A new investigation reveals gun seizures under Bowser’s police department broke the law

 A sit down with Washington City Paper editor, Mitch Ryals, on the recent investigation that revealed 19 MPD officers are under criminal investigation for gun seizures 

The Des interviewed Mitch Ryals, the editor of Washington City Paper who co-authored a revealing new investigation Nineteen D.C. Police Officers Are Under Criminal Investigation for Questionable Gun Seizures, According to Court Records. Ryals and co-author, Alex Koma, found almost 20 MPD officers are being investigated after their gun seizures came into question. The improper and even illegal gun seizures led to prisoner releases, dropped charges and a few of those offenders going on to commit more crimes including at least one homicide. The following interview was slightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

The Des: Please introduce yourself. 

Mitch Ryals: I’m the managing editor of Washington City Paper. In that role, I edit a lot of the content, and I also do some reporting of my own that usually focuses on criminal justice and the police and the D.C. jail and incarcerated folks from D.C.

Des: How long have you been reporting in D.C.?

Ryals: I got here at the end of 2018.

Des: Will you tell us a little bit about the recent investigation?

Ryals: My colleague Alex Coma and I published a big investigative story that provided details about the 19 D.C. police officers who are currently under criminal investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office. That’s the federal government agency that prosecutes felony crimes in D.C. 


The story is about 19 D.C. police officers who are on the crime suppression team in the seventh district. The crime suppression team is a specialized unit of officers that are untethered to regular dispatch calls. They are sort of proactively seeking to combat violent crime in the seventh district. 


In October of 2022, then-Chief Robert Conte announced that five or seven officers were under investigation for confiscating firearms but not arresting people they took them from and for their written reports not matching the body camera footage for certain incidents. So our reporting basically gives an update to that announcement last fall. The investigation has expanded now to 19 officers and has been elevated to a criminal investigation, whereas before it was just sort of MPD’s internal inquiry to see if they had violated any policies.

Des: Can you explain the significance of the investigation into those officers turning into a criminal investigation?

Ryals: The first, somewhat obvious, piece of significance is that for a police officer anywhere to be charged with a crime or even investigated for violating the law is a very big deal. It has implications for that officer and their career individually, but it also has implications for the cases that that officer has worked on and continues to work on if they’re allowed to continue working. And in particular, our story explained how these officers who are under investigation, the arrests that they have made are now being called into question. The people who they arrested that were charged, mostly with gun crimes, those cases are being dismissed, because the officer’s credibility is very seriously called into question because they’re under investigation. 


We found 28 cases, gun seizure cases, that have been dismissed, but it could be more. The Washington Post actually found that 65 gun cases have been dismissed and another 25 drug cases have been dismissed. It’s unclear how much our figures and their figures overlap. The fact that these officers are being investigated is completely destroying their work. 

Des: How did your investigation come about?

Ryals: Our interest was piqued from the moment that it was announced that cops had been essentially falsifying police reports and doing some questionable things with gun seizures. And it wasn’t until Alex Coma noticed a court of appeals decision that reversed a conviction for a man by the name of Terry Ward.


And in the narrative of the case the judge talks about how Mr.Ward was arrested by crime suppression team officers. And that set some alarm bells off for Alex, and he was like, ‘Hey this could be related to the announcement that Conte made a few months ago about these officers in 7D.’ 


That sent him down a rabbit hole of MPD gun seizure posts every week. They post the past week, and we just sort of started combing through those arrests in the D.C. Superior Court database and started noticing a pattern that if there was a gun arrest by officers in the current suppression team in the seventh district, sure enough, soon after October of 2022 when Conte made that announcement, that case would fall apart.


In some cases, the case had been resolved. In other words, the defendant had either pleaded guilty or been sentenced. Then Conte made that fall announcement, and that verdict of guilty got reversed because of the questions about the officer’s credibility.

Des: What you just said brings up this interesting thing in the story and in our city right now, which is this undercurrent of frustration between judges and police officers, the council and the mayor and everyone. Officers need to get the guns off the street, but they’re also not doing it the right way, as we can see due to this criminal investigation.

Ryals: That’s one of the main tensions that we tried to pull out in the piece. Giving the officers the benefit of the doubt is to say that they’re trying to get these guns off the street and out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them or have them illegally or could potentially hurt themselves or other people with them. 


From an officer’s perspective, I’m sure that they’re seeing these decisions from the court of appeal — we list two or three of them in the article — they’re seeing legislation passed by the D.C. Council, which now requires officers to give sort of a Miranda warning if they want to search someone without a warrant, which is, I guess, sort of unusual in that not a lot of cities have that sort of requirement. And you’re seeing all these things that make it harder for them to do the job of getting guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, which extensively is something we all want, right?


And on the other hand, there are rules and people have rights and you must follow them and the consequences of not doing so is exactly what we’re seeing now, which is that dozens of cases are being dismissed and people who have actually been found to have illegal guns are being released.

Des: What really stuck out was that some of the people who had their cases dismissed were arrested again. A lot of these people may be getting unconstitutionally searched so their cases are falling apart, but months later some of them are getting put back into the system on new charges.

Ryals: It’s incredibly frustrating, I’m sure, for the people in these communities, for the police, for anyone who’s working to make D.C. safer to see this kind of situation play out. Not to mention the family of the gentleman who was shot and killed in a McDonald’s drive-through of all places.

Excerpt from the July 2023 investigation by Washington City Paper.

Des: Can you explain the importance of the Police Reform Commission that D.C. started in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder and the protests in relation to this story?

Ryals: The D.C. Council set up the Police Reform Commission, and they released a report with a lot of recommendations, some of which MPD has picked up. But most of which MPD and D.C. Council have sort of forgotten about. One of the findings was that these specialized units, essentially the crime suppression team and the gun recovery unit, were ineffective.


There’s been reporting for years and years about the sort of aggressive, unconstitutional, violent tactics that officers on those teams have used and subject D.C. residents to, resulting in lawsuits. They cost the District a ton of money, and they’re just apparently like a bunch of thugs.


The commission recommended that MPD disband these units, because the commission found they’re doing more harm than good and that MPD should just disband them until the department can show that they are more effective at getting guns off the street, reducing crime, reducing violence than just a traditional patrol or some alternative policing strategy. Chief Conte, who was in charge at the time and who has since retired, ignored or rejected that recommendation and said he’d take care of it internally.

Des: But the crime suppression teams continued to have negative interactions within the community after this, including a few of the members being convicted in the death of Karon Hylton-Brown, right?

Ryals: Yes.

Des: Did MPD give you any answers to any questions or any feedback on the article?

Ryals: I haven’t received any feedback on the article. I mean if we got something wrong, they would have told us. The official response I got was that the MPD, as is always their response to these situations, will not comment on an ongoing investigation. MPD would not comment on the investigation specifically because the investigation is ongoing, but they did give us some details about the statuses of these officers.


We were only able to find the identities of 16 of the 19 officers so MPD was able to provide us with the status of those 16 officers. One group of officers are on non-contact status, which means their police powers have been revoked but they’re still working for the department in some capacity. Two officers are on administrative leave. And another handful of officers are on desk duty, which means they’re still working, but they’re not out patrolling and arresting people.

Des: So in different variations, all 19 of these officers are still getting paid in the department but have been demoted or removed from their previous positions?

Ryals: I believe that’s true. I don’t know if I would say demoted. I would say either reassigned or suspended, and then there’s the one that resigned.

Des: The city council just passed an emergency resolution, a crime bill this past month in response to rising crime. How do you think the findings of the article are significant in our current context?

Ryals: I hope that it adds to the conversation that we’re having. Certainly the message that we hear, at least that I hear from Mayor Bowser quite often, is that we need to do something about crime, it’s rising. And Bowser blames the rise on the U.S. Attorney’s Office not prosecuting MPD’s arrest or the judges not holding people accused of gun crimes in jail for long enough who may commit new crimes while they’re released and waiting for trial. These are a few of a number of explanations that the mayor has provided that basically deflect blame from her administration or the officers under her control. 


This article adds context to that discussion. There may be issues with judges letting people out when they shouldn’t be. There may be issues with prosecutors not prosecuting arrests when they should be, but that’s not really what this article is about. I’m not saying that isn’t true, but that’s not what this article addresses. This article talks about one specific group of police officers contributing to this problem or, potentially, at least, contributing to this issue of allowing people to reoffend.

Des: If the officers are providing essentially broken cases to a judge and prosecutor, there is not much they can do?

Ryals: Basically yes. It all starts with the officers’ arrest and their initial interactions with their suspect. A number of the officers who we identify as a part of this investigation are repeat offenders themselves. They’ve either been accused in government records or lawsuits of harassing or roughing up or harming or using coercion against people, and then they were sued.


But another layer is that it’s hard to say whether these officers are put in situations where they feel they must use force more often than other officers or they are individually more prone to using force. But the fact is that they are being accused of some pretty serious things and some of them at least have a history of being accused. 


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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.