2015 Pro-Am Student Award finalist

Assault on Justice


About the Project

We decided to look into how the District police were using the “assaulting a police officer” charge, given its overly broad language — there is no “resisting arrest” or “impeding arrest” charge on the books — and the concerns nationwide about police use of excessive force. WAMU 88.5 News web-scraped and downloaded the cases in which “assaulting a police officer” charges were filed in the District of Columbia courts from January 2012 through December 2014. This produced a spreadsheet of more than 2,000 cases, including felony, misdemeanor and domestic violence assaulting an officer charges for all District-based police agencies. (The story was further complicated because the U.S. Park Police and Metro transit police, among many others, also have the right to use the charge.)

The initial scrape included case numbers, dates and charges but left out many important attributes for deeper analysis. To obtain the added detail, graduate students from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, under the guidance of editors and reporters at IRW and WAMU, researched every case using public access to the records at the District Courthouse.

The students entered each case number into the system, inspected the complete case documentation online and, if enough detail was present, printed the case record, including the affidavits from the arresting officers. Printing at the courthouse — taking turns in the required 10-minute shifts on public computers and using our own paper — was the only way we could obtain the police narratives of each case. (Some cases did not contain enough information or could not be located and did not become part of the final database for analysis.)

Under IRW guidance, students and IRW staff entered the relevant data from the printed reports into the database. When completed, IRW editors cleaned the database for consistency and made integrity checks, comparing the database to the original paper documents. Once completed, the database contained 1,966 usable cases.

IRW ran descriptive statistics and other summary calculations on the data to find patterns behind the individual charges of assaulting a police officer. Because of missing data, most results should be treated as estimations and are expressed as such in our report. Also, IRW followed accepted rounding practices.

The map of arrest locations throughout the District was drawn from the database, which includes the arrest address. WAMU ran the arrest addresses through an online geocoder to give them latitude and longitude coordinates, which allowed the map designer to place the address on the map and add details, such as race of the defendant, to the map.

Key findings included:

  • Ninety percent of those charged with assaulting a police officer were black, although black residents comprise only half of the city’s population.
  • Nearly two-thirds of those arrested for assaulting an officer weren’t charged with any other crime, raising questions about whether police had legal justification to stop the person.
  • About 1 in 4 people charged with a misdemeanor for assaulting a police officer required medical attention after their arrest, a higher rate than the 1 in 5 officers reporting injury from the interactions.
  • The District uses the charge of assaulting a police officer almost three times more than cities of comparable size, according to a 2013 FBI report and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) numbers.
  • Prosecutors declined to press charges in more than 40 percent of the arrests for assaulting an officer.