Washington D.C.’s Police Department Was Once a Lot Like Many U.S. Police Departments Still Are Today

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 3.53.09 PMIn 1969, Washington, D.C., was transitioning from a federal district run by white Southern congressmen to a city under local home rule. The District then was 75 percent African-American and 25 percent white but the D.C. police department, like most everything else in the nation’s capital, was run by a white man. Police chief John Layton was considered honest and tough but old-school and he clashed often with Patrick Murphy, whom President Lyndon Johnson had installed as D.C.’s first director of public safety.

Murphy, in his memoirs, wrote that D.C.’s police department, like “many other police forces in the country, had poor relations with minority communities. But to permit the local police force, operating in the shadow of the White House, to remain in such a circumstance was risk taking at its worst.”

Murphy likely would add that many of today’s U.S. police departments still are too much like the 1969 D.C. police department under Layton.

Here, from the July  1969 Washingtonian, are excerpts from a story by Betty Wolden about how the federal government helped improve policing in the nation’s capital.
“In 1964 District Police Chief John Layton took over a department that had not recovered from the days when police officers took bribes, when pushers openly worked the dope jungles, when a bet could be placed at almost any street corner. Morale was low. The department’s reputation was even lower. Organization, integrity, a wholesale house-cleaning and whip-cracking discipline was needed. Layton delivered.”

But Layton also was seen as too traditional. Wolden wrote:

“Progressive cities now look for a police chief who can break through the old para-military concept of a police department. They want a man who can see behind the drunk tank, the riot-torn neighborhoods, and the alarming increase in overall crime. He has to know the causes of crime and what to do to get at the roots.”

Wolden said the International Association of Chiefs of Police rated a police chief by:

1. His ability to take charge in tactical situations.

2. Organization.

3. Management of people.

4. Command experience.

5. Integrity and the ability to maintain it.

6. His ability to look beyond the traditional police role.

7. Ability to communicate within the department and within the community.

8. The willingness to get involved in issues.

9. The ability to innovate.

Wolden said: “Few chiefs rate a perfect card. Layton scores well in the first five areas. He is organized and manages people well. He is experienced, honest, and able to take charge in field situations. But the modern police chief shows a higher score in the last four areas—those that deal with a new, demanding, and often frustrating urban society.”
DC Mayor Walter E. Washington is cordial to Layton, but there is no great warmth between the two men. In private meetings, insiders say Layton is relaxed and attentive; the model of perfect subordinate. He is not a “yes man” but he no longer has the freedom he enjoyed under the old commissioner form of government when he almost autonomously ran his own private empire.

The Mayor has narrowed Layton’s field of operations. The first example came shortly after the Mayor took office and involved the so-called “trigger word” order. During commission days, Layton had forbidden officers to use derogatory words with racial connotations. The words banned included wop, burrhead, chink, nigger, polack, kike, spic, and bohunk. But the word “boy” was missing from the list.

Civil rights and community leaders were outraged. They claimed “boy” was the one word most hated in the black community. Layton argued that the list was not meant to be comprehensive. Commissioner Walter Tobriner tried to change his mind. Layton refused. Tobriner finally gave up, thinking the order would have little effect if the chief was forced into it.

Mayor Washington didn’t agree. When he became mayor, he ordered a new list of forbidden trigger words. “Boy” was banned.
Layton has used his come-up-through-the-ranks training and administrative ability to mold a well-oiled department. . . .But he finds communicating difficult. He’s not a mixer, not on a social level or with protesting college students of Poor People campaigners.

During pre-inaugural demonstration plans last January, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) sought a permit to hold rallies on the Mall and to march. The permit was granted. But Layton refused to join the group of officials talking with MOBE. He asked that the permit be brought to him in another room where he signed it.

Layton finds testing new ideas and new programs difficult. He finds the changing social picture hard to understand, even harder to bend to.

His battles—behind the scenes—with former Public Safety Director Patrick Murphy are legend.

Murphy, recognized as an innovator and all-round good cop, came to the District in 1967. He tried to change attitudes, to upgrade training to cope with the tensions that explode into riots. Layton was hard to convince and often bitterly fought Murphy’s programs.

Layton didn’t like the idea of integrated scout cars; a Murphy idea to help silence the “honkey cop” calls from the ghetto street corner. Murphy didn’t look at it as a way to please Negroes, but to make the department more effective.

“It is no secret that there is fear and tension in the black community,” Murphy says. “When two white officers drive up, it can create an unfavorable impression.”

Murphy wanted to push quickly with the black-white scout car team. Layton plugged for the take-it-easy approach. After months of seesawing, Mayor Washington ordered integrated scout cars. But so far it hasn’t been fully put into effect. Layton says there aren’t enough black policemen.

The chief’s position is the scout car fight reflects the attitude of many of his men. Some white officers threatened to quit if ordered to integrate. One, who asked not to be identified, said, “Yes, I’d quit, so would a lot of my friends. We’d have nothing in common for eight hours a day. We socialize with our white partners all the time. . .ballgames, maybe have a couple of drinks on the way home. We just wouldn’t do it with a black partner.”

The officers said white cops who do integrate always worry about a chance racial slur made during an arrest or street argument. He said a bad remark causes hard feelings between a white and black team.
Most officers are loyal to Layton. When the Murphy programs came along, policemen rallied to their chief’s side. . . .The chief got some personal defending from Congressmen; Layton is not a politician. He is reserved and neither seeks nor gives favors on Capitol Hill. But the law and order types on the House District Committee hold him in high esteem—men like Chairman John McMillan (D-South Carolina); Thomas Abernathy (D-Mississippi); Joel Broyhill (R-Virginia); and John Dowdy (D-Texas) greet him warmly, almost respectfully. To them he’s a policeman’s policeman, who does and says the right things.

They seemed to think that Murphy was chipping away at Layton’s power. After the April 1967 disorders, the law and order group attempted to protect Layton. They appeared to be trying to prove that Murphy was a mistake., that Murphy’s job should be abolished and Layton be allowed to run the department.
Before he left to take a Federal post, Murphy promoted men who thought like he did. They became and are today the top policy makers within the department.

One of them is Assistant Chief Jerry V. Wilson. At 32, he became the department’s youngest captain. Today he is 41 and the head of field operations; the man who handles street disturbances and hippies and yippies and poor people and inaugurals and juvenile crime and traffic tie-ups.

Wilson has won praise from many groups. Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders admired his patience, sense of humor, coolness, understanding, and sympathetic approach to the problems of Resurrection City a year ago.
John Layton retired as D.C. police chief in July 1969, a few weeks after the Washingtonian story was published, and was succeeded by Jerry Wilson. Layton died in D.C. in 1989 at the age of 77. He was born in Washington and had joined the police force in 1936. An expert marksman, he represented the United States on the rapid-fire pistol team in the 1948 Olympic Games. He was a former president of the National Rifle Association.

Jerry Wilson resigned as D.C. police chief in 1974 and went on to work for American University as a Project Director, for Peoples Drug Stores as a Vice President in charge of Security, and for the University of Maryland as an instructor in private security.

Patrick Murphy left Washington, D.C., in 1970 to become police commissioner in Detroit, but within a year became police commissioner in New York City. In late 1973 he became president of the Police Foundation, which had received $30 million from the Ford Foundation to encourage innovations in policing. One goal was to reduce the police use of deadly force. He retired from the Police Foundation in 1985 and died in 2011 at the age of 91.

Since January 2007 the D.C. Police Department has been run by Cathy Lanier. The department is well-integrated and well-trained. But a reporter who has covered DC politics for 30 years says: “Dallas could still happen anywhere.”

Betty Wolden, writer of the 1969 Washingtonian story, was then a television news producer at WRC-TV in Washington. She went on to become news director at WDVM-TV; she was the first woman news director at a Washington television station. She died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 48 while working as general manager of WTTG-TV in Washington.


  1. Great historical article. Thanks for reprinting.

  2. David Axelrod says

    David Axelrod ‏@davidaxelrod on Twitter

    In ’73, I wrote my 1st column on police abuses in minority communities. Problem’s not new/worse. It’s just we now all are witness to it.

    That said, I’ve seen police routinely perform heroic service in every community, risking their lives for ours-as they did in Dallas.

  3. Ron Taylor says

    I was a young white officer in the 13th
    Preferred integrated scout car
    Best partners & Sgts I ever had were Black

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