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Exposed: Extreme Use of Assault on Officer Charge in DC

By Ericka Floyd


IRW's “Assault on Justice” investigated assaulting an officer charges for all District-based police agencies.

American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW) has released "Assault on Justice," a new in-depth investigative report that reveals the Metropolitan Police Department uses the assault charge more than other cities of comparable size.

According to the report, people can be arrested, charged and convicted for Assaulting a Police Officer (APO) in the District of Columbia even when no physical violence occurs.

The APO offense in Washington, D.C. is defined as including not just physical assault but also "resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating or interfering" with law enforcement. This broad language in the statute allows police to arrest people for refusing an order or even wiggling while handcuffed. 

"It's clear that various police agencies around the District use the charge of Assaulting a Police Officer in a way that does not fit the public's general understanding of what assault really means," said David Donald, Data Editor, Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. "Unfortunately, when that charge is used, it's used 90 percent of time or so against African-Americans. This report provides evidence for the City Council to amend the District's APO law so that it covers the true definition of assault."

The report was co-produced by Reveal, an investigative public radio program and podcast, and is the result of a 5-month investigation by IRW, WAMU 88.5 investigative reporter Patrick Madden and a team of graduate researchers at American University. The report analyzed nearly 2,000 cases from 2012–2014 with charges of assaulting a police officer and raises serious concerns about the use and over use of the assault charge. The research team's investigation found the following results:

  • Ninety percent of those charged with assaulting a police officer were black, although black residents comprise 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 (MPD) numbers.
  • Prosecutors declined to press charges in more than 40 percent of the arrests for assaulting an officer.

According to researchers, 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. The APO charge also has a negative effect on the relationship between police and the communities they patrol. Most damaging, assaulting an officer conviction can lead to jail time and difficulty finding a job.

For the "Assault on Justice" investigation, researchers downloaded the APO charges in the District of Columbia Courts from January 2012 through December 2014. This produced a spreadsheet of more than 2,000 cases, including felony, misdemeanor and domestic violence APO charges for all District-based police agencies. To obtain deeper analysis, AU graduate students researched every case using public access to the records at the District Courthouse. The students entered each case number into a database, inspected the complete case documentation online and printed the case record, including the affidavits from the arresting officers. IRW then ran descriptive statistics and other summary calculations on the data to find patterns behind the individual charges of assaulting a police officer.

"The data were cumbersome to obtain," said Lynne Perri, Managing Editor, Investigative Reporting Workshop and Journalist in Residence, American University's School of Communication. "Six graduate student researchers armed with lists of case numbers visited the District of Columbia Courthouse to examine each case. It was the only way we could read the police narrative of those charged with assaulting a police officer;the court would not provide the records to us. We printed out almost 2,000 case files so we could compare and study the narratives and also to determine race, sex and disposition of each case."

The reporting project will continue the week of May 18, with additional stories on the consequences of the charge, both financial and emotional. Visit the Investigative Reporting Workshop for updates and more information.