This story is a collaboration with WAMU/DCist.
The two sex workers in Washington, D.C., suspected that the drunk, bearded man in the silver Nissan Maxima was a police officer. Standing outside the car on a December night in 2015, they could see his black boots and blue cargo pants. Then there was the way he held his gun as he pointed it at them. Exactly how a cop is trained to do, one of the workers thought, according to internal police records.
After they’d called 911 reporting that a belligerent man had solicited sex, threatened one of them with a gun and then accused them of stealing his phone, the Metropolitan Police Department officer dispatched to the scene ran the Nissan’s plates, the documents show. Sure enough, it belonged to Ronald Faunteroy, a fellow MPD officer.
The officer on the scene immediately notified Agent Charles Weeks, a 20-year veteran tasked with investigating his fellow officers. Weeks’ investigative notes suggest he threw himself into the case, seemingly dispelling any notion that there was a buddy-buddy culture within the department that would protect Faunteroy.
That very day, Weeks recorded video interviews with both of the sex workers who interacted with Faunteroy, according to Weeks’ investigative files. In the weeks that followed, he reviewed surveillance footage from two cameras in the area and interviewed every officer involved with the case. He acquired equipment records, incident reports, 911 audio, dispatch logs and property records. He had even photocopied the notebooks of the officers responding at the scene, scouring through their chicken-scratched notes to understand what exactly happened.
He’d pieced it all together. After a grueling two-hour interview, Weeks eventually got Faunteroy to confess. Faunteroy said he’d tried to pay for sex, the records show. After being denied, he’d pointed his MPD-issued Glock at a sex worker. He’d wrongly accused her of stealing his phone. And he’d lied about it all, Weeks later determined.
“You put the puzzle together,” Faunteroy told Weeks at the end of the interview. “You’re right.”
The Metropolitan Police Department swiftly took action, moving to terminate Faunteroy. The Internal Affairs Division determined that “a preponderance of evidence existed to sustain the allegations” that he violated D.C. laws and department policy.
Yet a powerful tribunal of three high-ranking officers, known as the Adverse Action Panel, overruled the department’s decision to fire Faunteroy. The officer in charge of the panel: Robert J. Contee, who has since risen to become chief of police. Faunteroy was stripped of his title of master patrol officer, a high-ranking patrol officer paid extra to “provide effective coaching, mentoring, and guidance to other officers,” but the department roster shows he’s since regained the title.
Internal records show that MPD’s Disciplinary Review Division sought to terminate at least 24 officers currently on the force for criminal misconduct from 2009 to 2019. In all but three of those cases, the records show, the Adverse Action Panel blocked the termination and instead issued much lighter punishment – an average of a 29-day suspension without pay. These officers amassed disciplinary records for domestic violence, DUIs, indecent exposure, sexual solicitation, stalking and more. In several instances, they fled the scenes of their crimes.
The disciplinary files, obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and WAMU/DCist, provide a rare glimpse into how police officers avoid accountability and remain on the force, even after the department’s own internal affairs investigators have determined they committed crimes. The records have never before been made public.
- The department’s internal investigators concluded that at least 64 people who currently serve as MPD officers committed criminal misconduct.
- The department sought to terminate 24 of those officers. In 21 of the 24 cases, the Adverse Action Panel reduced their sentence to a suspension or acquittal.
- The department did not seek to terminate the other 40 officers, more than half of whom the Internal Affairs Division believed had been driving either drunk or recklessly. Other criminal conduct the department did not try to fire current officers for included recklessly handling a firearm, harassment, property damage, stalking and theft.
“These systems that MPD set up to punish or at least give officers their day in court when they committed an infraction, they don’t really work,” said Ronald Hampton, a retired MPD officer who has advocated for more accountability as a member of the city’s recently created Police Reform Commission. “It’s seated in the culture of the institution; it’s going to take more than setting up more systems within the organization to deal with it.”
Of the 24 criminal misconduct cases, the department believed that at least seven officers had committed domestic assault. All of them stayed on the force, six as a result of the panel’s decision. For instance, in November 2015, a pastor brought a woman to a crisis center to report that she had been repeatedly assaulted by her husband, a current police officer named Bai Bangura, according to the disciplinary files. “I know that he is going to try to kill me if I cause problems at his work,” she wrote in a note at the bottom of paperwork filed at the crisis center. In spite of statements from an internal affairs agent who testified that, based on her years of experience working domestic cases, she believed the victim to be caught up in a cycle of abuse, the panel unanimously agreed to override the department’s attempt to fire the officer. Instead, Bangura was suspended for 10 days and is still an officer with MPD.
Other personnel files show that an internal investigation concluded that Officer Steven Ferris was arrested for simple assault in 2012 after Internal Affairs reported he confessed that he punched his wife so hard that he fractured a bone around her eye socket. Another officer, Jonathan Goodman, allegedly hit two women at a restaurant in 2010; when one of them said she was calling the cops, he pulled out his badge and replied, “Bitch, I am the police,” according to the files.
Officer DeVon Goldring allegedly ran over the mother of his child with his white Chevy Tahoe in 2009, according to the files. A hospital report describes black streaks on the inner part of the left side of her foot, ankle and calf: tire marks, an officer on the scene concluded. The department wanted to fire him, but a panel offered him a 21-day suspension instead.
Ultimately, the records show, Bangura’s wife told prosecutors that she didn’t want to pursue charges. Ferris’ wife didn’t cooperate with prosecutors who later brought charges against her husband; he was acquitted. Domestic violence victims are often reluctant to cooperate with prosecutors and internal investigators alike, so their cases can be difficult to prosecute both in criminal and administrative court. Federal law prohibits the purchase and possession of firearms and ammunition by people who have been convicted of domestic violence offenses, and had these officers been convicted in a criminal court, they all would have likely lost their job and their right to possess a gun. These cases were handled administratively; even though the department believed the officers had committed domestic assault, it continued to issue them a firearm.
Neither Contee, the police chief, nor the department would comment on Reveal and WAMU/DCist’s findings. We attempted to reach all of the officers named in this story for comment. Only one responded, Anderson Liriano, whom the department wanted to fire after an internal investigation found that he threatened to kill a sergeant at another police department in 2017. The Adverse Action Panel overruled the department and handed down a 15-day suspension. Liriano wouldn’t comment on the case against him but told Reveal and WAMU/DCist that the entire disciplinary process took too long.
“The way they do it, it’s unprofessional,” Liriano said. “They put you out and make you wait when all the facts are already there.”
Liriano and the other 20 officers remain with MPD today, patrolling the District in possession of MPD-issued firearms and authorized to use deadly force.
Details from misconduct investigations like these have typically remained hidden from the public, with police departments citing personal privacy laws. In April, a ransomware attack on D.C. police by a group called Babuk resulted in the hacking of 250 gigabytes of police data. Reveal gained access to the entire data trove through DDoSecrets, a transparency nonprofit made up of journalists and technologists unaffiliated with the hack. Reveal found the misconduct investigations and disciplinary decisions buried in tens of thousands of records that included a controversial gang database, intelligence briefs on right-wing activists and emails describing the conduct of a specialized police unit trying to suppress robberies.
The ransomware hack contained thousands of scanned documents that were not readily searchable. Reveal converted those documents to text and searched for files that referenced officers potentially engaged in a “criminal or quasi-criminal offense,” language taken from MPD’s General Orders. We identified 75 cases in which the department investigated a current officer for criminal misconduct. While the Internal Affairs Division investigates officers for possible criminal activity, its decisions are purely administrative within the department; they are not the same as those in a criminal court.
When the department learns of an officer’s potential criminal misconduct, investigators with MPD’s Internal Affairs Division procure court records, conduct interviews and gather scores of pages of documentary evidence. Under department policy, if internal investigators find that an officer has likely committed a crime, whether or not they’ve been convicted in a court of law, the Disciplinary Review Division has the authority to recommend that they be removed from the force. Facing dismissal, accused officers may formally appeal their terminations to the Adverse Action Panel, a rotating three-person board made up of other officers typically holding the rank of captain or higher.
D.C. isn’t alone. Many law enforcement agencies have some version of this system, typically known as trial boards. Because the records are usually secret, it’s difficult to compare D.C.’s system to the inner workings of other departments. For MPD, these hearings are trial-like, administrative proceedings in which officers, usually represented by their lawyer, plead their case to the panel.
At the end of the hearing, the panel decides whether to reject the appeal or issue its own judgment and disciplinary recommendations. A panel’s decision not to fire an officer leaves the police chief with few options. The chief can send the case back to another panel but cannot dole out any punishment more severe than what the panel recommends.
This appears to be somewhat atypical for many of the nation’s largest police departments. For example, in New York, the head of the department, by law, makes the final disciplinary determination and penalty finding, regardless of the outcome of a departmental hearing. The same is true in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and other departments around the country.
Mike Gottert, who served as the director of MPD’s Disciplinary Review Division from 2016 to late 2019, said he and many within the department’s management were frustrated by how infrequently officers ended up being fired after a panel hearing. “Obviously, when we recommend people to be terminated, we think they should be terminated,” he said. “We’d go through this whole process, and the panel would say no for whatever reason.”
Gottert provided additional records from his tenure that show the Adverse Action Panels overturned nearly two-thirds of all terminations his department sought.
He said the panels are not always impartial. Not only was there a “fairly good chance” that the officer in question had worked with a panel member, he said, but panel members are influenced by their own particular views on what they believe is a fireable offense, regardless of what MPD’s handbook says.
The role of trial boards in preventing the department from terminating officers for misconduct after extensive internal investigations has largely gone unnoticed. The hearings are technically open to the public, but the department does not publicly release a schedule and can postpone or close hearings to the public without notice.
“It is hard to argue you have an effective accountability system when this number of officers remain on the force, even though the agency itself thinks they should not be police officers,” Christy Lopez, co-chair of D.C.’s Police Reform Commission, said when shown our findings.
Harold Martin, an attorney in the D.C. area who for years represented police officers in criminal cases, said the system may not be perfect, but it’s “a system everybody can live with.”
“The key device for rooting out real serious police misconduct is the criminal justice system, because that’s the quickest way somebody can be terminated – based on a criminal conviction. … Once you get beyond that, it’s more of a question of a system created by contract negotiation.”
Earlier this year, the Police Reform Commission recommended 90 reforms to increase police accountability. One of those recommendations was making the Adverse Action Panel’s hearings more accessible to the public.
“Everybody I’ve spoken to who’s gone to one has explained how difficult it actually is to attend: to know when they are, to find the literal room,” said Naïké Savain, a Police Reform Commission member and policy counsel at the advocacy group DC Justice Lab. “They can claim that these hearings are public. But they’re not – not really, not in practice.”
During a D.C. Council hearing on proposed police reform legislation in October, Contee, the police chief, told lawmakers that he has been frustrated by arbitration rules that have prevented him from firing officers. “Being forced to reinstate officers that MPD has already terminated is one of the worst tasks in my job,” he said.
But he also urged the council not to pass legislation that seeks to make police disciplinary records public and provide the city’s civilian oversight body, currently called the Office of Police Complaints, with unfettered access to police documents. Contee said the bill was unfair to officers and a violation of their privacy.
“How can we expect officers to respect constitutional rights if our city government disrespects theirs?” Contee asked. He also questioned expanding the power of the Office of Police Complaints – which, under the legislation, would need to include an ex-officio member of MPD, along with members who represent other groups particularly affected by policing in the District.
The legislation, Contee testified, “provides for no other qualifications for the board members – such as legal, labor or law enforcement experience or expertise, yet they are expected to review and advise on serious use of force, in-custody deaths, discipline and almost all police policy and training?” The D.C. Council has not voted on the legislation yet.
Ronald Faunteroy had asked to leave his shift four hours early to spend time with his family on that December night in 2015, according to Agent Charles Weeks’ internal report. At 11:51 p.m., he’d pulled out of the lower parking lot of the Second District headquarters. Three hours later, two surveillance cameras caught him driving in circles, five times, around a block known for being a hub of prostitution. Ten minutes after that, he backed into an alley and flashed his lights, according to the investigative report.
According to a description of the footage included in the internal affairs investigation, the video shows one of the sex workers approach Faunteroy’s car from the passenger side. The sex worker later told Weeks that she declined Faunteroy’s offer of $30 for oral sex because it wasn’t enough money. He drives off after less than a minute. But less than 10 minutes later, the surveillance video shows Faunteroy’s Nissan pull up on the sex worker, the report says.
She later told Weeks in an interview that Faunteroy was drunk and belligerent. He was slurring his words and accused her of stealing his phone.
That’s when Faunteroy pulled out his gun, she says. In the footage, Faunteroy is holding a dark object with his left hand.
“You can see my body, like, tensing up. … I’m yell – I’m like screaming at the top of my lungs right there,” she said while watching the surveillance footage with Weeks. She said she thought she was going to be shot.
Weeks tried to get an arrest warrant, but the U.S. attorney’s office – which prosecutes cases in D.C. – declined to prosecute the case. Weeks later recalled in his testimony during Faunteroy’s Adverse Action Panel that his exchange with an attorney at the office was “unprofessional.” He said the prosecutors kicked him out of the office after briefly viewing the footage and making a quick determination.
Now, it was time to interview Faunteroy. With a union representative alongside him, Faunteroy seemed nervous throughout the two-hour interview, according to a transcript of the interview included in the disciplinary files. He contradicted himself often and refused to answer even the most basic questions. He spoke at length about irrelevant details while claiming not to recall important moments of the night.
The pieces didn’t quite fit together for Weeks, and he said so, according to the transcript in the report. “We’re going around in circles,” he told Faunteroy. “I’m going to ask you straight up, what were you doing in that area?” He then went through everything he knew, laying out in detail Faunteroy’s whereabouts minute by minute.
Weeks then asked Faunteroy, for the final time, whether he pointed his weapon at the sex worker, and Faunteroy said yes. “You put the puzzle together,” he told Weeks in the interview.
Faunteroy was informed of the department’s decision to terminate him in April 2016. The next month, when the Adverse Action Panel convened, Faunteroy had rescinded his confession. Faunteroy’s new defense was simple: He got lost just before 3 a.m. in an area known for prostitution – a fact he testified that he did not know at the time. While trying to figure out where he was, a sex worker approached him. He later confronted her under the suspicion that she stole his phone and was armed, he told the panel. According to Faunteroy’s lawyers, there was not enough evidence to conclude he had either solicited prostitution or pointed his pistol at the sex worker. The only witnesses were the two sex workers, and neither were there to testify.
According to a description of the hearing, Contee – who at the time was a commander – had no questions for Faunteroy and instead used his time to comment about Faunteroy’s sense of direction. “It would be a sad day if we are not training our officers on how to get around from point A to point B,” he said.
He and the rest of the panel unanimously reduced Faunteroy’s termination to a 45-day suspension.
Mohamed Al Elew, Grace Oldham and John Turner of Reveal contributed to this story. It was edited by Soo Oh, Natalie Delgadillo and Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Dhruv Mehrotra can be reached at email@example.com. Jenny Gathright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Martin Austermuhle can be reached at email@example.com. Follow them on Twitter: @dmehro, @jennygathright and @maustermuhle.