smuggling it at a fraction of that.”

Status: At large, possibly in Syria.

Photograph courtesy of EPA.

Albania Deleon

Crime: Selling fraudulent asbestos-removal training certificates.

Background: The EPA requires people dealing with hazardous substances to undergo 40 hours of training. Convicted in 2008 of conspiracy and fraud after undercover IRS agents bought faked certificates from her forgery ring, Deleon hid in the Dominican Republic for two years before being arrested and extradited.

Status: Serving an 87-month prison sentence

 

Find Michael Gaynor on Twitter at @michael_gaynor. This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 07/29/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Davis is wanted in connection with an incident that took place June 2 in Adams Morgan. By Benjamin Freed
Fred Davis at training camp in August 2011. Photograph by Flickr user Keith Allison.

Former Washington tight end Fred Davis is wanted by Metropolitan Police Department on a domestic violence charge, a police spokesman confirms to Washingtonian. Davis, 28, is accused of simple assault in an incident that occurred during the early hours of June 2 on 18th Street, Northwest, in Adams Morgan.

The assault allegation marks another episode in Davis’s turblent, six-year career in Washington. Davis, who suited up in burgundy and gold from 2008 to 2013, was suspended indefinitely by the NFL in February for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. A day later, he was arrested by Fairfax County Police for drunk driving, although a judge dismissed the charge for lack of evidence.

Davis also has a history of domestic assault. A DC Superior Court judge ruled last September that there was a “preponderance of evidence” that Davis assaulted a woman at a DC nightclub in 2011. Davis was ordered to pay his accuser nearly $20,000 after a civil trial.

DC police are asking for the public’s assistance in locating Davis, who lives in Leesburg, offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information that leads to Davis’s arrest and conviction. At six-foot-three and about 250 pounds, he should be hard to miss.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 12:59 PM/ET, 07/23/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()