A D.C. Councilman plans to introduce legislation Tuesday to bring more scrutiny to special police officers after a News4 I-Team investigation found the Metropolitan Police Department failed to investigate complaints against special police officers for years — and didn't even keep records of how many complaints came in.
"They sure look like a police officer, but they're treated completely differently, and we need to clean that up," Councilman Charles Allen told the I-Team.
Allen chairs the Public Safety Committee which oversees the police department. Through his new legislation, he hopes to take the complaint oversight process away from MPD and shift the investigative responsibility to D.C.'s Office of Police Complaints.
The Office of Police Complaints is an independent government agency that currently investigates complaints brought by the public against MPD officers and officers from the DC Housing Authority Police Department.
Special police officers can carry a gun and make arrests on the property they're assigned to protect — basically acting as a private arm of D.C. police. But citizens who tried to file complaints about a particular special police officer told the I-Team complaints against SPOs are handled very differently than those against MPD officers.
"If they are operating under the same regulations or duties as a sworn officer, then certainly there is a duty also for the government that licenses them to monitor their conduct," said Mike Tobin, who heads the Office of Police Complaints.
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The I-Team spent six months trying to obtain data regarding complaints against special police officers, however after months of delay and email exchanges, MPD finally admitted it kept no records of complaints that came in.
Amin Wilson says his encounter with Special Police Officer John Simon changed his life forever. In a cellphone video taken by a family friend, Simon can be seen repeatedly striking Wilson with a baton while trying to handcuff him.
Wilson said Simon had already pepper sprayed him and pulled him from his vehicle. He said he was trying to break his arm free of Simon's grip in order to wipe the chemical from his burning eyes.
"He's very aggressive and he's not a person you want to run across," Wilson told the I-Team, still struggling to even discuss the incident.
Other residents and guests at the Frederick Douglas Apartments in Southeast said they had similar encounters with Simon.
They all said the special police officer pepper sprayed them, then had them arrested, accusing them of assaulting him.
When the I-Team located Simon outside the security company office, he declined to answer questions about the incidents.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped the cases Simon brought against all three individuals, and all three, plus a witness, tried to file complaints against the officer.
Antone Reid went to the Security Officers Management Branch of MPD in person.
"He told me that he's investigating the case," Reid said. "Never got back to me. Never let me know what is going on with the case. I called back to follow up — no answers."
The I-Team had trouble getting answers, too, first filing a Freedom of Information Act request in December 2018. MPD did not respond until April 2019 — a week after News4 aired several I-Team reports on Simon's behavior, including new lawsuits from the three citizens.
MPD initially refused to provide any documentation of complaints against Simon, calling it "an invasion of personal privacy." After another month and a half dozen more emails, MPD admitted it "did not maintain a record of complaints made against SPO’s."
"If you've got three people with those complaints and it just goes into the ether, that's a broken system and that needs to be fixed," Allen said, once the I-Team made him aware of the situation.
Allen was particularly concerned about another MPD revelation that the agency was allowing the security companies to essentially police themselves, writing to the I-Team, "Any complaints received were referred to the company for which the subject SPO was employed."
"That doesn't typically lead to good outcomes," Allen said.
Tobin said the Office of Police Complaints is already stretched thin, with about two dozen employees responsible for roughly 800 cases each year. Plus, because of MPD's failure to document complaints against special police officers, no one can predict how many additional complaints would be added to the OPC workload if the new legislation passes.
"By not keeping track of the number of uses of force, the number of incidents of misconduct, the number of complaints, that puts us at a severe disadvantage," Tobin said.
Tobin said MPD should be tracking every use of force by a special police officer, like it does for actual MPD officers. Allen hopes greater accountability will breed greater trust from the community.
"It will help make sure that residents can have confidence, that if they've got a concern, if they believe there was an abuse of power, they now have an outlet," Allen said.
The Metropolitan Police Department told the I-Team it finally began keeping track of complaints against special police officers in January 2019, after the I-Team filed its Freedom of Information Request. In April, the I-Team asked how many complaints have been filed since the beginning of this year. MPD has not yet responded to that request.
The three citizens who came forward to share their stories with the I-Team hoped they would make a difference. They say the new legislation is a great first step.
"It could happen to somebody else," Tawonna Bunn said. "And before it does, I want it stopped."
Reportedby Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.