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On a cold winter evening, Carl T. Rowan Jr. sits behind the wheel of his Chevy Tahoe, waiting for something shady to happen. Engine idling and headlights off, his car is stopped on a desolate stretch of North Capitol Street.
“This is it,” says Rowan, eyeballing a dingy corner store that looks like any other D.C. cigs ‘n’ booze outlet, complete with a torn wall poster advertising menthols and some deadbeats loitering around the totem of a battered pay phone. Rowan couldn’t care less about these raggedy idlers. He’s after a cop who works his own sort of night shift at the store.
Tonight’s stakeout was prompted by a tip from one of Rowan’s police sources. Every evening around closing time, a 5th District cop supposedly parks his patrol car right next to the store and helps the owners lock up for the night. He even walks them to their car. Apparently, he never misses a night lending a hand. Really friendly of him.
Playing private security patrol for store owners doesn’t figure into the job description for on-duty officers, especially since Rowan’s suspect is assigned to another district. “He’s supposed to be patrolling an area in another part of town,” says Rowan. And Rowan wants to find out if the cop is getting paid for his extracurricular patrolling. “You can work off-duty if you’ve had it approved, but you’re not supposed to be making extra money while you’re on the clock.”
A huggy-bear of a man in a black cotton sweat suit, Rowan settles into his seat for a long wait; patience is a prerequisite in his line of work. Under the dashboard, an elaborate digital scanner/transmitter flashes and bleeps, broadcasting police calls. “This was one of Dole’s motorcade cars, and it’s still got all the Secret Service stuff in it,” explains Rowan. (In fact, the high-tech gizmoa Motorola Spectrais exactly the sort of top-of the-line equipment the police department itself can’t afford.) Rowan also runs a security company, so he’s no stranger to surveillance operations. He fingers his weapon, a Canon camera with telephoto lens and low-light capability. If the cop shows up, Rowan will snap his photo to use as evidence. Maybe the cop has a perfectly reasonable explanation. Maybe not. Either way, Rowan is here to find out. “I’m not trying to be some cardboard caricature of internal affairs,” he says. “I’m looking for the bad officers who are really doing a disservice to the citythese are the folks we want to get rid of.”
After a while, it’s clear that the corner market has already closed. There’ll be no action tonight. Rowan says he had heard the owners might be away, but he wanted to check it out anyway. He’ll be back until he finds out what’s going on.
Rowan’s beat is the stinkhole of corruption known as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). A lawyer and businessman by day, Rowan spends his free time hunting down crooked cops. The problem isn’t a few bad apples but a whole orchard of rottenness, he says. All you have to do is follow the stench.
Rowan has been following the stench for 11 years, hitting the streets, penning Op-Ed pieces, attending meetings, buttonholing politicians, and even appearing on 60 Minutes. But only recentlywith the fall of MPD ex-chief Larry Soulsby and allegations of departmentwide corruptionhave District politicos sought him out for help in piecing MPD back together.
Rowan hasn’t always held a dim view of MPD. The son of columnist Carl Rowan Sr., he grew up in Washington, went to all the best schools, and became an FBI agent in 1979. “The proudest day of my life was when I graduated from the FBI Academy,” he says. As an agent, he investigated Washington-area bank robberies and on many cases worked closely with MPD officers, whom he considered “consummate pros.” The ’68 riots had spurred the feds to beef up MPD, nearly doubling its size and attracting top personnel, mostly from military bases. “The result,” wrote Rowan in a recent New Republic article, “was a police department of inspirational quality.”
That changed with the 1978 election of Marion Barry, who in his mayoral campaign condemned the police force as “an occupation army.” Barry not only reduced the force but also confined recruitment to District residentsa trademark ploy of a patronage politician. Admission standards plummeted, and soon the ranks filled up with fresh young cops who could barely write a sentence. According to Rowan, recruits with signs of mental retardation graduated from the training academy with flying colors.
“They took the police department and changed it from a career service of people dedicated to law enforcement [to] just another patronage opportunity,” says Rowan. “They’d say, ‘We don’t have any jobs open in the department of recreation, but hey, wanna be a cop?’ People who were looking for a paycheck found one at the police department.”
In the mid-’80s, several MPD officers came to Rowan with complaints that the department was collapsing. Though Rowan had moved from the FBI to private law practice, he promised he would do what he could to help. That pledge has since turned into an all-consuming hobby. He estimates that he has done more than $100,000 in pro bono lawyering for the cause. “I tried to dip my toe in the water, and I got swallowed up,” he says. “It’s been a lot more than I ever planned on doing, but it’s been necessary.”
Rowan might not have said that a couple of years ago. Prior to the recent surge of interest in MPD, city hall viewed Rowan as just another crackpot activist with too much time on his handseven though he always came up with the goods on MPD graft. While the big scandalsthe Soulsby resignation, the overtime pay scam, the pathetically low rate of solving homicide casesmake the headlines, it’s the smaller things that really rankle Rowan. He can tell you about the miscreants who have infiltrated his beloved MPD. There’s the officer who totaled a police motorboat while driving drunk on the Potomac, the captain who put the Club on the steering wheel of her patrol car over the holidays so that nobody else could use it, the cop who crashed a cruiser and ran from the scene.
But even when he came up with solid instances of police malfeasance, the allegations never made it further than D.C. Council hearing rooms and 1 Judiciary Square. When police protection faltered, the reflex response of Barry and other elected officials was to hire more officers and buy more cruisers. Meanwhile, the department crumbled from within.
Now, many of Rowan’s allegations have landed in the in boxes of the U.S. Attorney’s office, the D.C. Inspector General, and the D.C. Council, all of which are preparing top-to-bottom reviews of MPD. Rowan isn’t shy about setting priorities for the reformers: Strip MPD of its authority over promotions and discipline, “which are riddled with corruption and cronyism.” “There are 25 officials above the rank of captain in the department,” says Rowan. “But for three or four of them, they all should be fired today.” The investigators, says Rowan, should also attack a management culture that has twisted priorities to the point where vital training and recruitment officers are assigned to the street while able-bodied officers punch the clock as secretaries and time-and-attendance clerks. “It’s the most screwed-up place I’ve ever witnessed,” Rowan says.
Rowan’s experience as MPD troubleshooter has also landed him a prominent spot on the mayoral committee charged with finding a new police chief. Unlike other committee members, Rowan won’t say whether he favors going outside MPD ranks to find a new leader. “I’m looking for someone who has a record of distinction and accomplishment that the officers can look up to,” he says. “The mind-boggling thing is that it’s not that hard to fix [the department’s problems] if someone serious gets in there and starts kicking some ass.”
Rowan’s latest bombshell about the fallen MPD may prove his most effective salvo yet: In the Jan. 19 issue of the New Republic, Rowan wrote a devastating cover story, “Badge of Dishonor,” tracing MPD’s decline back more than a decade. The article highlights Rowan’s moral outrage over incidents such as the alleged “fairy-shaking” activities of Soulsby crony Jeffery Stowe, an MPD lieutenant accused of blackmailing married men who frequent gay bars. “The national media treated Soulsby’s resignation as a one-day story: the downfall of a bad cop at the top,” Rowan wrote. “The scarier truth is that the fairy-shaking scandal was just the tip of a vast iceberg of incompetence and corruption.”
The timing of Rowan’s opus, coinciding with the investigations of MPD and continued speculation about Soulsby’s wrongdoing, has positioned him at the center of debate on the department’s future. Local and national mediafrom the Washington Post to Hard Copyhave swarmed the MPD sleuth in recent weeks. “I wanted to give it that last push in a national outlet,” he says. “I wanted to have some assurance that this time there was going to be some follow-through. And we’re really starting to get some momentum now in terms of real investigations.”
For unheralded MPD cops, it’s no surprise that Rowan has been instrumental in bringing reform. “He’s certainly been the watchdog,” says a high-ranking MPD official who requested anonymity. “Early on, he recognized some serious integrity problems with the police department, and he raised them, and he was ignored. He raised them again, and he was ignored, but he stuck with it. As a result of his efforts, they’re finally having to deal with these issues.”
Low-ranking officers trying to do their jobs feel a kinship with Rowan because no one else has documented the transgressions of the department brassleast of all Internal Affairs, the division entrusted with dousing corruption at its source. “The rank and file appreciate what he’s done,” says an officer who has called Rowan for help on several occasions. “He’s been the only one to monitor the misconduct of the hierarchy of the department. They’re basically immune from any discipline, so he’s the only answer we have.”
But one hyperactivist can only impose so much change on a department with 3,653 officers. Even today, says Rowan, the police academy is churning out trainees who would qualify as officers only in D.C. Presently, the only education a prospective MPD officer needs is a high-school diploma or a GED. Background checks continue to be ignored or forgotten altogether. “I know of officers who have committed felonies ranging from theft to rape who’ve had their cases just brushed under the rug,” he says. “There are people hired this past year with criminal convictions who are on the streets right now.”
Rowan blames the control board as much as Barry for MPD’s malaise. After all, the board hired Soulsby, whom Rowan disparages as the least qualified person to be police chief. He says the only way to really start cleaning up the department is to get a slew of criminal convictions out of the upcoming investigations, as much for the message it would send as for the actual punishment meted out. Otherwise, hard-working officers will continue to desert the sinking ship. “That’s the real tragedy,” he says, “that there are a lot of good officers, but they’re surrounded by nitwits, some of whom ought to be in jail.”CP