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Feds must find missing evidence in Pershing Park case

Reprinted from Washington Examiner

Here’s something you don’t see every day: D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department has asked the FBI to investigate it.

In a recent filing in federal court, D.C. cops asked the feds to find out who might have scrubbed email and other electronic records of information about former Police Chief Charles Ramsey’s involvement in the 2002 Pershing Park mass arrests.

Stick with me for a minute, and I will explain how these missing records call into question whether we can trust our police department to protect evidence crucial to criminal investigations. Pull this string, and you might find yourself asking whether lawyers who are supposed to oversee how cops investigate crimes have themselves committed illegal acts.

Nine years ago — September 2002 — D.C. police and federal lawmen surrounded hundreds of people in Pershing Park, at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue across from Freedom Plaza. Some came to protest meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Some were there as legal monitors of the protest. A few were on their way to lunch, before they found themselves cordoned off by riot police, then handcuffed, then bused to jail.

Many swept up in the mass arrests joined lawsuits questioning the legality of the cops’ actions. Most won, and the District had to fork over millions of dollars in settlement fees. But not all has been settled in the Pershing Park case. To the contrary, many unsettling aspects of the case are just coming to light.

When then-Chief Ramsey was first asked to explain who gave orders to round up 400 people at Pershing Park, he denied giving the order. He later owned up to it. But someone tried to delete evidence of his giving the order, and D.C. police just recently asked the FBI to investigate. Deleting evidence could be a crime.

But there’s more — much more. The “running resume” that catalogs all law enforcement activities before, during and after the mass arrests went missing for years. Police General Counsel Terrence Ryan testified he had never seen the document. But last week a statement by Officer John Strader that he had found the missing running resume in 2009 and personally delivered it to Ryan’s office showed up on a federal court website.

Lawyers for some of those illegally arrested issued a report recommending that Attorney General Eric Holder appoint a special counsel for “criminal investigation and prosecution” of the Metropolitan Police Department’s general counsel’s office. The Partnership For Civil Justice Fund asked for “an aggressive, open and transparent, conflict free investigation.”

Carl Messineo, a lawyer with the group, says the cops have set up a decent system for handling evidence, but asks: “What good is it if documents are shredded before they get in the door?”

I’m not a fan of Justice Department investigations into local police departments, but the FBI is too close to the MPD to do a conflict-free job. Unless the federal courts can get to the bottom of what happened to evidence in Pershing Park and two other cases, a special prosecutor might indeed be in order.