Five lawsuits demonstrate MPD's inability to reform

Earlier this year, the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, exposed a dangerous double standard that we’ve come to expect from American police. In a stunning display of negligence, Uvalde’s responding officers were unwilling to risk their own safety to challenge a shooter murdering children. More than an hour passed between their arrival on the scene and their first attempt to enter the school, which gave the shooter enough time to kill 19 children and two adults. Despite their refusal to apprehend the shooter in a critical moment, they didn’t hesitate to harass the parents who had implored them to act. In the immediate aftermath of the deadliest school shooting on record, officers continued to intimidate and threaten community members who questioned their decision-making.

Even in a time of unspeakable tragedy, the first priority of the Uvalde Police Department was the preservation of their own authority. This is not dedication to public safety: it is dereliction of duty in the name of self-preservation.

These issues are not limited to Uvalde. They can be found in police departments across the country. Here in the DC area, we’ve seen time and time again that police frequently act with threats or violence when their position of authority is challenged, or when they are personally offended. Sometimes, even the slightest critique or attempt at accountability is treated as an act of betrayal.

This defensive posture is deeply engrained in police culture, as seen when former MPD Chief Peter Newsham responded to the modest reform package introduced by the DC council in 2020. “They completely abandoned us,” Newsham said at the time. “They forgot about our 20 years of reform, and they insulted us by insinuating that we were in an emergency need of reform.” Newsham’s reaction shows that police can become increasingly resistant when their status is threatened.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the retaliation officers receive when they address a colleague’s misconduct. Within the past fourteen months alone, current and former officers have brought five lawsuits against MPD. The lawsuits reflect a pattern of violence and intimidation against those who aim to hold officers accountable through internal reporting. In this piece, each lawsuit will be examined within the context of these patterns.

MPD defends officers accused of discrimination and misconduct

The first lawsuit was filed in September 2021 by 10 Black women who are current or former members of MPD. The lawsuit specifically focuses on the racist remarks and unwanted sexual advances that these women received on the job, as well as the retaliation that occurred after this harassment was initially reported. In one incident, a white male officer exposed himself to one of the plaintiffs and then urinated in a bottle in front of her. He was later promoted to lieutenant while she was punished for “making a big deal” of the incident. Another plaintiff was woken up by a male officer forcing his tongue into her mouth and reported other male officers grabbing her. A different plaintiff was shown pictures of a gun by a male officer, who claimed he would later use it to assassinate Michelle Obama.

The harassment was not confined to one department of MPD. The plaintiffs spanned different departments and ranks, and included a detective, a lieutenant, and an assistant police chief, suggesting that toxic behavior runs up and down the chain of command. The victims were harassed and bullied to the point of developing mental and physical health problems before they eventually brought their complaints to the MPD Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office. Despite evidence of harm, the plaintiffs were recorded, labeled “trouble makers,” and retaliated against by the supervisors named in the complaints.

If MPD was dedicated to maintaining public safety and enforcing the law, these complaints would be treated seriously, and the victims would be commended for speaking out rather than punished. However, acknowledging deep, systemic misogyny and racism threatens not only the individuals involved, but the very power of the police force. A culture of intimidation exists in order to silence those who threaten that power.

MPD defends hazing and harassment in its cadet program

The second lawsuit stems from misconduct within the MPD Cadet Program. In this case, several former cadets are suing due to attempts to "harass, isolate, intimidate, bully and denigrate" them, as well as other cadets.

The lawsuit was filed after three cadets agreed to participate in an internal investigation into the conduct of a sergeant in the program who had hosted an unauthorized party for cadets during which underage drinking occurred. The cadets who participated in this investigation had not attended the party and agreed to give statements, but later experienced retaliation from the sergeant in question, who was allowed to read the cadets’ statements. All three cadets eventually left the program after a sustained campaign of harassment, including being reassigned from their regular duties to sit in a room all day and do nothing. The offending sergeant even called one of the women at home and threatened her life, saying that she knew where she lived and would come “F*** her up.”

To compound these vicious attacks, the sergeant who hosted the party was white, and the cadets were Black. As the other lawsuits against MPD demonstrate, the abuses of power frequently uphold a power imbalance along racial lines.

MPD defends its hostile and intimidating workplace practices

The third lawsuit was filed against MPD by five former and current employees in the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Office, which is responsible for investigating and resolving complaints relating to workplace harassment. This lawsuit alleges race- and gender-based discrimination by the head of the EEO, Alphonsos Lee, and retaliation against the plaintiffs when they reported abusive behavior. Additionally, the plaintiffs claim that Lee and the MPD violated DC’s Whistleblower Protection Act because Lee ensured he had full discretion over EEO complaints and rewrote reports so that management and higher-level officers would not be shamed or face disciplinary action.

Though Lee has had dozens of complaints leveled against him over the years, he has held his position and consolidated his own authority by firing individuals who attempted to report his corrupt behavior. Lee perpetuates the coordinated pattern of top-down bullying and abuse from high-ranking officials, which extends far beyond the mere reach of a petty beat cop. The allegations reveal repeated attempts to silence and punish officers — especially Black women — for reporting harassment. In theory, the EEO Office exists to fight the racist and sexist elements of the MPD. In practice, it further entrenches racism and sexism by shielding offenders from accountability.

MPD shields officers who commit misconduct

The fourth lawsuit shows how abuse is perpetuated by leaders of the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) as well. Predictably, allegations of race and gender-based discrimination have been made by the two plaintiffs, both of which are Black women.

The plaintiffs allege that they were retaliated against when they attempted to discipline white officers, despite acting in accordance with MPD protocol. They also note that the white officers who committed misconduct were intentionally shielded from reprisal. While enabling white officers to dodge consequences, Assistant IAB Chief Wilfredo Manlapaz simultaneously engaged in a targeted campaign to fire or transfer Black women from this department. One of the plaintiffs was ultimately forced out of IAB after recommending that a white officer be fired for using excessive force against a young Black man.

The plaintiffs made their recommendation based on the officer’s body camera footage, which proved not only that the officer used excessive force but also that he had lied in his official statement. He was not prosecuted for his violence, and the plaintiff was ultimately fired for trying to hold the officer accountable for breaking the law. “It’s not like the higher officials don’t know what’s going on,” the plaintiff would later say. “They just don’t care." Unsurprisingly, there have been eight formal complaints filed against Manlapaz since 2017.

MPD defends illegal chases and insubordination

The final lawsuit was filed in December 2021 by Captain Steve Andelman, a Black officer. In 2021, Andelman reported that Second District Commander Duncan Bedlion had engaged in an improper vehicular chase of a suspect from the scene of a reported robbery. MPD General Orders prohibit a vehicular chase unless there is an immediate threat of injury or death. However, when Andelman told officers at the scene of the crime that they were prohibited to chase a potential suspect, his order was overridden by Bedlion, who authorized a chase. The chase led to the vehicle overturning on the GW Parkway and injured a teenager in the process.

There was no evidence that the suspects had been armed or that they ever posed a threat of death or injury. In the absence of the requisite conditions for an authorized vehicle chase, Andelmen reported Bedlion’s breach of conduct. However, Bedlion was protected by MPD despite this and other examples of dangerous and illegal behavior, one of which previously led to a civilian fatality. Though Andelman spoke out in a good-faith effort to increase transparency and preserve community trust, he soon became the target of a harassment campaign.

After reporting the unlawful chase, Andelman was swiftly reprimanded. In the days following his report, he was inappropriately yelled at by supervisors for a variety of reasons. He was bullied by other officers and given intentionally misleading orders, so he could then be punished for not fulfilling them. Other incidents of retaliation include denying Andelman’s requests for medical leave, preventing him from accessing employee resources, and refusing his request to transfer to another unit. Andelman was eventually suspended without cause.

Andelman’s case is the latest example of a well-documented pattern of often racist, sexist bullying that is endemic to MPD and police departments throughout the country. Time and time again, MPD officers choose to bolster their own power rather than ensuring the safety of the public they are sworn to protect.

The effects of corruption extend beyond these featured lawsuits and are reflected in the changing demographics of MPD. In 2018, Internal Affairs had nine Black women employees. By 2021, that number was down to two, with a white officer standing in the place of each who had moved on or been forced out. The whittling-down was accomplished through a combination of firing, intimidation, and harassment.

The coordination witnessed amongst MPD leadership shows the lengths the department will go to avoid any accountability. It also illustrates that MPD does not care about the wellbeing of Black women or the rights of individual workers, even when they wear a badge. MPD is only concerned with protecting itself.

These cop-on-cop lawsuits paint a vivid picture of an organization rife with white supremacy and misogynoir. They also show that the MPD is unable to effectively reform itself. No longer can MPD leadership false claim that inappropriate behavior stems from “a few bad apples.” The abuse directly involves the internal agencies that MPD uses to monitor itself. Culpability lies with the heads of those agencies, rendering reform and oversight impossible.

In an organization supposedly dedicated to public safety, there exists a sizable cadre of officers who are committed first and foremost to their own impunity. We cannot continue to blindly support an enterprise which fails to uphold its mission. Our city's resources should fund programs that will keep our city safe. This is not one of them.

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