City Desk

Why Does The Pershing Park Case Matter?

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier

Late last week, I got an anonymous letter gently complaining about our coverage of the Pershing Park mess. A few times a week, we've posted critical pieces concerning the sloppy work of the OAG or pointed to discrepancies among D.C. Police personnel over how basic documents could either disappear (the running resume) or be tampered with (the radio dispatches containing gaps). The writer wanted to know why the plaintiffs in the case didn't just settle.

The facts are really not in dispute–the mass arrests were bad, violated due process, etc. Other Pershing Park plaintiffs have settled.

I can't begin to guess why the plaintiffs in this case have not settled. But one thing that appears driving the plaintiffs is the simple quest of getting to the truth of what happened on September 27, 2002.

Why is this important? Because immediately following those bad arrests, D.C. Police officials lied and manipulated information about that day.

When it investigated Pershing Park, the D.C. Council hit a wall. I found a telling Q+A excerpt from Sgt. Michael Thorton in its final report.

At the time, Sgt. Michael Thorton's work included driving then-Chief Charles Ramsey around. He was with Ramsey on Sept. 27. His responses to counsel questions are quoted in the report. His answers are either total bullshit or symptoms of dementia:

Q: Did you go from that location [Vermont Avenue and K Street] to Pershing Park?

A: I went to Pershing Park. The sequence of events I don’t remember…

Q: Would you have walked from Vermont and K to Pershing Park?

A: Could be.

Q: Did you go back into the car?

A: From Vermont and K? I don’t remember. I mean at some point I would have had to go, but I don’t remember from that location or where we went next…

Q: At some point you left Pershing Park, did you not?

A: Yup.

Q: How did you leave Pershing Park?

A: I don’t remember.

Q: When you got to Pershing Park you said one of your assignments was to keep an eye on the crowd, right?

A: Uh-huh….

Q: And you would do it to the best of your ability, correct?

A: I would, yes, ma’am.

Q: And you would be alert, right?

A: Uh-huh.

Q: And attentive, correct?

A: Uh-huh.

Q: Okay. So now you’re at Pershing Park and tell us having been alert and attentive, what do you see?...

A: Demonstrators standing around, police officers standing around, and a lot of horses. I was in back of the horses… I wasn’t right beside the Chief there. So, you know, I felt like it was a safe situation, that I didn’t feel like that he was, his personal safety was in, I didn’t feel his personal safety was in danger at the location...

Q: Was it an unruly crowd?

A: Was it – what do you mean unruly? What do you mean?

Q: Were there skirmishes? Were people pushing and shoving? Was it loud? Did it seem out of control? What was your assessment? You’re a police officer, I assume you can make assessments about the nature of circumstances you find yourself in, so I’m asking you to describe them for us.

A: I was behind the line of horses and I did not feel that there was a threat to the Chief of Police…

Q: Did you see him confer with others?

A: He was standing in close proximity to other police officers but I don’t know who they were. I mean, they could have been line officers, they could have been park police. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t remember who they were. I don’t recall any specific person that he spoke to at that location.

Sgt. Thornton also was asked about the arrests. Despite the fact that approximately 400 people were arrested while he stood at the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Sgt. Thornton testified that he could not remember any specific details about those events. His responses:

Q: When you arrived there – were arrests being effected yet?

A: I don’t recall any arrests, being on the scene for arrests…

Q: You don’t recall any arrests at Pershing Park on Friday September 27th?

A: You know, I’ve learned through the media reports that, yeah, there was numerous arrests, but I don’t recall seeing anyone being arrested…

Q: We’ve see news footage of you and Chief Ramsey removing the bicycle of an arrested demonstrator from Pershing Park. Do you remember that?

A: Me removing a bicycle from Pershing Park? No. But, okay.

Q: You were removing it from someone who had been arrested and I ask to see if that would jog your memory to see if you remembered people being arrested at Pershing Park.

A: [no answer]

After reading that officers statements, the need for the running resume—the document that chronicles in real-time all orders and cop movements—is obvious.

And the need for accountability remains a strong motivation. Especially since Chief Cathy Lanier had a hand in developing policies that lead to Pershing Park.

Lanier had a hand in developing the hog-tie technique. The 400 arrested that day were shipped off to the police academy where they were then hog-tied. In a deposition, Lanier discusses the technique. She claimed that it was comfortable: “[I]t was not uncomfortable. In fact, I recall sitting on a couch in the commander's office with my cuff to my ankle and to my wrist, and was able to not only sit and stand but could also lay down with relative ease.”

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.

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  • ArlingtonAaron

    Oh, you are such a jerk Chief Lanier. I'm sure it was pretty comfortable on your commander's office couch. Not so much though while trying to sleep on a gym floor on a gymnastics mat with plastic digging into my wrist and ankle.

    Also, at risk of repeating myself, the other reason this case is important is that it is a referendum on the entire Chief Ramsay era: it has been determined that that he can be found personally liable in this case, as the conduct seems to be so egregious and outside the bounds of any reasonable professional capacity... I think coverups at MPD were probably directed at keeping liability away from himself and his assistant chief, and towards the city. Who cares if the coverup costs the city millions, if he can keep his Philadelphia paycheck from being garnished.

  • Joel Lawson

    I'll never forget a KCA town hall meeting where then-Mayor Williams found himself on the defensive re: then-Chief Ramsey. Williams began a drumbeat that no matter what he heard about Chief Ramsey in DC, he heard the opposite at homeland security conferences and other confabs in cities across the US and even overseas. He decided to make a rhetorical flourish out of mentioning a variety of those cities' names. "You know what I hear in [city X] and [city Y] and [city Z]?"

    I'd had enough. "THEY DON'T LIVE HERE!" I yelled out.

    Please accept my apologies for acting like one of these health care town hall hollerers, but I wanted to share the insight into Williams' steadfast defense of a Chief and his tenure.

  • jeff gerhard

    Hope the plaintiffs continue to refuse to settle. I wasn't around for the Pershing Park fiasco, but vividly remember the A16 arrests from 2000 when Ramsey blatantly lied to the media about the events surrounding hundreds of illegal arrests. Anyone know what happened to the lawsuits stemming from that?

  • jeff gerhard

    also, props to jason cherkis and the washcp for continuing to cover this.

  • ArlingtonAaron

    I do think that the Plaintiff's attorneys aren't *refusing* to settle... instead, I think that they are rightly valuing the price-tag that this should cost the city... the opt-out plaintiffs seemed to settle for around 10K a piece, but that was before the recent sanctions threat, damning depositions, a successful appeals round, and judging decisions and language that indicate that the Judge has a complete understanding of the astonishing depth of the civil rights violations at play here.

    If this case is taken to trial, it would be a massively large number that would come out in the end. Therefore, a total settlement number around 15-20 Million would probably be fair... 40-50K a protester, plus the attorney's fees and costs. I'm pretty sure that the city is balking at that. Perhaps a few million in sanctions fines and a raft of adverse inferences will properly adjust their thinking.

  • ArlingtonAaron

    And yes, props to Jason and the City Paper indeed. There's a lot of complicated stuff to dig through to get to the essence of this case, and you've been doing it since the days after the arrests themselves.

  • Truth Hurts

    Maybe the Plaintiffs want some serious nonmonetary relief. Has anyone from the city offered to meet with all of the victims and sincerely apologize for this disaster?

  • John

    Ask the plaintiffs why they have not settled. That could be enlightening. Or maybe not. But it would be journalism.

    I like reading about the Perishing Park case. Keep up the good work.

  • Carl

    Please Please PLEASE keep up the reporting on the Pershing Park case. It highlights how unaccountable police authority is and how much more accountable it should be.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    Lanier should be fully hog tied in the same conditions suffered by the people she wrongly arrested. Film it for youtube. She's a lying snake - she found it easy to stand up with her wrist cuffed to her ankle?

    Liar. She sounds like Rumsfeld - I stand all day at my writing table, so why can't Gitmo prisoners stand all day?

    The people who are suing should not settle until they get what they want. If they each want a million dollars, so be it. After their rights were violated by the District, those people have the right to pursue their case for as long as they want [provided, of course, the courts allow them to do so].

    If they each want a billion dollars, that's their choice, that's their right. If you don't want to be sued & have to spend years in court before paying $50 or $100 million in damages, then don't violate people's rights.

    Maybe if the District has to pay $100 million in damages, the peasants who live here will revolt & throw the bums out - bums like Lanier, Fenty, Nickles, et al. Odds are, though, that nothing will happen - the beaten down poor people & the self-absorbed transient hipsters just don't give a shit.

  • jf1

    What they're getting is 7 years plus worth of agony after they were hog-tied to a gym floor for a day, without access to a bathroom.

    There's no way that a court can make up for this and in the end they are just torturing themselves even more...there are so many ways that this case can end in a non-decision, forcing them to start all over again, with even less hope of success. The city is just showing the plaintiffs that they get paid to drag this out, paid out of their own tax money, and anything they win? They will also pay tax money which will go to pay off most of the players. This is basically nothing more than a long two-fingered salute all around.

    I'm just waiting for Ramsey to show up in court and say that he ordered the arrest of the protestors who were disturbing the peace and threatening to interfere with the orderly flow of pedestrians through the park, not everyone there, and that order was simply misunderstood by overzealous subordinates. "Oh, that's all there was to this? Case dismissed".

  • downtown rez

    You are right, Joel.
    That's just another way that Williams WAS NOT in touch with the street.
    I mean, who the fuck can defend a sitting police chief that sanctions those actions against peaceful protesters?
    The only excuse I can imagine is that, in the shadow of Seattle and, later, 9/11, America's security forces were CONVINCED that there was no such thing as "friendly" dissent, or "peaceful" protest.
    And that is a dark spot on all our souls that I don't think we're quite over.

  • downtown rez

    *not an excuse (there is none), just an possible explanation.
    Hey, I was there with a camera and I choked on tear gas too.

  • downtown rez

    Having just read the transcript, the word "disgraceful" comes immediately to mind...

  • Gilbert Morgan

    It's all about principle. Sure you can say it was one day of discomfort, but it will happen again if it isn't rectified now "jf1".

  • Citizen V

    Great coverage.

    (btw Why does your comment posting system require an email address?)

  • jf1 the way...

    But Lahaina is also a town rich in well-preserved history, a history that juggled the relationship between the whaling industry and the missionaries during their heyday in the mid 1800's.

    From a look at the records available in the old prison, Hale Paahao ("stuck-in-irons house"), built by King Kamehameha III to detain unruly sailors who refused to return to their ships by sundown, it's easy to see which group prevailed more often than not.

    In 1855 there were 330 convictions for "drunkenness" and 169 for "fornication," as well as 89 for "furious riding."

    But apparently life in the prison, which is beautifully preserved, with its well-manicured yard under large monkeypod trees just off the main drag, was not all bad.

    Seaman William Mitchell Stetson confided in his diary: "Male and female all had freedom of the prison yard and mingled promiscuously." And if the hardships of jail life ever did become too much of a strain, the wooden cells were barely secure and the coral restraining wall, at just over 10 feet high, was easily scaled once the sailors sobered up. you see, there *is* legal precedent for restraining the prisoners to prevent mass fornication and the resulting lawsuits ;)