Few police departments are better at confiscating illegal guns than Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. Every day, teams of officers, often driving unmarked cars, scour the streets looking for people who might be carrying a firearm.
These tactics have helped D.C. police seize thousands of illegal weapons. The aggressive search for guns has come with a cost, however — residents in heavily patrolled neighborhoods say they feel targeted.
Additionally, many suspects charged with gun possession ultimately walk free, according to an analysis of court documents by WAMU and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, leading to more questions about the usefulness of the tactic.
In D.C.’s most violent neighborhoods, officers frequently stop pedestrians and pull over cars, searching for illegal guns.
For many long-time residents, these officers have an unofficial name: the “jump-outs.”
“It’s normal in my neighborhood for the police to stop-and-frisk,” M.B. Cottingham says. “On this particular day, it was my turn.”
Cottingham, 39, was hanging outside his aunt’s house in Southwest D.C. last September when several police officers suddenly showed up.
“‘Do we have any guns?’ That’s the first thing they said,” Cottingham says.
One of the officers asks Cottingham if he’ll consent to a pat down. Cottingham agrees. What happens next was captured on a cellphone video. It shows an officer repeatedly patting down Cottingham in his crotch area. Police didn’t find a gun.
“It’s not easy to just hand over your manhood like that. It’s not easy at all,” Cottingham says. “But what can I do?” Cottingham and the ACLU of D.C. are now suing the officer that searched him.
Although D.C. police didn’t find a gun on Cottingham, they do take a lot of guns off the streets.
In 2016, D.C. police confiscated more than five times as many illegal guns per capita as did the New York City Police Department, and nearly twice that of the Los Angeles Police, according to police data.
But those gun seizures and arrests are just part of the story, says Jim Trainum, a former homicide detective with the D.C. police. He now works at a Washington think tank that promotes constitutional policing, which puts an emphasis on protecting citizens’ civil liberties in order to promote trust and cooperation with law enforcement.
“Everybody looks at the arrests; everybody you know focuses on all of that,” Trainum says. “Look at the numbers behind it: How many cases get dismissed? How many cases end up in a conviction?”
Police don’t track that for illegal gun cases. And neither do prosecutors.
An investigation by WAMU and the Investigative Reporting Workshop analyzed nearly 500 affidavits from 2010-2015 in cases where MPD officers had arrested suspects for illegal gun possession. Nearly four in 10 of these cases ended up getting dismissed in court.
Jim Trainum wasn’t surprised by this statistic. “Stop and frisk is a good tool, but we’ve taken it and abused it over the years,” Trainum says. “So that is just another tool that we manipulate in order to get the stats, to get the guns off the street.”
Trainum says that too often, police stop and frisk residents without legal justification. In order to legally stop and temporarily detain someone, police must have “reasonable suspicion” the person has engaged in criminal activity or is about to.
If they don’t — or can’t prove it in court — the case can get dismissed in court.
Jessie Liu, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, says that defense attorneys frequently argue that these gun arrests violate the Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, but she doesn’t see a “systematic problem” with how D.C. police are making stops.
“I think that both the police department and our office are doing a great deal to train on what the legal requirements are,” Liu says.
Assistant D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee says court cases can get derailed for all kinds of reasons, and that prosecutors are the ones who decide what cases to pursue.
“We are out here to get illegal guns. It’s not to violate anyone’s rights or have a community uproar. That’s not our intent,” Contee says.
Contee is concerned about the high number of gun possession cases that are dismissed, but says that there are bigger issues at play. “What I know is that that firearm that’s been recovered off that street, it won’t take the life of somebody out here,” Contee says.
Contee wasn’t the only official to argue that, even if the charges don’t stick, taking guns off the streets makes the community safer.
But there are other consequences. Young black men say they feel targeted and harassed by these stops. To avoid being frisked, they say they lift up their shirts when police drive by to show they don’t have a gun in their waistband.
This summer, angry and exasperated residents testified at a D.C. Council hearing about police tactics in the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Many shared stories of getting stopped on the street or pulled over in their car by police who were looking for guns.
One man who spoke out only identified himself by his initials because of concerns about police retaliation. D.R. summed it up this way: “They look at everyone in the community like villains.”
To understand why police were searching certain residents, the WAMU investigation analyzed the police affidavits from a sample of nearly 500 gun possession cases. These affidavits explain why police stopped or searched someone in the first place.
The most common justification: The suspect acted or looked suspicious.
In some cases, police wrote the suspect appeared “nervous” when they saw the cops; or they crossed the street; or they ran; or they wore a heavy jacket in warm weather; or they held their pants a certain way while walking.
Assistant Police Chief Contee said police know what they’re doing. As proof, he points to the fact that the incidents end with police confiscating illegal guns.
“There’s certain things that as a law enforcement officer that my eyes are trained to see,” Contee says. “And if that behavior that I see is consistent with the person who’s carrying a gun, I’m going to stop that individual.”
Jim Trainum, the former D.C. detective, says this aggressive search for guns may work in the short-term, but over time, it builds resentment.
“Once we start cutting corners, to make that stat, get that arrest, that’s when you lose the trust of the community,” Trainum says.
And, he adds, if that happens, the job of the police gets even harder. When that trust is lost, witnesses go silent, murders go unsolved, and the criminal with a gun is often back out on the street.
So far this year, shootings have driven the homicide rate in D.C. up 40 percent.