Wiggling while handcuffed. Bracing one hand on the steering wheel during an arrest. Yelling at an officer.

All these actions have led to people being prosecuted for “assaulting a police officer” in Washington, D.C., where the offense is defined as including not just physical assault, but also “resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating or interfering” with law enforcement.

A five-month investigation by WAMU 88.5 News and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, co-produced by Reveal, documented and analyzed nearly 2,000 cases with charges of assaulting a police officer. The results raise concerns about the use or overuse of the charge. Some defense attorneys see troubling indicators in these numbers, alleging that the law is being used as a tactic to cover up police abuse and civil rights violations.

As protests and rioting have exploded across the country in response to police conduct, even Cathy Lanier, the chief of police in the nation’s capital, is urging lawmakers to revise the statute because its broad application “naturally causes tensions between police and residents.”

A team of researchers and reporters analyzed thousands of court records from 2012 through 2014, including charging documents, case summaries and police affidavits.

The investigation found:

  • Ninety percent of those charged with assaulting a police officer were black, though black residents make up only half of the city’s population.
  • Nearly two-thirds of those arrested for assaulting an officer weren’t charged with any other crime, raising questions about whether police had legal justification to stop the person.
  • About 1 in 4 people charged with a misdemeanor for assaulting a police officer required medical attention after their arrest, a higher rate than the 1 in 5 officers reporting injury from the interactions.
  • The District uses the charge of assaulting a police officer almost three times more than cities of comparable size, according to a 2013 FBI report and Metropolitan Police Department numbers.

Prosecutors declined to press charges in more than 40 percent of the arrests for assaulting an officer.image

 

Criminalizes too much’

“The APO (assaulting a police officer) statute results in more injustice than almost any other statute that I can think about,” said John Copacino, a professor and director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Georgetown Law School. “Police officers have a legitimate need to be protected from being assaulted, but this statute goes too far and criminalizes too much.”

Copacino said many cases arise from a typical human response to being unjustifiably stopped by an officer, yet District residents do not have the right to resist an unlawful arrest. “When (police) are clearly arresting someone for no reason, if the person resists by pulling away, by not putting his hands behind his back when the police officer grabs him to try to handcuff him, that becomes a crime in itself,” he said.

Terrell Hargraves, shown with his son, Terrell Jr., spent nine months in jail awaiting trial for a charge of assaulting a police officer. A judge ultimately found him not guilty.
Terrell Hargraves, shown with his son, Terrell Jr., spent nine months in jail awaiting trial for a charge of assaulting a police officer. A judge ultimately found him not guilty.

Terrell Hargraves lived through such a scenario when he had trouble moving into the handcuff position because of nerve damage in his shoulder.

On Sept. 30, 2011, two patrol officers said they saw something suspicious in the way the 35-year-old riding in the car ahead of them looked around before his friend dropped him off “in a high crime area” on Minnesota Avenue. “Officers recognized this behavior as consistent with that of flight from police to evade apprehension or interrogation,” they wrote in the police affidavit.

Hargraves wanted to stop at the convenience store to buy a pack of cigarettes before a party at his grandmother’s house a block away, he said in an interview. He had taken a few steps away from the car when he heard an approaching officer order him to the ground. Bewildered, he asked why, at which point the officer pulled out handcuffs.

Struggling to cuff Hargraves’ injured arm, the officer deployed a metal baton and began striking his legs repeatedly. A second officer arrived, and together they used “the minimum amount of force necessary” to detain their suspect, they wrote in the affidavit. He was charged with assaulting a police officer for pulling away from the officer’s grip.

Hargraves spent nine months in jail awaiting trial because when he was arrested, he was 30 days shy of completing three years on parole for a past conviction of fleeing a police officer. He lost his job. He missed the birth of his son. A judge ultimately found him not guilty at trial.

Still, most defendants arrested for assaulting an officer face a monumental challenge in defeating the charge, even when the judge believes the person behaved reasonably.

Emanual Wilson was tackled and arrested for assaulting an officer the moment he stepped out of a car during a traffic stop. The police were arresting his pregnant girlfriend for driving with a suspended license. Wilson couldn’t see what the police were doing but could hear his girlfriend yelling that she was pregnant and not to touch her.
Wilson testified that he was acting on instinct to protect his unborn child and girlfriend. Judge Harold Cushenberry agreed. At the trial, he said, “You had a normal human reaction.”

But that reaction technically was interference, so Cushenberry had to convict Wilson of assaulting the police. The judge concluded Wilson’s trial by saying: “Good luck to you. I’m sorry this happened.”

A conviction for assaulting a police officer carries different connotations than interfering with one and can affect future employment prospects, security clearances, home loans or anything that requires a criminal background check.

“The real horror about the assault on a police officer statute is that we have thousands of people in our community who are now facing lifelong consequences for what really is harmless conduct,” said Patrice Sulton, a criminal defense attorney who frequently assists the District branch of the NAACP.

But enforcement is not distributed equally. A 2013 report by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee found that black people represented 8 in 10 of all those arrested in the District. The WAMU-IRW investigation found an even larger disparity in cases of assaulting a police officer: 90 percent of those charged from 2012 through 2014 were black.

“This should be an early warning system for the agency,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police violence. “It tells you something is wrong and they need to figure what is going on. … The statistics, the patterns, the practices just don’t look right.”

Lanier, the police chief, acknowledges problems with the law and how such arrests can damage community relations.

“The language is so broad, overly broad. That allows for too many things to fit into that category,” she said in a recent interview. “So some of what’s included in that is no physical assault at all. And for people who are being charged with assault on a police officer, there is the tension. … If you didn’t physically assault someone, to be charged with assault on a police officer wouldn’t feel fair.”

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