D.C. Mayor Keeps Report Secret on Officer Who Drove The Cruiser the Night of Terrence Sterling's Death

Fox5 reporter Paul Wagner thought there were lots of good questions about what happened, so he asked for the investigation report on MPD Officer Jordan Palmer—the officer at the wheel in the police chase a year ago that ended when motorcyclist Terrence Sterling died in another officer’s gunfire.

Wagner explained why in his request (under the District’s open records law, the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA):

As Fox 5 has previously reported, Palmer received a 20 day suspension for his actions the night Terrence Sterling was shot and killed in Washington, D.C. September 11th, 2016. A report that has not been disputed.

Our reporting---also not in dispute--is that Officer Palmer disregarded a direct order from his superior that he was not to chase Terrence Sterling who was riding his motorcycle in an allegedly reckless manner. Despite that, Palmer did chase Sterling--violating a General Order--and then proceeded to violate a second General Order when he used his scout car to block Sterling at the intersection of Third and M streets NW.

But MPD sees it differently -- that it’s just not important for people to know facts or to consider whether the discipline seems appropriate.

When the mayor’s office asked MPD to explain their denial, Assistant General Counsel Ronald Harris ignored the misconduct allegations and the discipline. He announced in an October 20 letter (attached below) that the report should stay secret as it “would not shed light on the department’s actions in carrying out its responsibilities.”

Instead, wrote Harris, what was important was the officer’s “interest in not having the information in the report disseminated further.”

The mayor’s office rejected Wagner’s appeal (decision also attached below), agreeing with Harris and MPD that the report would show nothing about MPD performance of its duties, so the public had no claim to see it.  

Elsewhere, when police face misconduct charges, courts have upheld public access to reports of investigations.

For instance, a Louisiana court in 2008 agreed with a newspaper request for investigations of police misconduct in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina, affirming the public interest arguments that officials downplayed here.

“Officers who were being investigated did not have any legitimate expectation of privacy,” wrote the Louisiana court, “as the allegations concerned improper activities in the workplace, while the public had a strong legitimate interest in ensuring that both the activities of public employees suspected of wrongdoing and the conduct of those public employees who investigate the suspects were open to public scrutiny.”

Maybe if a court here gets to take a look, it will also see a public interest that has escaped the D.C. police and mayor.

 

The appeal is #2018-14. The cited case is City of Baton Rouge v. Capital City Press, 4 So.3d 807 (La. Ct. App. 2008), modified on reh’g, 7 So.3d 21 (2009).