WASHINGTON (AP) — A specialized District of Columbia police unit that investigates officer-involved shootings is being split up, as the department's leadership says the need for a team focused exclusively on that issue has diminished in the last decade.
The shake-up of the Force Investigation Team program, created in 1999 and credited with helping reduce the number of police-involved shootings, is part of a departmental reorganization, said Police Chief Cathy Lanier. The team is being integrated into the department's internal affairs branch, and while some members have been transferred out, investigations into officer-involved shootings won't change, the chief said.
"The operating procedures, investigative processes and the scrutiny and review of these investigations will remain the same," Lanier said in an email.
Some members will receive training in other aspects of internal affairs cases and others are getting entirely new assignments. Those officers who remain with internal affairs will be trained to do other types of investigations in what police officials believe is a smarter allocation of resources, said Assistant Chief Michael Anzallo.
With a sharp decline in the last decade in police-involved shootings, the need for a unit devoted solely to such investigations is not as critical now as it was when the team was first assembled, he said. There were 32 police-involved shootings in 1998, though most weren't fatal; last year, there were 12, including five fatal shootings, he said.
"Everybody's cross-trained to (conduct) internal affairs investigations and use-of-force investigations," said Anzallo, who oversees the department's internal affairs branch.
An internal teletype from last month obtained by The Associated Press identifies seven members who are staying with internal affairs and five who are leaving for entirely new assignments, including patrol and school security bureaus. Lanier said some of the original members did not reapply or were not selected to remain with internal affairs.
Kris Baumann, chairman of the D.C. police officers' union, called the team one of the department's most important units. He said the shakeup was a "loss to everyone and a huge step backward to the city" and questioned whether investigations would be as "professional and impartial as before."
"It was nationally recognized for its work and provided independent, professional investigations into shootings and uses of force," he said in a statement.
The Force Investigation Team program was created under then-Chief Charles Ramsey after a Washington Post series revealed that the D.C. police department had fatally shot more people, compared to the city's total population, than any other big-city police force in the 1990s. The team's original mandate was to focus on cases in which officers shot suspects, but was expanded to include instances of nonlethal force, deaths in custody and general firearm discharges by officers.
Ramsey and then-Mayor Anthony Williams requested an investigation by the Justice Department, which found "a pattern or practice of use of excessive force and avoidable force," that the department was failing to consistently report use of force and that it had an inadequate system for receiving and investigating complaints of misconduct. The Justice Department, which entered into a memorandum of understanding with the police department, made a series of recommendations, including that officers be required to report every use of force.
The team has been recognized for its work, and other law enforcement agencies have reached out to the department for help in improving their investigations into the use-of-force, according to the team's 2000 annual report.