News & Politics

Why DC’s Best Cops aren’t Protecting You

They’re three of DC’s best cops. They got guns and drugs and bad guysoff the streets. When they fired at a suspect trying to run them down, they ran afoul of a bureaucratic system that cost them their badges.

Don’t Shoot

The snow was falling softly but steadily the evening of Tuesday, December 6, 2005. It coated the city streets in a veneer of white and promised a peaceful night.

DC police officers Abraham Lazarus, Scott Craiger, and Charlie Hoetzel were working the night shift along the spine of Georgia Avenue. Lazarus and Craiger had pulled their unmarked black Crown Victoria into a gas station on South Dakota Avenue for sodas. Hoetzel, in another unmarked car, went for hot chocolate.

The police radio crackled with a call just before 1 am: A man was selling drugs from a dark van with tinted windows on Taussig Place, Northeast.

“Let’s check it out,” Lazarus said.

Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel were well known in local police and criminal circles. Through policing and socializing they had become brothers. In two years they had hauled in piles of guns, pounds of drugs, and dozens of thugs. The police department gave them medals and awards; bad guys drew pictures of their black Crown Vic in chalk with cross hairs on it.

The trio pulled up on Taussig, a few streets from Providence Hospital. Two more officers rolled up. Cars were parked on both sides of the narrow street, making it a single lane. Lazarus drove slowly, spotted the dark green van on the right, and stopped at its left.

“There it is,” he said. The van was idling.

The officers knew Taussig Place. A quiet street during the day, with older residents, young families, and some college students, it turned into a drug market at night.

Craiger approached the car on the sidewalk and stood by the front right headlight. Hoetzel and Lazarus walked up to the passenger window. Two other officers took the driver’s side. The driver appeared to be dozing.

Hoetzel held his badge to the window, tapped on the glass, and said, “Police.”

The driver put the van in reverse and pulled back a foot or two. “Stop,” Hoetzel shouted. “Police! Show me your hands!”

The driver put the van in park and raised his hands. Lazarus walked around to the driver’s window and looked at him.

“Calm down,” he said. “Just relax.”

The driver lowered his left hand as if to reach for something between the seat and the door. He shoved the van into drive and almost hit Hoetzel, who pulled out his baton and shattered the passenger window.

The officers yelled, “Police! Stop the vehicle!”

Scott Craiger pulled out his Glock-17 pistol, held it with two hands, and pointed it down in the low ready position. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

The driver turned the wheel and jumped the curb onto the sidewalk.

Craiger was trapped between a low stone wall and the parked cars. He had no choice but to stay on the sidewalk, in front of the van. The driver looked Craiger in the eye and gunned the motor.

Craiger ran up the sidewalk and slipped on the snow. As he was falling he raised his pistol and fired at the driver. He had been a cop for eight years; it was the first time he’d fired his weapon on the street.

Hoetzel saw his partner go down, drew his pistol, and fired at the back of the van, shattering the rear window. Lazarus also fired one shot at the driver.

As the van came toward him, Craiger slipped between two parked cars. The van missed him and drove 200 yards up the sidewalk, bouncing off walls and trees before veering into an alley. Hoetzel chased it as far as he could on foot.

Lazarus and Hoetzel thought their buddy had been run over. They were relieved to see him appear from between the cars. Still breathing hard, Lazarus called the station: “Shots fired. Police involved.”

under DC police department regulations, every time an officer fires a shot, it triggers an investigation. A Force Investigation Team arrived. Its members took pictures, retrieved shell casings, interviewed the officers. One of the team members said, “You’re okay. It looks like a good shoot.”

Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel left Taussig Place about 3:30 am, drove to the mobile crime unit off South Dakota Avenue, and turned in their weapons to be checked. They were issued new Glocks. They got home around noon.

After a mandatory three days off, the officers returned to duty. They kept making arrests. They planned for Craiger’s wedding in late June. Lazarus was to be best man; Hoetzel was an usher.

Six months after that snowy night, each man received a plain manila envelope with a memorandum from the department. It described the incident and said Craiger had shot “in defense of your life while falling to the ground.”

But it also charged Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel with misconduct for discharging their firearms in violation of police orders—specifically a new rule, issued November 10, 2005, that prohibited officers from firing at a moving vehicle even if it was about to run over them. The new order said vehicles are “not considered deadly force.”

“For the above dereliction,” the memorandum to the officers said, “the department proposes to terminate your employment with the department.”

Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel turned in their badges and weapons and were placed on desk duty. They have spent the last six months fighting for the jobs they love. They hired an attorney and poured thousands of dollars into their defense.

“I fired my weapon in fear of my life,” Craiger says. “Now they want to take my livelihood.”

“We are pretty much guilty until proven innocent,” Lazarus says.

“It ruined my life,” says Hoetzel. “Now I may never be able to work as an officer again. Why are they doing this?”

The answer is complicated. But in investigating the shooting and its aftermath, I came to the conclusion that the DC police department has embraced policies that penalize its best officers.

The changes began in 1998 with a Washington Post series on DC police that described “a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay.” Chief Charles Ramsey had just taken over the department. Shocked by the newspaper series, he became the first police chief in the nation to invite the Justice Department in to review the police department’s use of force. In 2001 Justice drew up a memorandum of agreement with the DC police revising the regulations governing the use of force. The result put in place a system for controlling and disciplining cops, including the creation of special divisions and an outside monitor to investigate police behavior.

The apparatus seems to investigate cops with more rigor than it investigates criminals. What started in 2001 as a system to monitor cops who used their weapons too often has developed into a blunt instrument that punishes some of DC’s best and brightest and allows criminals to use the system against officers trying to make streets safe.

“The drug boys figured out that the more complaints they make against an officer, the more upheaval they can create in the officer’s life,” says Sergeant Delroy Burton, detailed to the police union to help with citizen complaints.

Says Gary Hankins, a retired officer who consults with police unions across the country: “New systems put in place to monitor cops are an exquisite expression of the distrust between Chief Ramsey’s people and the police officers. It’s crippling the department.”

Jim Pressler, a lawyer who has represented police officers for 30 years, says he has seen the effect of the new rules. “Under this use-of-force system, the cop becomes the prey,” he says. “The working police are getting eliminated.”

Beverly Anderson is a psychologist who has counseled police officers since 1988 in a practice funded by the District. She says she has seen an increasing number of officers become distressed, depressed, and sometimes suicidal as a result of the disciplinary system.

“It is hell-bent on breaking the backs of officers with punishments far beyond the transgressions,” she says. “I’m not saying there should be no consequences for officers who violate general orders. I am asking, why break the backs of the best officers trying to do their jobs?”

From interviews with dozens of current and retired officers and reviews of documents and reports, two facts emerge:

• The DC police department has many more people investigating its own officers—through internal-affairs units, force-investigation teams, various trial boards, and an office of police complaints—than it has investigating homicides.

• An average of 30 police officers, many from its most experienced ranks, leave the department every month, according to the police union, in part because they believe the department has turned against them.

Police chief Charles Ramsey, who is responsible for the system of internal controls, did not respond to repeated written and oral requests for interviews. Assistant chief Shannon Cockett, who signed the termination papers for Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel, also declined to be interviewed.

It is common wisdom among cops, academics, and police executives that about 10 percent of a police force does about 90 percent of the hard work of investigating crimes and locking up criminals. They are the aggressive officers for whom police work is a calling, not just a job.

It is this top-performing 10 percent of DC officers, many say, who are coming under fire from their own department for violating new use-of-force regulations.

Rather than pursuing criminals, many police officers have decided to react to incidents only when they must to avoid the possible repercussions of violating department policies. Law-enforcement professionals have a name for this. They call it “depolicing.”

Abe Lazarus was at home in Crofton on Saturday, July 1, when Charlie Hoetzel called to say they were being terminated.

“Shut up, dude,” said Lazarus, who was now working for the canine unit. He couldn’t believe it.

Soon two officers arrived at his house with the manila envelope containing the charging papers. His captain called: “Bring in your dog. Meet me at the canine building.”

Lazarus put his police dog, Sal, in the car. He and his wife, Lisa, drove to DC. As he walked Sal into the canine unit, Lisa cried in the truck.

Abe Lazarus wanted to be a DC police officer from the time he was ten. He grew up in Hyattsville with his dad’s police dogs. His father, Charlie, was a DC cop for 18 years, most of them in the canine unit. He joined the department in 1969, a year before Abe was born. Abe’s mother worked at Melart Jewelers on Connecticut Avenue.

Young Abe would ride along with his father in cruiser 694. He remembers being scared sometimes, but he admired his father and loved the gentle German-shepherd police dogs that doubled as family pets. Abe played sports in school and grew up with a tight group of friends. When he finished high school, his father suggested that he become a cop. “No way,” Abe said in a rebellious moment. “What would I want to do that for?”

At 36, Abe Lazarus is a large man with soft features. His buzzcut and his mustache have turned salt-and-pepper. His voice is deep and mellow. He has a calming effect on friends and criminals.

Working odd jobs after high school, he saw some of his best friends get addicted to crack cocaine. One, Bruce, would break into his mother’s beauty shop to steal money for crack—before he went off to jail. His friend Lucas got high, crashed his Corvette into a tree, and died at the scene. “It broke my heart to see them go down like that,” Abe says.

Charlie Lazarus had a heart attack in 1987, retired from the department on disability, and moved to Israel, where his wife was born and her family still lived. In 1990 Abe’s parents came back to Washington for Abe’s wedding at Beth Torah synagogue. Charlie Lazarus again suggested that Abe join the police department. This time Abe said yes. Shortly after the wedding, father and son drove to Ballou Senior High School, where Abe took the police entrance test. In late 1991 he was admitted to the department; he attended the police academy and at age 21 was in uniform, patrolling in DC’s Fourth Police District, where his father had worked.

“I wanted to take guns and drugs off the streets,” he said, “the things that got my friends into trouble and took them away from me.

“In the nation’s capital, I thought I could solve the problems of the world. I figured neighborhood people would love me. I wanted to do my part to help people. Call me a fool.”

Lazarus started in uniform patrol, moved up to vice and back to patrol. He all but lived in Scout Car 124 and carved out the neighborhood around 500 Crittenden Street, Northwest, in Petworth, as his territory. Once a working-class neighborhood, it had become dangerous. When Lazarus patrolled in the mid-1990s, longtime residents had to run a gauntlet of drug dealers to get to the corner stores.

“I made it my mission to make the dealers’ lives uncomfortable,” Lazarus says. “It was my beat. People knew I would be there from 3 to 11, no matter what.”

That’s when he met the Pie Lady.

One day an elderly black resident approached him. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you here every day,” she said.

Laz, as he was known on the beat, gave her his pager number. “Call me anytime,” he said.

She called often. Lazarus responded. One day she walked out of her home holding two warm apple pies. “For you,” she said. “This is the first time in years there’s no one hanging out on my street corner.”

Says Lazarus: “It was the first time I felt I had accomplished something.”

Lazarus’s demeanor—grounded and mellow—helped him diffuse volatile situations. “I was never the kind of police officer who smacks someone or shoots first and asks questions later,” he says. “I always talked people down.”

One night in 1999 Lazarus responded to a robbery on Hamilton Street, Northwest, near Georgia Avenue. Officers were on the scene when he arrived. A young man had broken into his father’s house. The father had called the police. Lazarus saw the young man walk out of the house wielding two large knives.

“Shoot him,” the father said.

The son approached the officers and raised the knives. Several officers, including Lazarus, opened fire, killing the young man. Lazarus took three months’ medical leave. “I was upset,” he says, “but I felt it was justified.”

The police department and the US Attorney investigated for more than a year. Lazarus was exonerated and went back on full duty.

At the time of that shooting, the DC police department was virtually under indictment for the number of times its officers discharged their weapons and its inadequate monitoring of police shootings.

In November 1998, the Washington Post had published a five-part series that portrayed DC cops as quick to use their weapons and as rarely being punished for killing people without cause. The lead sentence said that DC police had “shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large American city police force.”

Post reporters interviewed cops and residents and looked into police files for eight months. They found “a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight.”

The series described incident after incident in which officers had shot at citizens with little apparent justification. Cops who worked the streets at the time note that DC’s streets were among the most dangerous in the nation and say they were meeting force with force. But the Post series created the impression that DC cops were out of control.

The Post won a Pulitzer Prize for the series, in part because it had an immediate impact on the police department. After years of fiscal mismanagement, DC was being run by a federal control board, which had hired Charles Ramsey, a police official from Chicago, as police chief. Chief financial officer Anthony Williams had just won the Democratic mayoral primary and was about to take over the DC government in January 1999.

Williams and Ramsey were a match: Both were outsiders given a strong mandate for reform. In the wake of the Post series, Ramsey brought in new managers from Chicago and told them to get DC’s cops under control.

“Ever since Ramsey arrived, he has displayed a mistrust for the entire department, from top to bottom,” says Gary Hankins.

Ramsey didn’t think the department could reform itself, so he invited the US Department of Justice to monitor it. In many past cases, Justice had investigated police departments and then forced its way in to oversee those it believed had become corrupt or violated civil-rights laws; this was the first time a city had asked the feds in.

The move “was an affront on two levels,” Hankins says. “It told the police officers Ramsey didn’t trust them. And it was counter to the spirit of home rule.”

On June 13, 2001, the Justice Department issued a 33-page memorandum of agreement. It called DC’s request “unprecedented” and noted the “unusual genesis of the investigation—at the request of the agency to be investigated.”

The Post series had focused on officers who had used their guns in questionable circumstances, but the Justice Department broadened its investigation to examine “every reported use of force and citizen complaint alleging excessive use of force during the period from 1994 through early 1999.”

The agreement called for a computerized, highly bureaucratic system to monitor, control, and punish street cops deemed to have violated department regulations. It put police officers who used force on the defensive. It gave them few rights if they were accused of using excessive force in an arrest.

In the eyes of many cops and commanders, it swung the balance of power on DC’s streets from the police to the criminals.

Scott Craiger married Pamela Cohen on June 25, 2006, at the Rod N Reel Restaurant in Chesapeake Beach. Most of the Fourth District vice squad was there.

Craiger and his bride flew to Mexico for a honeymoon on the Mayan coast. They landed in Miami ten days later, and he listened to a message from Lazarus: “Call us as soon as you get this message.”

From the tarmac, Craiger dialed his friend. Lazarus said, “Dude, they’re trying to fire us because we discharged our weapons.”

Craiger was silent.

“You’re taking this better than I thought,” Lazarus said.

“What do you want me to do?” Craiger asked. “I’m sitting on a plane just back from my honeymoon.”

He told his wife. The questions started to gnaw at him: It was me he was trying to run over. Have I put my friends in a bad spot?

Then he got mad.

“I had just bought a house and a car and gotten married,” he says. “I think I have a great career. Now I have people who don’t know me trying to take food off my table? Someone sitting in a chair is passing judgment on me. This is my chosen career, my life. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

Craiger comes from a blue-collar family in Mount Rainier. His father is a field supervisor for a construction company; his mom drove a school bus. After graduating from Northwestern High in 1989, he joined the Navy. When he completed his tour in 1996, he worked for his father’s company for a year.

“I missed helping people,” he says.

Craiger was watching a cops show on TV one night when he said to a friend, “I can do that.” He applied to the DC police department and joined the force in 1997. He started on patrol in the Fourth District.

“I quickly realized I wasn’t going to save the community,” he says, “but if I could help one or two people, I was doing okay. I had to go out and earn the respect of the people on the street. While I was on duty, there would be order.”

We are having lunch at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge up the street from DC Superior Court. Craiger, 35, is downtown to testify at a murder trial of a drug dealer he arrested. Dressed in a crisp pinstripe shirt, blue tie, and dark suit, he’s a trim cop who stands just under six feet, but he looks strong enough to take down a man twice his size. He has icy blue eyes and a trimmed goatee. His head is shaved. Guys on the street nicknamed him “Stone Cold.”

One hot Saturday Craiger was asked to patrol a fraternity festival at Emery Park near Howard University. The evening was calm until a fight broke out at the top of the hill. Teenagers stampeded down the hill toward Craiger and a few other cops.

Craiger saw a man start clubbing people with a stake. Another man fell to the ground, his head bleeding. The attacker smacked another person and ran toward Craiger.

“Police! Drop the stake,” Craiger yelled.

The man looked at him and kept coming. Craiger drew his weapon.

The man raised the stake. “Drop it!” Craiger yelled.

In that instant Craiger had to evaluate whether to shoot. This man had hit at least two people in the head with the stake. He had heard Craiger tell him to drop it. He had seen him draw his Glock, though it was pointed at the ground. Still he kept coming.

“Do I shoot or not?” Craiger thought.

Ten feet from Craiger, the guy tossed the stake and ran. Craiger holstered his pistol, chased him down, and arrested him.

Scott Craiger met Abe Lazarus on the midnight shift in 4D. Both were working vice. Chief Ramsey had renamed it Focused Mission Unit, but the task was the same: Get guns and drugs off the streets. Craiger and Lazarus worked together a few nights. Craiger started an auto-theft unit and asked Lazarus to join. They began hanging out after work and invited each other to dinner.

“Laz became almost like a brother,” Craig­er says. “If I had a problem, I knew I could confide in him.”

They made dozens of arrests patrolling the Black Hole, a club on Georgia Avenue. One night a rookie cop called for help. She had come upon a taxi that had rolled up a curb. The engine was running; the cabbie was dead. Lazarus and Craiger answered the call. The rookie was shaking. They looked in the front seat. Half the cabbie’s head was blown off.

They stepped away and looked around. “If you just shot someone,” Craiger asked, “where would you go?”

There was a Motel 6 across the street. They went over and asked the desk clerk if anyone had checked in lately.

“Yes,” he said. A man dressed in black had just gone upstairs.

They got the room number and called for backup. They waited for units to set up a perimeter around the motel. They took the elevator up to the second floor, walked to the room, banged on the door, and yelled, “Police! Open up!”

They heard the “click click” of a bullet being chambered in a semiautomatic pistol. The officers broke down the door in time to see the man in black jump through a window. He was apprehended without a shot being fired. The case was wrapped up an hour after the cabbie was killed.

Craiger and Lazarus were awarded achievement medals.

but medals were no protection for officers who ran afoul of the new use-of-force rules or the complaint system set up by the Justice Department. Take the case of Mark Dickerson, a legend among DC’s cops.

Dickerson came to the department in 1999 after a tour in the Marines and stints with the Federal Protective Service and the FBI.

“I love doing my job,” he told a Washington Post reporter. “Ever since I was five years old, that’s what I’ve wanted to do.”

Dickerson was assigned to the Fifth District, on DC’s eastern end. There were tough corners and violent neighborhoods throughout 5D, but Dickerson focused on Trinidad, the most notorious drug mall. Around Morton Place and Orleans Place, drug dealers had controlled the streets since the 1980s.

Mark Dickerson got to know the dealers; they got to know him. He would set up observation posts in abandoned houses. He would watch drug sales and radio to police units, who would roll in and cuff the dealers. The drug markets started to shut down, and the department awarded him commendations. In his rookie year, he was named 5D officer of the month twice. He was rated “outstanding.” But he was still in the 18-month probationary period, during which he could be fired at will.

Drug dealers were wise to the new police-complaint system. When Dickerson’s name kept coming up in arrest warrants and affidavits against them, they began registering complaints against him.

By the time Dickerson was about to complete the probationary period, the department’s new Office of Professional Responsibility had received 15 complaints alleging such offenses as excessive force, harassment, and planting drugs. One accused him of giving an improper ticket.

Under the Justice Department system, each complaint triggered an investigation by the police department’s internal-affairs unit. As Dickerson neared his swearing-in, none of the complaints had been found to have merit. One had been dismissed; in another, Dickerson’s use of force had been ruled justified. Still, he was stripped of his badge and gun and put on administrative duty.

Three days before Mark Dickerson was supposed to be sworn in, Chief Charles Ramsey fired him.

“Do we wait until we wind up with a serious case?” Ramsey said in an interview with the Post. “Or do you take action?”


The action taken against Mark Dickerson appears to be what the Justice Department had in mind, according to the memorandum of agreement. The agreement directed DC to develop a complex tracking system to “manage and control at-risk officers.” It reads as though it were designed to put a straitjacket on a department filled with rogue cops.

The Personnel Performance Management System is a database that requires an entry every time an officer makes an arrest, uses force for any purpose, uses a dog, pursues a vehicle, or is the subject of any complaint. It says nothing about the validity of the complaint. It pays special attention to instances where a police officer’s credibility is questioned by prosecutors.

“It’s had an enormous effect on officers,” says Sergeant Burton, a DC police officer since 1994. He worked patrol and vice in the Fourth District, where he was instrumental in taking down a drug cartel, before going to work at the police union.

“The part that is really sinister is that everything entered into the system has points,” he says. Any use of force has at least ten points before being evaluated; even if it’s justified, the points often stick. “After he gets a certain number of points, he’s up for investigation. Three complaints—no matter who makes them or for what reason—trigger an investigation of the officer.”

The system encourages people to complain about cops. The memorandum of agreement orders police to carry brochures describing the complaint process and to hold regular community meetings “about the various methods of filing a complaint against an officer.”

In effect, if a police officer arrests a suspect and twists that person’s arm while putting on handcuffs, the suspect can file a complaint and the cop has to file a use-of-force report, which triggers an investigation of the cop—for handcuffing someone.

“Everybody out there on the street knows this,” says Kristopher Baumann, a veteran cop and head of the police union. “If I lock up three drug dealers and each files a complaint that I used force, I am now the subject of three investigations. It happens to everybody.”

Baumann testified in September before the DC Council that police disciplinary procedures have gone up 300 percent since the Justice Department’s memorandum was put into place in 2001. According to a report filed with the council, the police department issued 3,000 days of suspension without pay in 2005. The report says 400 officers and officials were disciplined out of a force of 3,800.

Gene Smith, a former prosecutor, testified in October about the case of her husband, a top cop who had received reams of commendations. Accused of using profanity, he was ground up in a disciplinary system that has drained the family’s resources and spirit for three years: “No due process when removed from his command,” she testified. “No written charges, no specific charges, no names of his accusers.”

Her husband was eventually restored to duty.

“What a terrible drain on resources, and a terrible waste of human capital,” Smith testified, “to subject our ‘thin blue line’ of fine officers to an abusive system of discipline.”

The drain on resources includes millions paid to a DC law firm hired to establish an independent monitor’s office mandated by the Justice Department. The city chose Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Michael Bromwich is the lead attorney.

Bromwich declined to be interviewed.

The Office of Independent Monitor has issued 18 quarterly reports on the police department’s compliance with the 2001 memorandum. To get Justice out of the police department, the monitor must find it in “substantial compliance” with all the requirements “continuously for two years.” Bromwich said in the most recent report, “There are important accomplishments, but much work remains to be done for MPD and the city to achieve and maintain substantial compliance across the entire MOA.”

Bromwich declined to give details about his firm’s contract, but information obtained by The Washingtonian through the Freedom of Information Act shows that his firm has collected some $3 million since the start of the contract in 2002. “It just benefits Fried Frank and its consultants,” says police-union chief Baumann.

Charles Hoetzel learned about the DC police department’s use-of-force investigations when he was a senior at American University in 1999. He was majoring in justice. He got an internship with a Force Investigation Team.

Hoetzel originally had no intention of becoming a cop. Born in New York and raised in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, he came to American on a cross-country scholarship. He dreamed of competing in the Olympics. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer.

In his senior year he took a course with former DC cop Joshua Ederheimer. Ederheimer had been Chief Ramsey’s point person in developing the force-investigation system. He had left the department to join the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank. Ederheimer encouraged Hoetzel to ride along with a local cop.

Hoetzel accompanied a DC patrol officer on duty one night. They heard a gunshot and pulled alongside a car. “Hey,” Hoetzel said, “I see a bullet hole in the window!” The cop put his flashing lights on and stopped the vehicle. A search found a gun under the seat. The cop called for backup. Choppers circled overhead. Five men were arrested.

Hoetzel was hooked. He graduated and was accepted to law school. He applied instead to become a policeman and headed off to the training academy.

At 26, Hoetzel is so fresh-faced he could pass for 18, and he takes a fair amount of ribbing from his cop friends. In spite of his youth, he’s the most serious and intense.

He was first detailed to the Fourth District on day duty. He was bored. He asked to work the midnight shift.

“Guys with guns and drugs don’t stand there waiting to get arrested,” he says. “You have to hunt them down and chase them.”

As soon as he started working midnights, he heard about the famed black Crown Vic and the cops who drove around chasing bad guys. He approached Lazarus.

Lazarus was not enthusiastic about taking on a 23-year-old rookie. But Hoetzel kept asking. Lazarus and Craiger invited him to ride along one night. They busted a drug dealer with 20 bags of crack in a sock.

“Chuck was eager to learn,” says Lazarus. “He didn’t come into the office as if he knew it all.

Lazarus started teaching the kid the basics: how to prepare a search warrant, how to log in evidence. “I figured if I kept him close to me and taught him what I knew, he might be okay,” Lazarus says.

Craiger was not convinced. “Chuck was pretty green,” he says, “but he was an eager beaver. He had all the tools; he just didn’t know how to use them. He was always on high speed, he was a little cocky, but he did pump new life into the team.”

Officer Rob Crisostomo made an even four in the Crown Victoria.

Says Craiger: “We were always first on the street, last off the street.”

Lazarus drove. In the back seat, Craiger and Crisostomo were the muscle. Hoetzel rode shotgun.

One night in the summer of 2005, a radio call reported gunshots on Riggs Road near the Prince George’s County line. The team responded.

At LaSalle Elementary School they spotted a car with five men in it. As the Crown Vic pulled up, the passenger door opened, and a kid took off across a field. Hoetzel jumped out of the car and gave chase.

The kid was wearing a backpack. Hoetzel saw something sticking out of it. The kid slowed down, reached back, and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun.

Hoetzel thought, He’s too young. I hope I don’t have to shoot this kid. He closed in. The young man dropped the shotgun. Hoetzel cuffed him and led him back to the car. ➝

The team lived in the Crown Vic. Hoetzel brought a toothbrush and deodorant to work. The partners typically made several arrests a night. Guns and drugs they took from the streets filled the Fourth District evidence room.

“We would make an arrest, leave work, and discuss how we could have done it better,” Craiger says. “We worked together so much we learned to trust one another’s instincts. We had little looks when we knew there were drugs around, codes when we knew someone had a gun. It became second nature.”

Driving down North Capitol Street with the Capitol dome shining in front of them, Scott Craiger sometimes said, “That’s what we’re here to protect. I’m proud to be a police officer in the capital of the free world.”

Lazarus and Hoetzel would laugh at him. But they all felt the same way.

Except for the falling snow, that night of December 6, 2005, seemed normal. The team had responded to reports of drug dealing. They had confronted the driver of a van described on the police radio. They never expected to discharge their weapons, but they felt completely justified. No one was hurt. The suspect got away; they were relieved that they escaped in one piece.

In that season they made some of their best busts.

Lazarus and Craiger responded to a complaint about a barking dog on Kennedy Street, Northeast, in Brightwood. Lazarus knocked on a door and got a whiff of marijuana. He stepped away and asked Hoetzel to get an emergency search warrant. They returned, arrested the occupants, and recovered three guns—a high-powered assault rifle and a pair of semiautomatic pistols—a large quantity of marijuana, and $57,000 in cash.

Earlier, they had responded to a complaint about drug use in an apartment in the 5000 block of First Street, Northwest. They could smell the pot from the street. Lazarus knocked at the apartment. The door opened, and a cloud of smoke drifted out. There were three young children in the back room.

Lazarus stayed at the scene while Hoetzel drafted a search warrant and met a judge in a downtown hotel for his signature. Back at the apartment, they executed the search and came away with ten pounds of marijuana, 152 grams of powdered cocaine, and 21 grams of crack.

The police department gave the 2005 Brian Gibson Award for exemplary service to the Fourth District’s Focused Mission Unit. The partners in the black Crown Vic brought in most of the guns and drugs that led to the award.

Hoetzel was named Fourth District officer of the year.

one day in March 2006, the three bumped into Sergeant Ralph Wax at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge. Wax said he was the lead investigator on the Taussig Place shooting incident.

“Hey, guess what?” Wax said. “I have to write this up as unjustified.”

Wax is a short, stout officer who worked narcotics in his younger days. He moved into management in 2000 and became part of the force-investigation team.

“What are you talking about?” Lazarus asked.

“The department put out a new general order that says officers cannot fire at a moving vehicle,” Wax said, according to Lazarus. “I don’t have much choice but to write you up.”

The three officers had had no other communication from the department about their case. They were dedicated cops, and they figured that even if Wax ruled their actions “unjustified,” the department might give them a short suspension.

Life was about to change for them anyway. Lazarus had decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the canine division. He had put in for the change seven times. Every day he checked the police teletype that announced promotions and changes in duty.

One morning in May, Hoetzel picked Lazarus up in Crofton so they could drive in to work together. Lazarus couldn’t wipe the grin from his face. “It’s official,” he said. “I got the canine-unit assignment.”

Lazarus brought home Sal, the two-year-old German shepherd. He spent $600 to build a kennel in his yard.

“I was loving life,” he says.

Two months later, the letters of termination arrived. Being fired by a police force means you can never get another job in law enforcement. For three men who loved policing, this was the ultimate punishment.

The police-union officials suggested they get a lawyer and recommended James Pressler.

On July 5, the three cops were sitting in Pressler’s office on 15th Street overlooking McPherson Square. Pressler read over the charging documents. “I could not believe they were doing this to these three guys,” he says. “I didn’t get it.”

Pressler grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts. He went to Catholic schools, graduated from Villanova, and got a law degree at Suffolk University. He came to DC in 1975. His first job was general counsel to the police union, then to the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. In private practice here for the last three decades, specializing in personal injury, he has continued to consult with the police union. His clients have included high-ranking police officials and street cops. He has worked with police chiefs Maurice Cullinane, Burtell Jefferson, Maurice Turner, Ike Fulwood, and Charles Ramsey.

“I would say Turner and Fulwood were the best liked by their troops,” he says. “There was mutual respect between the leadership and the troops. Now, there is a presumption that Ramsey manages by fear and intimidation.”

When Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel showed up at his office in July, Pressler was swamped with cases; the floor of his office is stacked with files. He was not inclined to represent the three. But the more he read the papers and heard their story, the angrier he became.

“I see a lot of cops being stepped on,” he says. “It revved up my engine. What troubles me more than anything is when I find another good officer bailing out of the department. These are the good guys.”

Pressler took the case. He reviewed the inch-thick file of “findings and recommendations” compiled by the Use of Force Review Board. A number of things jumped out.

The first page said, “Although the Officers acted legally in the eyes of the law, administratively there were policy violations.” Another page said the US Attorney had declined to prosecute the three officers.

Page two said the three had violated a rule that prohibits police from discharging a firearm except “To defend him/herself or another from an attack which the officer has reasonable cause to believe could result in death or serious bodily injury.”

But later in the document the review board states clearly that Craiger fired only when he thought his life was in danger. It said his partners shot for the same reason.

Pressler dissected the new general order that officers could not fire at or from a moving vehicle. “It says you cannot fire at a car unless deadly force is being used against the officer or another person,” Pressler says. “Then it says a car is not deadly force. Makes no sense.”

Pressler started preparing for the Trial Board hearing scheduled for September 28.

Lazarus couldn’t sleep. He almost stopped eating. “Sometimes I cried; sometimes I laughed out loud,” he says. “Sometimes I wanted to break things. I started to second-guess myself. The van could have killed Craiger. We could have watched our friend die. We could have shot and killed the driver.”

Lazarus sometimes felt his head was about to explode. He went to the police health clinic and was placed on medical leave.

Hoetzel saw his promising career disintegrating. He went on medical leave.

Craiger worried that his marriage was off to a bad start and feared beginning a family with his future in jeopardy.

They met almost every day. As it tore their lives apart, the ordeal brought the trio even closer, Lazarus says.

They still testified in court against men they had locked up. But now they were walking the streets unarmed.

One accused drug dealer stopped Craiger outside court and said, “Hey, Stone Cold, where ya been? Where’s your gun?”

The next time they saw Ralph Wax was at the Trial Board hearing.

The Trial Board is the top tier of the internal adjudication system. Its three police officials, at the rank of captain or above, hear the evidence, weigh the alleged infraction against the officers’ explanations, and make recommendations for discipline, from suspension to termination. Or they can rule that there was no violation and absolve the accused officer.

Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel dressed in suits and ties. They sat behind Pressler in the high-ceilinged trial room. A phalanx of their friends, all dressed in blue, milled around the back of the room.

Wax was late. The three cops in the dock stepped out into the morning sun to have a smoke. “This is our day,” Lazarus said. “I feel good.”

He looked worried.

Wax walked in and sat down at a table facing the trial-board members, who sat unsmiling on a dais. Wax was in civilian clothes. He placed a stack of documents on the desk.

He then said that the force-investigation report was flawed. Someone had misread the photographs from the crime scene the night of the shooting. The shell casings had been misidentified.

This was news to Pressler, their lawyer. He requested a postponement. The Trial Board rescheduled the hearing for November 15.

Pressler requested every disciplinary action taken since November 2005 in which police officers had shot at a moving vehicle. He found six cases.

“In no other case had the department requested termination,” says Pressler. “They asked for suspensions—from 15 to 30 days. But this was the only termination.”

He called the DC lawyers handling the case for the department. “You have a problem here,” he said. “You have productive officers and onerous discipline. You don’t want to take this to hearing.”

A few days before the trial-board hearing, the city offered to settle the case. The proposed punishment fell from termination to a ten-day suspension for each, which the department would hold in abeyance. If the three partners had clean records for a year, the suspension would be waived.

Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel were not overjoyed. They felt they had done nothing wrong. Accepting a suspension was an admission that they had made a mistake. But going for full exoneration would cost thousands of dollars, and they could not be assured of clearing their records.

They took the deal.

Why did the DC police department treat these three officers so harshly? More important, why were three decorated police officers taken off the streets for more than five months, during which the city was under a declared crime emergency?

Chief Ramsey, assistant chief Shannon Cockett, and public-information officers would not answer the question.

“Seems like a waste of time, a waste of resources,” says Pressler. “My guess is this was the first case after they issued the new general order on vehicles, and they wanted to strictly apply it.”

I asked Pressler whether it was unusual for Ramsey’s department to pursue a case in this manner.

“No,” he said. “There’s no logic. It’s been one of the most frustrating things for me over the last few years. They do things for reasons that don’t make any practical sense.”

Many people familiar with the DC police department asked me whether the three officers were white. They suggested that race might have been a factor. Shannon Cockett had been criticized for firing too many African-American cops. Was she using these three to balance the ledger?

There certainly are racial tensions within the DC police department. In the 1970s, many black officers felt abused by the department; now many white cops say the discrimination comes their way. But during my reporting, through many interviews, none of the three cops said anything bad about the police department.

Says Craiger: “I love working in this city. I love being a DC cop. I don’t want to bash the department. But I do want other officers to be safe.”

“And,” adds Lazarus, “we should be treated fairly in this type of situation—as in innocent until proven guilty.”

One autumn afternoon I accompanied Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel to Taussig Place to walk through the night in question.

Craiger showed me where he was when the van jumped the curb and the driver looked him in the eye and gunned the motor.

“Look here,” he said, pointing to the sidewalk. “These are his tire tracks. This is the stone wall he crashed into.” Chunks of mortar were missing from the wall.

An elderly woman approached and asked what we were doing. Lazarus said they were police officers going over a crime scene.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember being interviewed by you.”

Frances Jones has lived on Taussig Place for 50 years. She remembers when there were no drugs and the police came around only to occasionally lock up a drunk.

I asked if there are problems with drugs.

“You are the police,” she said. “You know that’s true. You know where they are.”

I explained I was a reporter writing about the night the three cops shot at the van. I told her they were being disciplined because under new rules a vehicle is not a deadly weapon.

She looked at me and said, “You mean tons of steel can’t hurt someone? That has got to be crazy.”

I said that Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel had been working to lock up the drug dealers, but now they might be fired.

“You mean to tell me people in positions of authority are not acting in my best interests?” she asked.

In light of the case of Lazarus, Craiger, and Hoetzel—and the DC police department’s treatment of other street cops—I couldn’t tell her they were.