Gun case dis­missed be­cause of T-shirt

Did D.C. of­fi­cer in ar­rest wear white-power cross?


A D.C. judge dis­missed a gun pos­ses­sion case amid ques­tions over whether the ar­rest­ing of­fi­cers wore or had any role in the cre­ation of a con­tro­ver­sial Tshirt printed with the name of their po­lice unit, an im­age of the Grim Reaper and a sym­bol that an ad­vo­cacy group says is racist.

The de­ci­sion came Tues­day as the trial was set to be­gin for 24-year-old Car­los John­son, who al­legedly was found car­ry­ing a 9mm hand­gun last De­cem­ber. He had pre­vi­ously pleaded guilty in a case of as­sault with a dan­ger­ous weapon, a case that in­volved a gun.

D.C. Su­pe­rior Court Judge Mari­beth Raf­fi­nan re­jected a re­quest by pros­e­cu­tors to de­lay the trial un­til an in­ter­nal po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the T-shirts has been com­pleted. The judge dis­missed the case with­out prej­u­dice, mean­ing au­thor­i­ties can recharge John­son.

The dis­missal marks the first time the T-shirt is known to have had an im­pact on a crim­i­nal case.

The T-shirt came to light last month af­ter an of­fi­cer on the Pow­er­shift team in the 7th Po­lice Dis­trict was seen wear­ing it at a restau­rant and in D.C. Su­pe­rior Court. Po­lice of­fi­cials pro­nounced it “dis­turb­ing,” sus­pended that of­fi­cer and opened the in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The two of­fi­cers in­volved in John­son’s ar­rest are mem­bers of the same Pow­er­shift unit, which pa­trols high-crime ar­eas for weapon re­cov­ery and drug ac­tiv­ity.

On July 30, the day be­fore John­son’s trial was to be­gin, pros­e­cu­tors sent an email to the de­fense say­ing it was “pos­si­ble” that one of those of­fi­cers had a role in de­sign­ing the shirt. In the email, which was in­cluded in the court file, pros­e­cu­tors called the in­for­ma­tion “hearsay” and said they were in­ves­ti­gat­ing the al­le­ga­tion.

In court hear­ings that stretched over Mon­day and Tues­day, As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney Kate Rakoczy told the judge that it was un­clear whether ei­ther of the of­fi­cers in­volved in John­son’s case had worn the T-shirt. But to make sure, she wanted to wait un­til po­lice com­pleted their in­quiry.

“The gov­ern­ment very much wants this mat­ter to be thor­oughly and ef­fec­tively in­ves­ti­gated so MPD can make the de­ci­sions it needs to make about what’s ap­pro­pri­ate so that we can de­cide what to do with this in­for­ma­tion with our own cases,” Rakoczy said, ac­cord­ing to a tran­script of the pro­ceed­ings.

Mak­ing the John­son case more chal­leng­ing, Rakoczy told the judge, was that of­fi­cers in the Pow­er­shift unit have con­sulted at­tor­neys who ad­vised them not to dis­cuss the T-shirt. She asked that the John­son trial be resched­uled to Oc­to­ber.

John­son’s at­tor­ney, Wil­liam Al­ley, of the Public De­fender Ser­vice, op­posed a de­lay. He in­di­cated that he wanted to de­ter­mine whether there was any bias against John­son, who is African Amer­i­can, and sought to have the of­fi­cers ques­tioned about the mean­ing and ori­gin of the shirt, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments and tran­scripts of the pro­ceed­ings.

At one point, Al­ley sug­gested that pros­e­cu­tors could ask the of­fi­cers “what they know about this in­ves­ti­ga­tion, about this Tshirt, who was in­volved, who de­signed it, who owns it, who wears it and pro­vide all that in­for­ma­tion to us to­day so that we could be ready to move for­ward with trial.”

Raf­fi­nan con­sid­ered de­lay­ing the trial for a few weeks, but pros­e­cu­tors said that would not be enough time. The judge said that wait­ing months for the Tshirt in­ves­ti­ga­tion to wrap up would not be fair to John­son, who had been jailed await­ing trial.

“I don’t think that lengthy of a con­tin­u­ance so that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion can be con­cluded, in ex­er­cis­ing my judg­ment, is fair, eq­ui­table in these cir­cum­stances,” Raf­fi­nan said.

The black T-shirt has the Grim Reaper as its cen­ter­piece, hold­ing what ap­pears to be a ri­fle with the Dis­trict of Columbia flag at­tached. At the top is the word “Pow­er­shift,” with a preChris­tian style of cross em­bed­ded in a cir­cle.

There are var­i­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tions of that sym­bol. Sev­eral hate groups have ap­pro­pri­ated the cross as part of their sym­bol­ogy. It also ap­pears in the let­ter­ing of a pop­u­lar com­puter gam­ing com­pany, and some have sug­gested it might rep­re­sent the crosshairs of a gun scope.

Law for Black Lives, a group of le­gal pro­fes­sion­als af­fil­i­ated with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, filed the for­mal po­lice com­plaint af­ter an of­fi­cer was seen wear­ing a shirt with the sym­bol.

In its com­plaint, Law for Black Lives said the cross sym­bol was adopted by the Ku Klux Klan and “pro­motes white su­prem­a­cist ide­olo­gies.”

On its web­site, the Anti-Defama­tion League lists the cross as a com­monly used white su­prem­a­cist sym­bol.

Mark Pit­cav­age, a se­nior re­search fel­low with the Cen­ter on Ex­trem­ism for the ADL, said he also no­ticed that much of the writ­ing on the shirt is in a font called Ex­o­cet Medium, in which the let­ter O “is ren­dered with a cross in­side it.”

Pit­cav­age said it is “highly likely” that “the only rea­son that im­age ap­pears on the shirt is as a byprod­uct of the font se­lected.”

The im­age on the T-shirt also in­cludes a po­lice badge and the phrase, “Let me see that waist­band jo,” an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to “jump outs,” a long de­cried, and po­lice say now de­funct, prac­tice of po­lice jump­ing out of cars to round up peo­ple. Oth­ers who have seen the shirt say the “jo” is mock­ing a slang ex­pres­sion used by some black youths in the neigh­bor­hoods where the units fo­cus.

For­mer pros­e­cu­tor turned de­fense at­tor­ney Justin Dil­lon said it is likely that de­fense at­tor­neys in other cases in­volv­ing the 7th Dis­trict Pow­er­shift unit may seek de­tails about the shirts.

“They’re try­ing to fig­ure out if any of these of­fi­cers are racists,” Dil­lon said. He said it is un­clear whether a judge would al­low ques­tion­ing about the shirt in front of a jury.

Dustin Stern­beck, the chief spokesman for the D.C. po­lice depart­ment, said nine of­fi­cers are as­signed to the 7th Dis­trict’s Pow­er­shift, which gen­er­ally works at night and pa­trols some of the city’s most vi­o­lent ar­eas, in­clud­ing Ana­cos­tia, Barry Farm, Nay­lor Gar­dens and Wash­ing­ton High­lands.

One of the of­fi­cers, the per­son who was the sub­ject of the com­plaint, is on desk duty and barred from hav­ing in­ter­ac­tions with the public.

In an in­ter­view Fri­day, D.C. Po­lice Chief Peter New­sham said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion “will find out what hap­pened here. Was it was one of­fi­cer, more than one of­fi­cer, su­per­vi­sor prob­lems?” Po­lice said the in­quiry must be com­pleted within 90 days.

New­sham cau­tioned against read­ing too broadly into the dis­missal of the gun case, say­ing it does not nec­es­sar­ily in­di­cate the po­ten­tial for more cases to be af­fected. The chief called the gov­ern­ment’s re­quest for a de­lay rea­son­able and said the judge de­nied it “with­out any con­sid­er­a­tion for the im­pact on public safety.”

New­sham said the ADL had briefed the depart­ment on pos­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the cross. But he said that even with­out the cross, he finds the T-shirt in­ap­pro­pri­ate at­tire for an on-duty po­lice of­fi­cer.

“Any shirt that causes a rift with the com­mu­nity is a prob­lem for me,” New­sham said. “It’s poor judg­ment, at the least. Most of our of­fi­cers on a daily ba­sis ex­er­cise very good judg­ment un­der very dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances.”

Of­fi­cials with the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice and the D.C. Public De­fender Ser­vice, and Raf­fi­nan, the judge, de­clined to com­ment.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the po­lice union also de­clined to com­ment.

Nei­ther the of­fi­cer who is the sub­ject of the po­lice com­plaint nor the of­fi­cers in­volved in John­son’s ar­rest could be reached for com­ment.

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