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Snowballs vs. gun?

Hundreds converge in Washington to take advantage of a winter storm. Their projectiles hit a Hummer, whose driver -- an off-duty plainclothes policeman -- allegedly draws his weapon.

December 21, 2009|By Matt Zapotosky
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

Reporting from Washington — The call went out on a website and over Twitter, and hundreds of 20- and 30-somethings, tired of being cooped up, gathered in Washington's northwest quadrant Saturday for a little restless indulgence.

Snowball fight!

People squealed as they hurled balls of snow across the largely deserted road. Then, a snowball or two slammed into a Hummer.

The driver, a plainclothes police detective whom Washington police refused to identify, got out, drew his gun and exchanged angry words with revelers, according to video footage and witnesses.

Police said initially that the detective had not flashed his weapon. On Sunday, the officer was placed on desk duty after Twitter, blogs and YouTube appeared to show otherwise.

If the final investigation shows that the officer pulled his weapon after being pelted with snowballs, Assistant Chief Pete Newsham said, that "would not be a situation in which a member [of the force] would be justified."

"We have to see what the entire circumstance was," Newsham said Sunday. "But just a snowball fight, not in my mind, that doesn't seem a situation where we would pull out a service weapon."

The origin of the snowball fight is unclear, but according to some participants, a website emerged sometime on the evening of the snowstorm, advertising what it called "DC SNOWPOCALYPSE GUERRILLA SNOWBALL FIGHT 2009!!"

Soon the event was making the cyber rounds. Even the Department of Transportation seemed to embrace it, tweeting on Saturday soon after the fight began: "SNOW UPDATE as advertised, there is a large snowball battle at 14th and U. Keep it safe."

According to Washington Post editorial aide Stephen Lowman and other witnesses, the detective's burgundy Hummer got stuck in the snow at the battleground for the snowball fight.

The detective got out of the vehicle, Lowman said, and he and the Hummer faced a mini-barrage of snowballs. That's when he "kind of shows he has a gun," Lowman said.

Witness Lacy MacAuley said she was "having fun with all the other revelers" when a friend yelled, "Oh my God, that guy has a gun!"

She turned to see a man standing near a Hummer with a gun drawn at his side.

MacAuley said she and others tried to halt the snowball fight, but someone still pegged the man.

Soon he began yelling and shoving people, warning revelers: "You all do not throw snowballs at my car."

According to Newsham, the detective approached the group of snowball fighters and had "some kind of interaction" with them.

"I think what probably happens is somebody probably saw his gun and called the police," Newsham said.

A patrol officer who responded to the call approached with his gun drawn, Newsham said, but when he realized that the man with a gun was a police detective, he holstered his weapon.

As the detective walked away, MacAuley said, someone hit him with another snowball, prompting the officer to charge into the crowd and briefly detain the man he thought was the culprit.

Although he was released, some revelers remain unsatisfied.

"It was actually kind of just fun and games until all of this happened," MacAuley said. "I feel that this is just an example of people asserting our basic right to have fun, and the police not being OK with that."

Zapotosky writes for the Washington Post.

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