“How I Saw the DC Police Department When I Was a Rookie Cop and Wrote About It”

In July 1969, a few weeks after the Washingtonian published a story about John Layton, chief of police in Washington, D.C., Layton resigned. Replacing Layton was Jerry V. Wilson, thought to be less rigid and more able to help police deal with residents of the nation’s capital, then three-quarters African-American.

Two years later, the Washingtonian published another story about the DC police. It was written by Robert Scott Keller, who had been a DC policeman for a year; it’s a window into racial tensions and attitudes, the sometimes dangerous and brutal sides of police work, and the fears and insecurities that go with being a cop. Here’s how the magazine introduced Keller in an editor’s note:

“Keller is a 1967 Harvard graduate who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia for two years and taught at the District’s Morgan Community School before joining the police force in January 1970. His article, which vividly portrays the tensions and frustrations of a patrolman’s life, will be expanded into a book.”

Here’s the headline, deck, and start of Keller’s story in the April 1971 Washingtonian with excerpts from the 14,000 word article:

“Keller, You Ain’t No Cherry No More”

A year in the life of Officer Robert Scott Keller, Badge Number 3202. Keller joined the Metropolitan Police Department on January 5, 1970. At the Police Academy, he won the academic trophy and was “high expert” in pistol qualification. He then was assigned to the 14th Street area as a patrolman and scout car officer.

“Now some of you recruits have watched so much television that you think we are going to teach you a lot of arm throws and trick moves that will let you disarm any man with a knife no matter how tough he is. Forget all that television bullshit.

“We are going to give you self-defense, worked out through the years of real experience, that will enable you to survive any knife fight.

“The key word is survive.”
—–
We begin to crave any break in the awful monotony of class. . . .What we really point toward is our week of OJT: On the Job Training. We will be detailed to a precinct where we will ride for five days in the car of “a real professional.”. . .

Up from the locker room saunters an officer named Caldwell with his hat sunk into the back of an amazing Afrobush. “Keller, Keller, Keller,” he shouts. “Keller, my man, where are you?”

“Here I am,” I say.

“Hey, he calls out to three other black officers. I got me a cherry to pop!” That’s me. He laughs. “Come on, boy, let’s us go find ourselves somebody to lock up.”

Ours is the only scout car left in the lot. He switches on the radio, punches the siren, flips the dome light on for a second, and we shoot out of the station. . . .

“Have you been in one of these things before?” he asks. I shake my head. “Well, my man, here’s what I’m going to ask you to do.” He hands me the clipboard. “When the run comes, you write them down on this. You put the time that you get the run, then where it is, then what it is. The radio codes are ten-four, acknowledgment of message; ten-seven, out of service; ten-eight, back in service; and signal thirteen, that’s policeman in trouble—that’s when we’ll be hauling some ass. Got it?”
—–
“Not too far from here is where they dump all the stolen cars, Caldwell says. “We’ll cruise that area.”

We drive about ten blocks and then cruise slowly. Parallel parking obscures the plates on a car. “Maroon Mustang with D.C. tag 764 504” I say to myself, and suddenly I am looking right at a stolen car. It is parked on the top of a little hill.

We stop in the middle of the street, get out laughing, and suddenly two shadowy figures burst from the other side of the car. I find myself sprinting after a little kid. We go down the hill, back and forth between cars. “Yeah, come on, beat the po-lice,” people shout. We cross a street into an open field and then onto another street where one car is parked. He circles around it, with me right behind him. After twice around, I say, “I can keep this up just as long as you can.” He stops. I have him in my hand. . .my first lawbreaker. He can’t be more than nine.

Under the stares of people on the street, we march back up to the scout car and get in. No Caldwell. I don’t know how to do a thing but sit here and wait for him. A crowd starts to gather, mostly young kids. The boy’s teenage sister appears. “I’m going to get my brother! I’m going to call my father! Lockin’ up a nine-year-old boy. For what? You can’t do that, po-lice” I tell her I wish she would go call her father because her brother is in trouble.

Finally, Caldwell returns from between two dark houses, empty-handed. “Lost him up on that hill,” he says, still out of breath. He sits down in the car with a sigh and calls for a transport vehicle. “You’re in a heap of trouble, son,” he said. The kid seems to know it. He just sits big-eyed in the back.

The transport vehicle, a cage-car, appears, along with a sergeant’s cruiser. “You’d better all clear out of here quick,” the sergeant says quietly. “This is a bad area.” The crowd, larger now, yells in disbelief when the boy is put into the cage. . . .

From there we go to the station where our junior criminal is sitting flanked by two transport officers. We begin to question him. He had been coming from someone’s house, he says, when a boy he only knew as Jimmy called him over to the car. Jimmy had told him the car was stolen, and just then the police car came along and stopped. A pretty good story.

We call the kid’s parents and then sit down to wait. Officers go in and out and they usually inquire why we have the kid there. “What the hell you got him in here for, Caldwell?” asks one big black officer. “Don’t you know?” says Caldwell. “This man’s a big-time thief. He went and stole a car, he did.”

“All by hisself?” asks the big officer. The kid’s eyes go back and forth between them. They both look at him, “Naw,” says Caldwell. “His buddy helped him out, but he won’t talk.”

“Won’t talk?” The black officer advances slowly toward the kid. “Won’t talk?” He reaches down with both hands, takes the kid by the shirt, and slowly starts to lift. “You won’t talk? You won’t tell me what we want to know. Do you want to go down in the cell block with me?” Do you want to know what I do down in the cell block?”

By this time the kid’s face is about six inches from the officer’s. His feet are three feet off the floor. The officer laughs, drops the kid back the chair. I can see tears in the kid’s eyes, but he sits quiet and straight once more, big-eyed. “He’ll probably never, ever forget that one,” I think.

Finally the kid’s father appears, a rough laborer and contrite. “He’s not a bad boy at all,” says the father. “I tell him to stay away from those bad boys in the neighborhood but what can you do? I mean, he’s got to play outside. But you better believe he’s going to get a whippin’ for this, you better believe it.”

Father and son leave. It took three hours. “Shit, man,” says Caldwell, “we got to find somebody to lock up now, some meat.”
—–
The next day I slip onto a bench in the roll-call room. Toward the end, the lieutenant comes in, and when we all fall in for inspection, he stands to speak. He has a blond crew-cut.

“Men,” he says, “I don’t expect you to be punching bags out there. Nobody says you got to take a lot of shit out there. I want you to stand for something. I saw an officer the other day, he was walking down the street, and four or five dudes were coming down the sidewalk, and this officer stepped off into the street to let them by! I don’t want to see any of that kind of shit! They can step off into the street for you!

“And down in the substation last night an officer asked a driver for his permit. The driver dropped the permit on the ground, and the officer bent over to pick it up for him. And the driver stepped on his hand! That citizen would have my foot halfway up his ass and I expect the same from you!”
—–
Caldwell and I race around the Sixth District and take some minor assignments—two dog bites, a stolen TV, a mattress on fire atop a car in the middle of an intersection. As we ride I try to learn the trick of keeping your mind on the radio, the street, and your partner’s conversation all at the same time. Caldwell will be right in the middle of an anecdote and he’ll pause, hold up his hand, grab the mike, and say, “Scout thirty-eight is ten-four.” He could do it all easily—talk, watch, listen, and drive like a madman, all at once.

At ten o’clock, we get a run for an assault. It is a narrow little street with a few people milling excitedly in the middle of the block. A thin woman with set jaw and folded arms comes up to us. “See what he done did,” she says. “Stabbed me right in my leg with the screwdriver.”

“Do you want to prosecute?” asks Caldwell.

“I sure do.”

“Then honey, he’s locked up. Just show us where he is.”

“He’s right up there,” she says. “He done locked me out of my own house.”

It is a second story apartment with a ground level entrance. The door is flimsy but locked. Caldwell bangs on it. ‘He’s up there, he’s just pretending he don’t hear you.”. . .

We go around back. A spindly iron stairway goes up to the second floor, but the man had tied his dog to the bottom of it, and his dog doesn’t like us. Caldwell baits the dog from the side until it jumps at him, and I hustle up the stairs. I stand outside up door. It has four glass panels in it. The door is secured by only a hook and eye on the inside, but I could break in.

“The door’s only got a hook and eye on it,” I call softly to Caldwell. “It wouldn’t be hard to break.”

“Go ahead then,” calls Caldwell laughing. “Break it in.”

I look down the hallway. It is the first time as a policeman I have felt fear. Suppose this guy is really crazy, and after I break the door in and start up that hallway, he appears at the end with a shotgun? I have no chance at all. “No thanks,” I call back down. “You can come up and break it in if you want to.” Caldwell doesn’t seem upset.

In a short time, the woman comes up with the key, and I see her and Caldwell appear at the end of the corridor. He lets me in, and we look through the house. In the living room is the guy, lying on the sofa.
—–
The policeman’s job in the scout car is a combination of two kinds of activities. When it is busy, you are responding to calls, one after another.

When the calls tail off, I patrol. I know what I am supposed to do. This is when a policeman actually makes his cases. . .few arrests come from radio calls. This is when I’m supposed to start making traffic stops, spot checks, looking for “No D.C permit, the CDW-gun, Harrison Narcotics Act, Possession of Implements of a Crime.” This is when I’m supposed to be nosey (“A good policeman is just naturally nosey”) and when I’m supposed to stop the man in the alley (“In the alley you’re fair game”) and say, “What have you got in the bag there? Let me look in your bag.”

“If they refuse to let me look in their bag,” says one officer, “I consider that as probable cause they’re hiding something.”

I don’t do this, and this is why I get the label of “social worker.” If you like the first part of the job, responding to calls, and not the second, patrolling, you’re a social worker.

Riding in a car is the reward for being good. Not that it is particularly easier, just that walking is one of the most boring jobs imaginable. It is just that…walking. Nothing ever happens and no one will talk to you except for some paranoid store owners, and they quickly get boring.
—–
The job requires social skills—difficult ones. For understanding people’s motives, not being conned, the policeman substitutes disbelief of everyone. Faced with the necessity of being decisive, the officer abandons hope of finding the correct path in a difficult situation. He takes a solution, powers it through. He is resistant to any input after a very short initial period. It is too threatening, the situations are too complicated. . . .

It makes the policeman’s job easier for the threat of violence to be there. That’s why it’s tolerated. . . .

Since I won’t crack skulls, I must study the tough policeman’s attitude and duplicate it thoroughly. The cues are given on a deep, almost involuntary level.

What happens when the force is filled with men who won’t beat heads? It’ll make the job harder.
—–
I am riding with Hubbard, perhaps the prototype of the threatened, insecure officer. He’s black—they come in both colors.

Hubbard’s problem is to convince me he’s great, and this he mostly does by saying such things as, “There’s nobody around who knows this area better than I do.” He talks incessantly, never risking a question or comment by me.

We cruise Fourteenth Street. “Let’s check some of the new ones out,” he says. Up from under the seat he pulls a little metal box. Inside are three by five cards. “Best file of names on the force,” he says.

We pull to the curb beside one prostitute after another, and since I am on the curb side, Hubbard says, “ Call that young lady over here.”

“Ma’am,” I say, “Will you step over here for a minute?”

“I haven’t seen you out here before,” says Hubbard. “What’s your name?”

“Lucy Smith,” says the girl, bending down to the window.

“Lucy Smith. . .and where do you live, Lucy?”

“Ten-twenty-five Twelfth Street, Southeast, Apartment One-O-One.”

“All right, Lucy, maybe some of the other girls out here have already told you about me…”

Lucy shakes her head.

“I want to tell you what my rules are out here. Number one: When I call you over to the car, you come. If you don’t, you’re locked up. Two: When I ask you a question, you answer, and you tell me the truth. If you don’t, you’re locked up. Three: If I decide I’ve seen you around too much and I tell you to get off the corner, you do it or you’re locked up. Other than that, your business is your own. You can carry out your business any way you please out there. Understand?”

Lucy nods. “You can go.” She goes.
——
I am in the station the night it finally happens with the Panthers. . .July Fourth, 1970.

It is a wild night anyway. . .it seems every black kid has found a firecracker.

A group of Panthers stand on the sidewalk singing. A substation car goes by, makes a U-turn, goes by again slowly, makes a U-turn, pulls up and stops. They are going to make an arrest for “disorderly.” Words, shoves, batons.

A general signal thirteen is eventually put out, and all cars in the district respond. Then there is silence.

It’s about ten minutes before the first wagonload comes in. Hall, a little white officer driving the wagon, bursts in through the side door. He is ecstatic. “Get ready, get ready,” he says. “I’m bringing them in.”

“Oh god,” I think. The back is open, and one Panther after another is brought in from the truck. Their hands are handcuffed behind their backs, most have no shirts. . .sweat streams down their dark bodies. Their faces are grim, silent. Hall takes them, shoves them, trips them, grabs a handful of their sides and twists. They are silent.

“You should have seen it!” says Hall. “You should have seen it! Lieutenants, captains, everybody up there, all beatin’ heads! Lieutenant Carew was there, even old Captain Bagley! Wow!”

Soon an angry crowd of blacks paces the sidewalk outside the precinct. The doors are locked. From nowhere a collection of white policemen appear, some with riot helmets, some with long riot batons. The officer next to me slaps his baton in his hand over and over, “Let’s go,” he says. “Let’s clear them out.”

I stand outside for a while. Bottles shatter again the building; the white officers stand in as testy line. Three black policemen stand back in the driveway to the back courtyard. . .one is a sergeant. They stand silently together with a faintly troubled look.

That is it. Everyone is made to write about the incident, and the station bands together over the next few days. Lieutenants walk with patrolmen, everyone agrees on the story and passes it around.
—————
In November, Keller was called to appear before a Sergeants Board at police headquarters to explain the unsatisfactory ratings he had received from his precinct officials.

Keller told the board: “I have always, and I feel no embarrassment in saying this, merely followed the Fourth Amendment [unreasonable searches and seizures] on the street, and when you do so, you will not make a lot of cases. The precinct officials want you to make a lot of cases, and I found I would have to break the Constitution to do so. The precinct officials rated me unsatisfactory.”

Keller was asked why he wrote so few traffic tickets, how many misdemeanors he made.

“I would never pass up a legitimate case,” Keller said, “and that’s all there were. I found that to make more cases you would have to start searching the man in the alley, making many, many more routine traffic stops, violating the Fourth Amendment.

“I know you,” one of the sergeants said, “you’re just looking for that perfect case. I was the same way when I was first out there. But if you want to make your cases, you can’t do that, you’ve got to get out there and push.”
—–
On December 10 Keller was handed a paper that said:

Dear Officer Keller:

I regret to inform you that it has been decided to terminate your probationary appointment as a Police Officer with the Metropolitan Police Department effective December 28, 1970.

A police captain then told him, “You know how to beat this thing, don’t you? Resign. Go down and talk to someone in the personnel department; they’ll take care of it for you.”

Keller decided not to resign. Another police officer warned him that getting fired “can follow a man all his life.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” Keller said. “I kind of like it like this. Some places I go, this might be a recommendation, the things the department says about me.”

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