Police in Washington, D.C., sought to intimidate the family of a man killed by their colleagues in suspicious circumstances days earlier, a new lawsuit claims.
Jeffery Price was killed on May 4, 2018, when his dirt bike collided with a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) cruiser. Though the department has asserted the 22-year-old was at fault in his own death, eyewitnesses report the MPD squad-car intentionally blocked his path. Price’s mother Denise, his uncle Jay Brown, and other family members criticized MPD’s handling of the incident immediately afterward to local reporters, from whom Price’s death received significant coverage at the time.
A week later, two officers from MPD’s notorious Gun Recovery Unit (GRU) showed up to Denise Price’s house as she, Brown, and others were discussing funeral arrangements for the young man. Officers Joseph Gupton and David Whitehead walked through and around Price’s yard and two adjoining yards, ignoring repeated questions from Price and Brown about what they were looking for and whether they had a warrant. They were asked repeatedly to leave when they didn’t explain themselves or provide any legal justification for searching private property owned by people who’d accused their department of intentionally killing someone for breaking the city’s off-road vehicle ordinances.
The officers’ silent wanderings through Price’s property and the neighboring yards were captured on video at the time. Though officers have the right to conduct warrantless property searches under specific circumstances, such as when actively pursuing a suspect or reacting to an urgent threat to themselves or the public, nothing like that was happening at the time.
Price has had trouble sleeping ever since, according to a complaint filed Monday by the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, and has sought a therapist’s intervention with panic attacks she began to experience soon after the encounter.
“I was still in shock from Jeff’s death at the hands of this very same police department just a week earlier when an officer shows up in my yard, unannounced, without permission, without a warrant,” Price said in a statement. “I kept telling the officer to leave but he ignored me. MPD’s disrespectful attitude toward the community and toward our rights has to change.”
MPD itself has acknowledged the officers’ conduct during the searches was unprofessional. Within a few weeks of their slow, silent walk-through of Price’s yard, the two were reassigned off the GRU — a specialized team that’s as prestigious within the department as it is infamous in the primarily African-American neighborhoods where its officers typically flex their expansive authority.
Roving task forces like D.C.’s GRU, Baltimore’s ruthless Gun Trace Task Force, and Chicago’s since-disbanded Special Operations Section differ substantially in day-to-day practice from the uniformed beat cops who form the bulk of any given municipal police force. A legacy of the high-octane low-oversight drug war era of the 1980s and 1990s, these teams are typically given wide latitude — both geographically and tactically — to go after drugs and firearms, and are known to rack up a disproportionately higher volume of both seizures and civilian complaints than most standard patrolmen.
But the MPD’s guns unit has not yet received the same level of public scrutiny as its counterparts in other cities. Baltimore’s specialized gun team is in crisis after former members testified about the team’s criminal culture — including the habitual use of pellet guns to plant on suspects in the event that a task force member gunned down an unarmed person — during the corruption trials of other members.
Chicago’s task force was plagued with a similar rip-and-run criminality for years, eventually leading to federal charges against numerous Special Operations Section veterans accused of running an extortion and protection racket with the city’s drug gangs. Similar outfits accused of sponsoring similarly lawless cultures have gotten spotlighted in regional and national media after various scandals elsewhere, including in Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York.
But Price’s death last spring and the lawsuit filed Monday over the GRU’s alleged retaliatory harassment of his family are just the latest indication that the MPD unit’s days operating below the media radar are numbered.
MPD Chief Peter Newsham was forced to defend his officers in unusually pointed fashion last summer after a GRU team appeared to stage a pretextual search of a group of young black men sitting in front of a barbershop in the city’s Deanwood neighborhood. A pair of hours-long hearings — one of which Newsham and other department brass were specifically asked not to attend so that community members would feel free to speak their minds — helped draw renewed attention to other instances of MPD aggression and incivility, as well as to Price’s death and other on-duty killings in recent years.