When officer William Chatman, of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, walked into the atrium of the D.C. Superior Court on May 21, heads turned. A few minutes earlier, he had testified in the trial of four people accused of rioting in downtown Washington during Donald Trump’s inauguration; it was the second trial group to face a jury. In accordance with Metro Police rules, Chatman had pulled another “cover shirt” over his uniform after concluding his testimony.
Chatman is a big man, thickly built and broad-shouldered, with a slight paunch and shaved head. What caught the attention of those assembled in the courthouse, however, was not his imposing size, but the text on the back of his off-white T-shirt. Under an image of a nightstick enlaced with a pair of handcuffs, it read, in capital letters, “Police brutality … or doing what their parents should have?”
“I was absolutely horrified,” said Andy Switzer, a former defendant from Philadelphia whose charges were dismissed in January, “that a police witness would have the gall to wear that shirt in a courthouse, immediately after offering testimony about brutal police behavior. It’s startling.”
Asked about Chatman’s choice of attire, D.C. police spokesperson Hugh Carew told The Intercept, “We are aware of the photograph and our Internal Affairs Bureau is investigating.”
Before donning his infamous T-shirt, Chatman had offered key testimony for the J20 prosecution. Chatman narrated the events of January 20, 2017, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff played police body camera footage for the jury — images of black-clad protesters wreaking havoc along 13th Street. A member of the Civil Disturbance Unit, Chatman rode behind the marchers on a Harley-Davidson 883 motorcycle during the protest. Throughout his testimony, he referred to the defendants as “rioters,” even after Judge Kimberley Knowles sustained a defense objection to that term. “These are experienced rioters,” he said at one point, after the judge’s ruling.
It “seemed as if there were people in charge” of the group, Chatman testified. They were issuing “commands” to fellow marchers: “‘Let’s go, break that, grab that, get this’ — things of that nature,” Chatman explained. His testimony is central to the prosecution’s argument that J20 protesters were a well-organized and purposeful group, consistent with the legal definitions of “riot” and “conspiracy” — a novel approach used by the government to indict hundreds of people on felony charges for the alleged criminal acts of a select few.
In a week of high courtroom drama, Chatman’s T-shirt may have seemed like a sideshow. The government’s case against the J20 defendants continues to unravel. The first tranche of J20 defendants was found innocent by a jury, and shortly thereafter, charges against 129 other protesters were dropped. Last week, a judge sanctioned prosecutors for failing to turn over some 69 recordings of potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense, a violation of pretrial discovery rules. Judge Robert Morin prohibited prosecutors from using those videos as evidence in two upcoming trials and forbade the government from pursuing “conspiracy” charges against defendants in those trial groups. In response, prosecutors dropped all charges against an additional 10 defendants.
Amid this confusion and prosecutorial malfeasance, the T-shirt story epitomized another budding theme of the J20 case: The government’s reliance on police witnesses with apparent proclivities toward extreme politics — and, in Chatman’s case, a past brush with accusations of police brutality.
“These cases were always about right-wing police and prosecutors following Trump’s lead to go after left-wing protesters using a broad theory of liability,” said Mark Goldstone, an attorney for multiple J20 defendants. “So it’s no surprise that a police witness would express such political hostility.”
“What is surprising,” Goldstone added, “is the stupidity of an officer showing up in court wearing that shirt.”
Defendants and their supporters have repeatedly accused D.C. police of excessive force during the inauguration protest. A report issued by D.C.’s Office of Police Complaints, on February 27, 2017, details a litany of violent acts committed by police on January 20, 2017, including “indiscriminately” deploying stinger grenades, pepper-spraying crowds without warning, and manhandling protesters engaged in civil disobedience. In response to the initial report, the D.C. City Council appropriated $150,000 to conduct an independent investigation of police conduct on January 20.
Chatman featured in some of the violent incidents that day. During cross examination on May 21, Chatman admitted to driving his motorcycle into a protester but denied that it was intentional. “He turned to block my path and we met,” Chatman said.
“They were nudging people with their motorcycles to push us forward. Treating us like animals. It was horrifying.”
“They were nudging people with their motorcycles to push us forward. Treating us like animals,” said Jennifer Armento, a defendant who was acquitted in the first trial. “It was horrifying.” Armento felt she couldn’t stop running, even as she began to suffer an asthma attack brought on by exhaustion, tear gas, and engine fumes.
Chatman’s decision to wear a T-shirt endorsing police brutality is especially brazen given his own history. Between 2008 and 2016, Chatman was involved in litigation over allegations that he and another officer assaulted a Maryland family — including two minors — during a Caribbean Carnival parade.
On June 28, 2008, Rosena Rudder, her husband Roger, and their 5-year-old daughter were walking alongside the Carnival parade on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C. The Rudders were accompanied by Roger’s sister, Noverlene Goss, and her own 15-year-old daughter.
The yearly parade is a joyous occasion for the Rudders, who are Trinidadian. According to court documents, their group momentarily left the sidewalk to go hug some costumed family members. As they wove their way back to the side of the road, Rosena told The Intercept in a phone interview last week, they came across Chatman, in his police uniform — sans T-shirt — who told them sternly to get back on the sidewalk.
“I said, ‘Okay, we’re moving.’ But the streets are literally packed. You can’t just beeline for the sidewalk,” Rosena said, “And I had my little girl to keep track of.”
A few moments later, Rosena said, Chatman stepped in the group’s path again and said, “Get to the sidewalk” — this time more aggressively. “As we tried to move around him, he got in my face. I could literally feel his breath. I stepped back and said, ‘Don’t touch me; we’re going.’”
This, Rosena recalled, set Chatman off; he shoved her and she fell to the ground.
“It was out of nowhere,” Rosena said. “My first thought was, ‘Where is my daughter?’ My second thought was, ‘We’re going to lose the baby.’” Chatman had no way of knowing that Rosena was two months pregnant at the time — she was not showing and herself had not yet learned that she was carrying triplets. (Her three sons were born in good health seven months later.)
Roger Rudder told The Intercept he saw Chatman pull his hand back, as if to hit Rosena on the ground. “All my life, I’ve never felt powerless. But in that moment, I did,” he said. “It felt like there was nothing I could do right. Nothing I could have done to prevent it from escalating. That was his job.” The blow was never delivered.
The lead investigator in the J20 case, Detective Gregg Pemberton, also betrayed political bias against Black Lives Matter and left-wing protesters. “You know what I haven’t heard in a while?” one of Pemberton’s tweets from April 2017 reads, “‘Police shootings of unarmed black youth.’ Did they run out of funding for their false narrative?”
“Too many police in the U.S. remain committed to a ‘thin blue line’ view of the world, in which they see themselves as the only social force capable of holding civilization together.”
Pemberton also liked a tweet by controversial Wisconsin Sheriff David A. Clarke which read, “America is upside down. Cops under attack threatens the rule of law. That is the aim of the leftist goons. Push back before it is too late.” Pemberton testified in December that a “cottage industry of people who just want to make money … gum up the works” for “genuine activists.”
Commander Keith DeVille, who oversaw the police response to the J20 protest, admitted on cross-examination to joking that Raoul Wallenberg — a World War II-era Swedish diplomat credited with saving thousands of Jews’ lives, who has a street named after him in Washington — was “the one that got away,” apparently mistaking the diplomat for a Holocaust survivor. DeVille denied that he was homophobic despite warning fellow officers to watch what they said around a new colleague who was gay. DeVille was also disciplined by the department for complaining about having to call a transgender co-worker by her preferred name.
These kinds of right-wing sympathies are not uncommon among police officers, says Alex S. Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. “Too many police in the U.S. remain committed to a ‘thin blue line’ view of the world, in which they see themselves as the only social force capable of holding civilization together.”
“This worldview,” Vitale said, “justifies the use of violence to control suspect populations, because that is the only thing ‘those people’ will understand.”
After the incident with Chatman in 2008, the Rudders pursued several legal avenues.
“I know that if any other dude had put his hands on my wife, it wouldn’t have been a question,” Roger Rudder said. “But I actually had to second guess stepping in front of my wife.” For a split second, Roger imagined the consequences, for himself and his family, if Chatman were to respond “the way police sometimes do in this country” to a perceived threat.
According to the Rudders, when Roger stepped between Chatman and his family, all hell broke loose. Police surrounded them, pulling them apart. Chatman tackled Roger. Rosena said another officer pushed her daughter to the ground and handcuffed her 15-year-old niece. Their court complaint narrates the same sequence of events.
“At some point, they also hit my sister-in-law and she fell,” Rosena said. “I remember we were able to look into each others’ eyes as we lay on the ground. I just thought, ‘What is happening?’”
According to Rosena, officers eventually pulled her up and handcuffed her. Before she was put in a patrol car, Rosena remembers a female officer threatened her: “I am going to put [your daughter] so far in the system you’ll never find her.”
“Powerless,” Roger again told The Intercept. “If I had to use one word, that would be it.”
“By wearing that shirt, he’s saying he’s untouchable. The system allows him to feel that way. That’s a dangerous mindset.”
The Rudders were arrested and eventually charged with misdemeanor assault on a police officer. They pled no contest and had to participate in a diversion program for first-time offenders. A few months later, the Rudders decided to file suit against Chatman and Shannon Williams, the female officer who allegedly threatened to put the Rudders’ daughter in “the system.”
The suit didn’t get far, dismissed in 2010 on primarily procedural grounds; their lawyer had failed to file their tort claims within the statute of limitations and unnecessarily conceded their constitutional complaints. In 2012, the Rudders appealed and won the right to refile their claim. In 2016, the parties finally agreed to a settlement of a few thousand dollars. Neither the department, nor Chatman or Williams, admitted any wrongdoing, having denied in earlier court filings that the violent encounter constituted assault and battery, excessive force, or false arrest. The Metro Police declined to comment on allegations against the officers.
Neither of the Rudders feels that justice was served.
“When this happened, we really had it in our hearts that we wanted to make an impact,” Roger Rudder said. “I’m sure everyone who has police brutality occur to them or their loved ones feels the same way. It’s just unfortunate that the avenues to make an impact are so few.”
“By the end of it, we were exhausted,” Rosena Rudder added. “It’s frustrating. Not only because no one was held accountable, but to hear that he” — Chatman — “is still out there doing the same thing. It’s just so sad.”
“By wearing that shirt, he’s saying he’s untouchable,” Roger told The Intercept. “The system allows him to feel that way. That’s a dangerous mindset.”
A week after Chatman testified for the prosecution in the J20 case, defense attorneys entered photos of him wearing his police brutality shirt into evidence and called him to the stand, this time as a defense witness. On cross examination, Kerkhoff, the federal prosecutor, sought to downplay the seriousness of the message on Chatman’s shirt.
“Is that a tongue-in-cheek comment on the perception that officers are constantly engaged in police brutality?” Kerkhoff asked.
“Yeah, tongue-in-cheek, meaning that it’s comedy,” Chatman replied.
In follow-up questioning, defense attorney Rich Gallena struck an incredulous tone. “So, the shirt is a joke?” he asked.
“It is typically a joke,” said Chatman.
“So, you think police brutality is a joke?”
“Not at all,” said Chatman.
Correction: June 13, 2018
This story initially referred to Raoul Wallenberg as a Holocaust survivor, based on Metro Police Commander Keith DeVille’s cross-examination. In fact, Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat recognized internationally for saving thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II.