WASHINGTON - The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia announced today that there is insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights or District of Columbia charges against an officer from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) who fatally shot Terrence Sterling on Sept. 11, 2016, in Northwest Washington.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) conducted a comprehensive review of the incident. This included law enforcement and civilian witness accounts, photographs, diagrams, physical evidence, recorded radio communications (911 calls and radio runs), District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) video, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) video, MPD photo radar footage, cellphone video, body-worn camera footage, law enforcement agency reports from MPD and the FBI, MPD General Orders, accident reconstruction reports, speed analysis data, reports from District of Columbia Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, and the autopsy report for Mr. Sterling.
Following this review, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer violated Mr. Sterling’s civil rights by willfully using more force than was reasonably necessary, had the necessary criminal intent when he shot Mr. Sterling, or was not acting in self-defense.
The evidence is consistent with the following chronology:
The chain of events began at approximately 4:20 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2016, at the intersection of 15th and U Streets NW. The MPD officer and his partner were working on the Third District’s Crime Suppression Unit, a specialized crime patrol team. Both were in full uniform and in a marked cruiser. The officer was the passenger and his partner was the driver. The officers were stopped at a red light, westbound on U Street NW, when they observed a motorcyclist, later identified as Mr. Sterling, 31, drive his motorcycle alongside their cruiser. Mr. Sterling pulled in front of the cruiser and briefly stopped. Mr. Sterling looked over his shoulder in the direction of the officers and then accelerated at a high rate of speed through the red light.
The officers activated their lights and siren and attempted to stop Mr. Sterling. Mr. Sterling did not stop. The officers attempted to follow Mr. Sterling, at times losing visual contact with him. During this period, several officer and civilian witnesses observed Mr. Sterling operating his motorcycle at excessive and dangerous speeds—sometimes estimated at 100 miles per hour or more. One MPD sergeant reported seeing the motorcycle in the area of 11th and U Streets, speeding through all of the red lights. The motorcycle was going so fast that it nearly hit another police cruiser in the area. In another instance, Mr. Sterling sped through an intersection at 16th and U Streets NW just moments after a bicyclist had ridden through it.
The two officers, meanwhile, continued their attempt to follow Mr. Sterling, but lost sight of him again at Ninth and U Streets. As they kept looking for him, they heard the sound of a motorcycle’s revving engine. This time, they located Mr. Sterling on Third Street NW, where he was bypassing cars backed up because of a red light.
According to the evidence, after Mr. Sterling stopped his motorcycle at the intersection of Third and M Streets NW, the officers pulled their cruiser into the intersection and partially blocked Mr. Sterling’s lane of travel. The officers intended to stop the motorcycle’s forward progress and arrest Mr. Sterling. With Mr. Sterling still on his motorcycle and generally facing the passenger side of the cruiser, the officer removed his firearm from the holster, put it into the tuck position (pointed downward and close to his body), and opened the cruiser’s passenger door to exit the cruiser.
In this moment, according to the evidence, Mr. Sterling revved his motorcycle and then accelerated and turned it toward the cruiser’s exposed passenger side. The officer, who was partially out of the cruiser, never got a chance to fully exit the vehicle. He felt the impact of the motorcycle hitting the cruiser’s door. The impact caused by the advancing motorcycle caused a dent in the cruiser’s open door and a bruise to the officer’s knee. The officer reacted by immediately firing two rounds at Mr. Sterling through his front passenger window. The rounds struck Mr. Sterling in the right side and neck. The shooting was at approximately 4:27 a.m.
Following the shooting, the officer made a radio transmission requesting assistance and an ambulance. He and his partner attempted to perform life-saving measures, but were unsuccessful. Emergency medical personnel transported Mr. Sterling to Howard University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Toxicology results determined that Mr. Sterling’s blood alcohol content was .16. Under District of Columbia law, that is approximately two times the legal limit. Mr. Sterling also tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
The officers’ pursuit of Mr. Sterling lasted several minutes and covered approximately 25 city blocks. During that time, Mr. Sterling pulled in front of the officers’ marked cruiser, looked directly at them, and then sped through a red light; drove approximately 100 miles an hour in an urban environment while running several more red lights; narrowly averted collisions with another police cruiser and a civilian; and refused multiple times to surrender to the lawful authority of the police.
After a careful, thorough, and independent review of the evidence, federal prosecutors have found insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer willfully used unreasonable force and/or was not acting in self-defense when he discharged his service weapon at Mr. Sterling.
Use-of-force investigations generally
The U.S. Attorney’s Office reviews all police-involved fatalities to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to conclude that any officers violated either federal criminal civil rights laws or District of Columbia law. To prove such violations, prosecutors must typically be able to prove that the involved officers willfully used more force than was reasonably necessary. Proving “willfulness” is a heavy burden. Prosecutors must not only prove that the force used was excessive, but must also prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. A conclusion that “there is insufficient evidence” is not meant to suggest anything further about what evidence, if any, exists.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office remains committed to investigating allegations of excessive force by law enforcement officers and will continue to devote the resources necessary to ensure that all allegations of serious civil rights violations are investigated fully and completely. The Metropolitan Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau investigates all police-involved fatalities in the District of Columbia.
Department of Justice
Office of the U.S. Attorney
District of Columbia