Don Graham: Looking back at my life in the DC Police Department and how I saw it change.

Four Stories About How Police Departments Changed —Part 1

It’s time to think about how to reform police departments.

I was once a DC police officer — but it was a long time ago (I resigned from the department exactly 50 years ago this month). I haven’t thought my memories had much relevance today. But as people talk about changing police departments, I realize that I saw very dramatic changes happen — four different times. Twice I saw Washington’s police force make very sharp policy changes under excellent leaders, in each case addressing issues that had come to have great importance in the DC community. Once I saw a community activist propel dramatic changes — immediately. Once, I even saw important police policies change nationally. I hope to write four different posts about these moments.

I’d start with this: nothing’s harder than understanding what is happening inside a large organization when you don’t work there. But those who care will have to work on this in their home cities and counties. It will be harder because of the dramatic decline in local reporting by newspapers. You have to know if a chief is serious about reform and if the chief’s boss — mayor, county executive or whoever — is backing the chief up.

I joined the DC police in January, 1969. DC had been through a terrible riot nine months earlier, starting the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. 13 people died and fires destroyed block after block on 14th Street NW, 7th Street NW, and H Street NE (in my precinct). You could still see vacant lots on those streets 40 years after the riots.

DC police made their relations with the community even worse in a series of incidents in the months afterward. A citizen was shot in a dispute with police that began over a jaywalking ticket. An older woman’s family called police when, suffering from mental illness, she was waving a knife on her front porch. Police wound up shooting her. There were other incidents; what they had in common was what appeared to be police misuse of force, especially their guns.

A few weeks after I joined the DC police department, Mayor Walter Washington made a dramatic change, appointing the best-known police reformer in the US, Patrick Murphy, as director of public safety. Murphy replaced DC’s longtime police chief and hit a grand slam home run with his selection of a new one: Jerry V. Wilson, a longtime member of the DC force, but an original thinker.

I never met Chief Wilson when I was an officer (I did later as a newspaper reporter). But I felt his influence when I was still in the police academy. Here’s how:

Our class schedule in the 16-week program was carefully set. But one day, a sergeant who was one of our instructors informed us that we’d have a new class that day, and every week thereafter: the instructor would read us the police “general order” explaining when police were permitted to use “deadly force” — your pistol. After that, we would ask questions and discuss the answers. In our class on general orders, we had already read the order on use of your weapon (not an automatic pistol in those days — a .38 special). Now we’d read it again. And, by the way, the instructor said: the same thing was being done in every roll call room across the city. Every police officer (at least those on patrol), was reading and talking about the limits on police use of firearms.

By the second week, even a trainee got the message: if you shot someone and you did it in a way that conformed to the order (basically, when your life or someone else’s was at stake) the department would back you up. My impression was that if you shot at somebody without following that order, they would throw the book at you.

One more piece of context: everyone had seen another police department in action: the previous summer, 1968, the Democratic Convention had taken place in Chicago. The Convention would nominate Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey for President; outside the Convention, anti-Vietnam War protestors staged huge nightly demonstrations — and police waded into the crowds swinging batons at anyone in their path. On one night, protestors were clubbed over and over again — on national television. A commission chaired by a police veteran from Los Angeles called it a “police riot.” But it was clear that Mayor Richard J. Daley and local authorities were backing the police. If they went beyond their authority, no one was throwing the book at them — or even slapping them on the wrist.

Chief Wilson was making it clear to his officers that he’d have a different standard.

My old man’s memory is undoubtedly faulty. But it seemed to me that one kind of police misconduct — the quick resort to guns that had triggered aftershocks from the riot — all but ceased.

Chief Wilson wasn’t done. He used a rare opportunity to transform the face of the Metropolitan Police Department. I joined a department that was 18% black. Less than two years later, it was over 40% black. Two Presidents, Johnson and Nixon, had each added 1,000 officers to the strength of the MPD (they didn’t want to be blamed for increasing crime in a city where they, not an elected mayor, then governed). Chief Wilson, wanting to hire the maximum number of African-American officers, hired Jim Murray, the best personnel manager in the DC government. Murray, assisted by a police official named Maurice Turner (later the chief) recruited at black colleges, among military veterans and wherever able people who wanted to be police could be found. There would be other dramatic changes in the settled ways of the DC police.

But it seemed to me that the most dramatic change of all flowed from the repeated reading of that general order and its implicit message: if you must shoot, do it by the book. Or else.
Four Stories About How Police Departments Changed — Part 2

As I wrote in my first post on police reform, my police experience is long out of date, but I did see four occasions when police departments changed dramatically. In the other three cases, it was only the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington DC that changed. In the case I am now writing about, it was almost every department in the US.

It’s hard to convey how monumental the change I’m describing seemed at the time. Today it seems obvious and easy. It was not.

I joined an all-male patrol force in 1969. The Washington DC department, like almost all others, confined patrol work to men.

The department was also recruiting heavily, trying to fill hundreds of vacant jobs. But the Vietnam War was at its peak and the draft was sweeping up many young men. By 1972, DC Police Chief Jerry Wilson had an idea: put women into patrol work, driving scout cars, responding to radio calls, doing the same work male officers were doing. I think one of his motives was: hiring women would make it easier to turn down male applicants whose qualifications were marginal.

You could say that not all the department’s top officials were enthusiastic about the proposed change..

Neither were the few women officers in the department. They were almost all assigned to the youth division. They were college graduates (the men were only required to have a high-school diploma). They didn’t wear a uniform. And (perhaps most important) they didn’t have to work the midnight-to-8 am shift. At that time, patrol officers changed shifts every two weeks.

Chief Wilson wanted to put 100 women into uniform and on patrol. He asked the highest-ranking woman in the department to supervise the project. She declined — she didn’t think women should be on patrol. So did the second-highest-ranking. And so on.

Working his way down from the highest-ranking women, Chief Wilson presented the idea to Private Mary Ellen Abrecht, a Mount Holyoke graduate, who’d gone through the Police Academy just ahead of me in early 1969. Mary Ellen took it on.

It wasn’t a straight path. The first uniforms issued to women patrol officers had skirts (the optional slacks had no pockets), purses and black pumps. There was no belt to hold things like handcuffs.

Mary Ellen reported that an officer with a woman partner was told in one district to acknowledge a dispatcher’s call with “10–4W,” meaning that he had a woman in the car. One district commander asked dispatchers not to give his women officers difficult runs (“burglary in progress,” say).

Private Abrecht had to get Chief Wilson to issue a 19-point memo laying out the obvious: women on patrol were to be given the same duties as men, period.

Mary Ellen’s excellent 1976 book, The Making of a Woman Cop, spells out the story.

DC’s success in putting women on patrol wasn’t unique (several histories refer to Indianapolis’ police putting two women in a scout car in 1968). But DC’s visibility (and the passage of the 1972 civil rights act) made it hard for other departments to ignore. I believe Chief Wilson had a foundation evaluate the results of putting women on patrol and that this helped make up the minds of any departments inclined to resist. Acknowledging that many chiefs and many departments were inclined to resist putting women on patrol, Chief Wilson wrote in his 1975 book, Police Report: “A reasonable assumption is that by the time this book is in print, use of women in all phases of police work will be almost universally accepted.” And it was.

Advocates of change in today’s police departments might want to think about how women came to be accepted as patrol officers everywhere. I would guess that 100% of departments were resistant to the change. It took the example of one department (there may well have been others at the same time) and advocacy by women’s groups and public officials to make it happen. It helped to have clarity about the change being called for.

I’m no expert on policing and welcome the comments of those who are. I would say that allowing women to perform all aspects of police work made policing better, nationwide. Having 100% of the population eligible to apply should have allowed departments to hire better officers. And, a large percentage of calls for police service come from women.

In 1990, a young woman named Cathy Lanier applied to the DC Police; in 2007, she became an outstanding chief, serving for 9 years. She now is head of security for the NFL — good luck to Chief Lanier this fall.

Mary Ellen Abrecht, who was going to law school while she worked on the women-on-patrol project, left the police department in 1975 and became an assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington. She prosecuted cases for 15 years before being appointed a judge of the DC Superior Court in 1990. She died in 2018.

Her husband Gary, a star in her book (before her first night as a patrol sergeant, he gave her a whistle, flashlight and extra bullets), had the longer police career. A Yale graduate, he stayed with the DC police for decades, rising to the rank of deputy chief before becoming Chief of the US Capitol Police. He is now retired.

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