Bringing the police back home

Sam Smith – One of the problems with our problem solving these days is a tendency to legalize, institutionalize and formalize relationships that actually depend on wise social behavior. Consider, for example, how different our ethnic relations might be if we actually taught school children about the nature and virtues of cultural variety before their views got distorted by bigots and bullies.

The same is true these days in discussions about the police, where  the emphasis is on suppressing the most violent and unfair behavior, with hardly any talk about how to integrate police better into the lives of our communities.

This is something I have long followed, having edited a community newspaper in the mid 60s east of the US Capitol, a neighborhood that would include two the city’s four major riot strips in 1968. . I early came to realize that part of the trick was to get cops out of their patrol cars and having a neighborhood based relationship with some of the city’s citizens.

It early seemed clear that isolating cops in cars didn’t help matters. While on a 1960s panel that included a local police official and a representative of a national police organization, I made this argument. A columnist for the Washington Post turned to a friend of mine sitting next to him and asked, “Who is that nut?”

But there is something else I also remember from that time: a story I did on two young black cops patrolling a public housing project. One of them, Isaac Fulwood, told me that “they never check with us” before building such a place. Fulwood also lived on the Hill and a few years later, we attended a baptism class at a local church together.

It was just an ordinary story except for one thing. Fulwood would eventually become chief of the DC police and later chair of the US parole board.

And Fulwood was no ordinary chief. As the Washington Post wrote of his youth after his death:

In many ways, the family was the District in microcosm, engaged in a grim struggle with the hardships of poverty, drug abuse and crime. [His brother] Theodore Fulwood, known as Teddy, was locked up, accused of selling cocaine on a District street, when his brother was named police chief. Theodore’s long police record ranged from assault to bank robbery. “I loved him,” Mr. Fulwood said, “but hated his behavior.”

And Mr. Fulwood, though rarely in trouble as a youth, recalled his father’s encounters with unhelpful police officers and his own unpleasant interactions with them. “I had met very nasty policemen who would say anything to black people or do anything to them,” he told The Post in 1991. “Very rarely did you see black police officers.”

In another Post story, Fulwood faced the reality of his position:

Once, when Fulwood was chief, a riot broke out inside Lorton Correctional Facility. …. Fulwood helicoptered over. “I’m inside the jail, looking around. There are a couple thousand people in there. I swear, they all look black.”

After he and his men had Lorton under control, Fulwood took a walk around the place, bullhorn in hand. He heard a voice, a very loud whisper.

“Junior! Junior!”

Fulwood wheeled. He spotted an old family friend from the neighborhood around Kentucky Avenue SE where he grew up. “I said, ‘Come here. What you in here for?’ He said, ‘Robbery.’ “

The man asked Fulwood to visit his mother, tell her he was all right, which Fulwood did.

“I looked around that prison and said, ‘What a waste of human life,’ ” Fulwood recalls. “I came home and said to my wife, ‘Why can’t we break this cycle?’ It’s still a question I’m always struggling with.” ….

He says: “I believe communities have a right to be safe.”

He says: “You try to be tough. But at the same time you try to figure this damn thing out.”

One of the ways he handled this as head of the parole commission was to take someone on parole with him when he went to speak to high schoolers. In short, he could be tough but this didn’t mean he deserted his community. In fact, after leaving the force, he taught some courses at the University of DC on community policing.

There was an example of this sort of policing that sticks in my mind. When our sons were kids, they played baseball on teams run by the police boys club. I admit I sometimes felt a little nervous watching my son up to bat with an umpire wearing a pistol on his hip, but  it was a fine experience. Today these clubs, now merged with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, reach some 35,000 youngsters annually and have seven club houses in the city.

These are just two little example of community policing at work

The incident floated back recently as I read a detective novel by the sainted Michael Connelly in which the following appeared:

Through political opportunism and ineptitude, the city had allowed the department to languish for years as an understaffed and underequipped paramilitary organization. Infected with political bacteria itself, the department was top-heavy with managers while the ranks below were so thin that the dog soldiers on the street rarely had the time or inclination to step out of their protective machines, their cars, to meet the people they served. They only ventured out to deal with the dirt bags and, consequently, [detective Hieronymus] Bosch knew, it had created a police culture in which everybody not in blue was seen as a dirt bag and was treated as such….You ended up with a riot the dog soldiers couldn’t control.

Part of the problem was expecting the police to do it alone. That’s why I’ve suggested that every police precinct have a civilian lawyer and a psychotherapist on hand to coach the officers, answer their questions, and – in the case of the therapists – accompany them on cases where their skills might be useful.

In DC, as the cops were taking to squad cars, the Recreation Department was sending “roving leaders” out on the street to work with kids and their gangs. Several decades later, Jim Myers in the Hill Rag described how they did it:

Dennis Homesley, principal of Payne Elementary School, often talks about Roving Leaders. He got his start working with kids as a Roving Leader from 1972 to 1981, and he still believes in the concept.

The program, run by the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation, was bigger in Homesley’s day. But the idea remains the same: You don’t wait for kids to cause trouble. You go out and find the kids who are heading in the wrong direction and help them.

The program seemed to founder in the late 1980s. By the 1990s, it was too easy to spot kids in the neighborhood that the system wasn’t reaching – the ones most susceptible to negative influences. Thereafter, you could watch them “progress” on corners and local playgrounds from alienation to car thefts and stick ups or drug selling.

Now, we have Darby Clark and Bridget Miller, the two Roving Leaders who are assigned to work the schools, recreation centers and playgrounds of eastern Capitol Hill. Clark, 37, has been a Roving Leader for seven years. Miller, 41, a gang worker for 20 years, joined Roving Leaders only last year. . .

I saw Clark take a dozen squirming, noisy kids with their attention flying all over the place and turn them into a cooperative, engaged group of youngsters who raised their hands to participate in discussions about having positive attitude.

Magic it wasn’t, but a serious change took place before my very eyes. “They want attention and structure – and consistency,” says Clark. “Like if I say I’m going to be there for them at a certain time, I’ve got to be there.” It sounds so basic, but these are missing elements in many kids’ lives. . .

At Eastern High, Clark picks up names of kids who are not showing up for school – eight or nine kids in some weeks, he says – and visits their homes.

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