Why Does The Pershing Park Case Matter?
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?
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?
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?
Q: And attentive, correct?
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.