There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A burly Larry D. Soulsby, dressed in formal uniform, lumbers through the crowd of protesters outside 1 Judiciary Square on Oct. 10. The group of District residentsmembers of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN)have a single message: “Soulsby must go!” A wince quick-steps across Soulsby’s face as he makes his way in to testify before the D.C. Council’s committee on the judiciary. “If I believed everything I read and heard, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be out front saying Soulsby’s got to go,” the chief said, once he had stepped into the hearing.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Soulsby finally joined the chorus. Flanked by city and control board officials, Soulsby officially resigned, saying, “I do not do this because I have done anything wrong, but because we have to move forward.” That’s vintage Soulsby, spinning to the very end. He did not, of course, mention that one of his closest allies in the department had been arrested that very day for extortion and embezzlement.
WUSA-TV (Channel 9) had recently revealed that Soulsby has been living with Lt. Jeffrey Stowe and paying cash for below-market rents in the Lansburgh luxury apartment building. Stowe reportedly obtained the apartment for one-third of its typical cost by telling management that it would be used as a base for undercover operations. Instead, the apartment has become a target of investigation itself. Last month, the FBI seized files and financial records from Stowe after allegations of fraud and extortion involving police informant funds
When stung by allegations of impropriety, Soulsby’s standard response has been to deny all wrongdoing and pass the blame to others. The apartment scam is no different: Soulsby claims that details surrounding the Lansburgh apartment were handled by Stowe and that he had no idea that one of his closest friends in the department was under suspicion for mishandling funds. “I’m amazed at the controversy,” Soulsby told the Washington Post. “I have done nothing improper or illegal.”
But this is one police mess Soulsby couldn’t possibly distance himself from, which may be why he didn’t pass the buck this time. Last year, Soulsby received a $2,500 set of golf clubs from Stowe, the head of the department’s special investigations division. Longtime members of the department say Soulsby constantly favored Stowe and even insisted that he replace one of the officers designated to travel to a police function in Florida earlier this year. Confronted with evidence that his relationship with Stowe may have crossed the line, Soulsby for once couldn’t spin his way out of a jam. Damage control is a practiced art for Soulsby, who is known among the ranks as “Lyin’ Larry.” And it began long before he became chief.
Soulsby’s tendency to deny, obfuscate, and bullshit are right there in his résumé. And we do mean right there. On his résumé, a copy of which was obtained by Washington City Paper, Soulsby claims to have received an associate arts degree with a major in mathematics from Beckley College, now called the College of West Virginia. But the school’s registrar says Soulsby attended for two years and never received any degree.
The chief also says he attended and played football at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va. He did go there for one semesterin the fall of 1970but athletics department officials say there wasn’t a Larry D. Soulsby on their roster.
Soulsby exhibited the same penchant for revising history in his 2-year term as police chief. A 24-year-veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), Soulsby has expressed a mix of surprise and outrage over the spate of recent MPD fiascoes. But when the homicide team’s closure rates tanked, he was there. When overtime hours on the same unit spun out of control, he was there. When a Justice Department report provided leads for 139 cold cases in homicide, he was there. And when a murder investigation of one of the mayor’s aides was waylaid, he was there as well.
In his defense, Soulsby is fond of noting that homicides have fallen 23 percent and overall crime is down 18 percent this year. Even if those figures are accurate, the public regards them skeptically as long as they come from Soulsby’s lips.
“I don’t see the department rising out of the ashes. The department’s crumbling under his leadership,” says At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil.
“It has reached the point where he may lack credibility to lead. It’s a cumulative effect; it’s not any one incident,” says William Lightfoot, who retired last year from the D.C. Council, where he served as chairman of the committee overseeing the police department.
Responding to the news of Soulsby’s resignation, Brazil says it was “inevitable.”
“Soulsby was a likable personhe just didn’t have the managerial skills for that job,” says Brazil. “I don’t blame Soulsby, I blame [financial control board vice chairman Stephen] Harlan, who propped him up.”
“We ought to start looking for a new chief,” continues Lightfoot. “Soulsby is symbolic of an old era.”
Climbing to the top of a big-city police department is never a tidy undertaking. Ambitious chiefs-in-waiting invariably cut deals and make accommodations that stretch ethical and legal standards. Soulsby’s ascent, however, set a new standard for shamelessness.
When Soulsby was nominated as chief in 1995, he knew he had strong backing from Mayor Marion Barry and the D.C. Council. After all, he had always been a pliant and likable guy, and high performance evaluations moved him steadily up MPD’s ranks. However, Soulsby knew that the words of one man, homicide Capt. William L. Hennessy, could derail his confirmation by the council. So Soulsby reached a compact with Hennessy, the dimensions of which have never been fully explored.
A seemingly routine piece of D.C. criminality became part of the background drama in Soulsby’s drive to become chief. Four months before Soulsby was selected interim police chief, Carlton “Zack” Bryant, a small-time gangster, was kidnapped, and his captors set ransom at $50,000. Bryant’s family, without notifying the police, forked over the money, but Bryant was found dead three days later. Police suspected he had died from a combination of a heart attack and a beating he had received at the hands of his kidnappers. Police say Bryant’s family never cooperated in the investigation.
In June 1995, an informant came to Hennessy, who was in charge of the homicide branch at the time. The informant’s credentials were solidhe had helped Hennessy solve a half-dozen homicides and 20 serious felonies. The informant alleged that Rhozier “Roach” Brown, an aide to the mayor and a convicted killer, was the kidnapper and murderer, according to sources close to the investigation. (Brown has never been charged in the case, nor are there any indications that charges are forthcoming). Hennessy wrote a memorandum to the file memorializing the interview, and the informant repeated his information to the detective handling the case. In August, Hennessy presented the case in a meeting of homicide detectives. Ten days later, Hennessy received a telephone call from the mayor’s office telling him he was being transferred.
Hennessy was dumbfounded. His division was being heralded as a model for other police departments, with a closure rate of 55 percent. He was clearly being blown out by forces beyond his control.
Roach Brown played a strategic role in the mayor’s return to office. An ex-con himself, Brown almost single-handedly shepherded Barry’s constituency of ex-convicts to the polls on Election Day. Brown was known as a mayoral confidant, which made his appearance as a suspect in a murder investigation a potential scandal for the new Barry administration.
When Hennessy ran into Ron Linton, head of the police volunteers and a businessman who had close ties to the mayor, he learned how closely Barry was following the case. “The mayor wants you gone,” Linton reportedly told Hennessy in September 1995. (Last month, when asked about the exchange, Linton hedged, saying only that if he had had a conversation with Hennessy, it was long before the captain’s troubles with the chief became public.)
Obviously worried, Hennessy went to Soulsby to ask if he indeed intended to transfer him. Then-interim chief Soulsby said he wasn’t contemplating such a move. Meanwhile, the investigation surrounding the Bryant murder/kidnapping continued, as information on Brown was added to the file with Hennessy’s assent. And just days before the mayor decided to permanently appoint Soulsby, Hennessy received notification of his pending transfer to a job as an instructor at the police academy. He blew up. Soulsby had lied to him.
Soulsby, according to police sources, had worked hard to land the nomination. He leaked to the press information about his competitors, even suggesting at one point that Hennessy was under investigation by a grand jury. In the meantime, he tried to diffuse Hennessy’s potential counterattack. The two decided to enter into an agreement, which was prepared by a city lawyer detailed to the police department. Hennessy agreed not to testify against Soulsby at his confirmation hearing before the council, and Soulsby agreed not to transfer Hennessy further. Soulsby also agreed that the captain could attend law school while on the job and be paid for the hours he was away.
“It was much like the kind of settlement agreement you might see in a lawsuit surrounding employment discrimination,” says Lightfoot. “We [eventually] released the agreement and criticized Soulsby for bad judgment. We criticized the lawyers who drafted the agreement.”
Four months after the confirmation hearing, Channel 9 aired a report indicating that Hennessy had secretly taped a conversation between himself and the chief. The recording was garbled, but at least one allegation was audible: Hennessy accused Soulsby of blowing the Bryant investigation and protecting Brown, perhaps at the request of the mayor. In fact, since Hennessy’s transfer from homicide, the Bryant murder case has gone unattended. Information on Brown slowly began to disappear, according to police sources. In its place was material on Roland “Roach” Henry, another criminal who was serving time at Lorton.
Someone was toying with the notion of mistaken identity. In an interview with the Post’s Courtland Milloy, Brown vehemently denied having anything to do with Bryant’s death. “He was like family to me,” Brown said, adding that he and Henry were often misidentified. But Hennessy’s informant wasn’t confused. He knew both Roaches. “It’s Roach who works for the mayor,” he told the detective on the case.
Besides, Henry had cancer and was allegedly in the hospital at the time Bryant was kidnapped. He died eight days after Bryant’s kidnapping. It seemed highly suspect that a dying prisoner would order the death of some gangster. Still, Henry’s death certificate was placed in the Bryant file, essentially closing the case, according to a source close to the investigation.
“The police department failed to follow through on solid investigative leads pointing to Brown,” says Carl Rowan Jr., a longtime critic of the department. Rowan says he brought the Brown incident to Lightfoot’s attention two years ago and says that the councilmember called the ex-con “too dangerous.”
“Lightfoot acted as Larry Soulsby’s shield for months and months,” adds Rowan. He says he told the same story to the control board’s Harlan and to Booz Allen, the consulting firm that was brought in to shore up the department.
“Nothing was done. They totally blew it off,” adds Rowan.
Lightfoot confirms that Rowan told him about the Brown case. But he says the chief explained that it was a case of mistaken identity, and Lightfoot left it at that. Councilmember Jack Evans, current head of the committee on the judiciaryand a strong defender of Soulsby until the Stowe allegations brokesays that on Oct. 14, 1997, he sent a letter to Mary Lou Leary of the U.S. Attorney’s office requesting an investigation of the allegations. “Either Carl Rowan is right or he’s wrong. If he’s right, then the chief has a lot of explaining to do. And if he’s wrong, well then, Carl Rowan can’t go around saying things like that.”
(On Nov. 7, Evans wrote another letter to the U.S. Attorney’s office asking for a status report and hadn’t received a reply by Nov. 17. Evans also wrote the chief on Nov. 6 asking, among other things, the status of the department’s homicide investigation of the 1995 murder of Zack Bryant. Soulsby didn’t reply.)
Around the time of Soulsby’s confirmation hearings, two white 4th District officers shot a black teenager on Missouri Avenue NW in Ward 4. The shooting heightened tensions in a neighborhood already rife with racial mistrust. Hispanics and blacks had been complaining for years about their treatment at the hands of both black and white 4th District officers.
The mistrust deepened after MPD sources reported that a group of white officers at a party had started a betting pool, allegedly wagering which officer would be the first to shoot a black person. Less than two weeks later, two officers from the party shot a black kid who had a
An investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office ensued. Sources say Hennessy complied with a directive to assign a black detective to work on the case because of its racial implications. The investigation ruled that it had been a good shoot.
But Soulsby used the case to further smear Hennessy, telling Lightfoot and members of the police Citizens Advisory Committee that the captain had sought to cover up the actions of the white officers. Hennessy vehemently denies the allegation. But Soulsby reportedly told Lightfoot that if word ever got out about the incident, there would be hell to pay. That was the reason Soulsby gave the councilmember for transferring Hennessy. Lightfoot bought the story.
Soulsby’s involvement in MPD scandals was predictable. Before the control board took overand, many would say, since then as wellthe department was one of the most political in the nation. Soulsby, a white cop in a department that is staffed by a vast majority of black officers, would never have gotten the nod from Barry if the mayor hadn’t believed he could control the affable captain from West Virginia.
Barry’s history with the police is a conflicted one to say the least. In his first three terms in office, Barry used his MPD security detail to cover for him in countless ways. The pattern continued even after the mayor’s much publicized return to 1 Judiciary Square.
Detective Ulysses Walltower had proved his loyalty to Barry over and over. A member of the mayoral security detail since 1984, Walltower protected the mayor through his drug-crazed, womanizing binges in the 1980s. When Barry returned in 1995, Walltower was reassigned to guard the mayor, his wife, and his son. But then the Post broke a story suggesting that Cora Barry had laundered campaign funds through a housekeeper, Barbara Mouring. Mouring had told the Post as much. Walltoweralong with Korean businessman Yong Yunallegedly strong-armed Mouring, hoping to get her to recant her statement. Unfortunately for them, they did so right in front of a Post reporter. When news of the tactics broke, then-Police Chief Fred Thomas pulled Walltower from the security detail; the detective went on leave for several months.
When Soulsby was appointed interim police chief, Walltower returned to work and was assigned to create an operations manual for the mayoral security force. But the mayor wanted his police aide-de-camp back. At the request of his newfound benefactor, Soulsby put Walltower back on the security detail.
When the story broke, the public demanded an explanation. Soulsby’s response, in testimony before a council committee, was simple: “The mayor wanted him returned to the detail.” Under pressure from the council, Barry wrote a memorandum asking the chief to reassign Walltower. Soulsby promptly sent Walltower to the gang unit, headed by Lt. Lowell Duckett. No shrinking violet, Duckett immediately called the chief to say that Walltower might taint the unit’s credibility. According to Duckett, the chief told him to cool out and just keep the controversial Walltower out of the way but on the payroll.
Duckett, believing that he was acting on the express orders of his chief, asked other officers in the unit to log Walltower’s hours onto the books even though he wasn’t showing up for work. The story made the Post, and Duckett went looking to the chief for coverafter all, the chief had forced him to keep the guy on. But Soulsby, in what many in the department say is a pattern, cut Duckett off at the knees. The two sergeants who had blown the whistle on Walltower found themselves transferred. Both Walltower and Duckett resigned. Soulsby remained standing.
There were indications at the time that the police department was still being used to cover for Barry and his cronies. Back in 1996, Councilmember Lightfoot had received telephone calls complaining that police officers were frequenting what appeared to be an after-hours club at a town house at 12th and O Streets NW. Lightfoot says he requestedin writingthat the chief investigate the accusations. Soulsby wrote back that the department had looked into the matter and found nothing illegal occurring at the house.
Within weeks of the MPD investigation, the FBI conducted a raid on the house, which was owned by the Rev. Roweshea Burruss. Check fraud charges were filed against Burruss, who was later convicted and sentenced to prison. Reports trickled out that Mayor Barry had been among those who had stopped by Burruss’ house to check out the action. Barry later told the press he had stopped by to change clothes and enjoy an occasional sandwich.
“It took a federal investigation to turn up things going on illegally in Burruss’ home,” says Lightfoot, still seething over Soulsby’s handling of the incident. During the time the complaints were being received by the council, Burruss was entertaining the mayor. Lightfoot says he suspected that Soulsby failed to act because he knew the mayor was among the frequenters of Burruss’ establishment.
The mayor and his buddies aren’t the only bad guys to prosper under Soulsby’s tenure. Although there has been a recent uptick, homicide closure rates have been miserabledown from 55 percent in 1994 to less than 35 percent in 1997.
Back when he was appointed in October 1995, Soulsby was touted as a healer, both inside and outside the department. “We have a man here who has proven he can do the job,” Lightfoot told the Post at the time.
There weren’t many divisions in the police department Soulsby hadn’t touched. After joining the force in 1971, he walked the beat for only three years before finding a desk job as the 4th District’s crime analysis officer. In quick succession, he became part of the planning and budget division, commander of public information/media and community relations, commander of the “B” section at the 5th District, commander of the operations section for the 6th District, commander of the homicide branch, director of the disciplinary review division, commander of the 3rd District, and finally patrol division commander, with responsibility for every police officer assigned to all seven districts.
“[His career moves] gave him the opportunity to bill up a lot of IOUs and friends,” says one police source who requested anonymity. “He knows a lot of the skeletons.”
Since his first day in the department, Soulsby has had a knack for connecting with the right people and knowing when to keep his mouth shut. And his West Virginia country-bumpkin shtick has helped him shroud his ambition, a critical achievement in any hierarchical organization. “From the beginning, he was always crafty. And while he played the big dumb-guy loyalist, he always had a plan,” says a retired police officer who worked with Soulsby. “He set a vision for himself and then aligned himself with the right people.”
Dorothy Brizill, executive director of D.C. Watch, remembers Soulsby’s stint at the 3rd District from 1991 to 1993 and praises his work there. “He came in as a breath of fresh air,” says Brizill. Residents gave Soulsby high marks compared with previous 3rd District commander Edward J. Spurlock.
“Spurlock lived in the suburbs; Soulsby had an address in the District. We never saw Spurlock on the streets. Soulsby actually got out and talked with people,” says Gary Imhoff, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 1. “Soulsby would say no to you when he knew he couldn’t do something. He tried to build coalitions and compromised with the community.”
But somewhere along the trip from the 3rd District to police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW, the friendly cop everyone saluted lost his way.
“When he went downtown, he realized he had to play politics within the department and the mayor’s office,” says Brizill. “The only way you survive in the District of Columbia is by playing the game.”
And if playing the game means forgetting your entire employment history, Soulsby’s a hall of famer. How else could a former commander of the homicide division be unaware that the closure rate was slipping dangerously low? How else could the former team leader for the planning and budget division not know overtime was astronomically high? And how else could the former director for the disciplinary review division not realize that taking a gift from a cop under investigationas Stowe was when he presented the golf clubsmight be considered unethical?
“If he didn’t know, what’s wrong with him?” asked Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose during an interview with the Post.
On paper, Soulsby appears to have done it all. However, he spent very little time on the street and moved quickly from one desk to the next larger desk. Promotions within the department up to the rank of captain are based on tests, which Soulsby aced. Soulsby made captain after only nine years on the force.
Even though Soulsby should have mastered the bureaucratic tricks of running a police force by now, he has shown little evidence of it during his tenure as chief. Under his leadership, MPD is paralyzed: It can’t order equipment, can’t seem to install an integrated computer system, can’t properly store and maintain evidence, can’t adequately implement community policing, and can’t halt overtime abuse.
In many areas, Soulsby’s tainted history with the department prevents him from ordering reforms. For example, the chief wasn’t able to curb the overtime capers in part becauseon at least one occasionhe ordered the extra hours himself, according to Barry administration officials. Earlier this year, the department stood poised to get a congressionally approved pay raise of about 10 percent but had no cash to pay for it. Sources in the mayor’s office say that the chief ordered up overtime to ensure that when Congress peeped into MPD’s fiscal cupboard, it would look mighty bare.
Congress turned back the pay raise and forced the city to find the money to fund it. While much of the money for the raise might have been pulled from the police department’s budget, the chief’s spend-it-all command made that impossible. Eventually, MPD raided fire department coffers to fund the raise. City finance officials are still angered by what they say is Soulsby’s duplicitousness in the matter.
Six months later, consultants sounded the alarm on overtime abuse, and the chief managed to act surprised. But if the pay-raise machinations are any indication, Soulsby had a major hand in creating an environment of fiscal unaccountability.
Consider the special $15-million congressional grant pushed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to shore up MPD. At the time Congress was reviewing the allocation, police department officials complained that they had no money for basic necessities, including bulletproof vests and squad-car repairs. But as recently as the beginning of this month, about $4 million remained unspent, raising doubts about how desperately the department actually needed the funds, say finance officials.
It wasn’t the first time that money has been left untouched by a supposedly impoverished department. In 1996, the department had a budget of $238 million but actually spent $234 million, according to District government documents. And in spite of its tin-cup routine on the Hill, from 1985 to 1990 the police department received a 65-percent increase in its budgetfrom $151 million to $250 million.
For a guy who presents himself as nothing more than an enlightened good-old boy, Soulsby has shown an amazing level of political acumen. If politicians have used him, he has responded in kind, leveraging relationships he has made along the way to rise to the top job in a very busy metropolitan department.
“People like Larry Soulsby can’t exist without political support,” says Rowan.
He has proved adaptable, if nothing else. When it looked as if he might win the appointment as Barry’s chief of police, he linked himself with civil rights activists and built bridges to African-American residents and cops alike. And when the control board moved in and took Barry out, Soulsby moved quickly to adjust to the new reality. He understood the control board’s enormous power from the very beginning in a way others in District government failed to. With Barry no longer hands-on, Soulsby was allegedly free to run his own show, but in truth he was merely performing for a different set of overseers. Soulsby became fast friends with board vice chairman Harlan, and he won the loyalty of Councilmember Evans, who saw public safety as his ticket to the mayoralty.
According to Evans, the chief says certain factions are “out to get” him. If that’s the case, they have apparently succeeded. The revelation that he and Stowe were jungled up at the Lansburgh for next to nothing in rent seems to have done what the overtime and homicide scandals couldn’t: convince his supporters to abandon him.
“It’s getting frustrating. Week after week we’re being hit with one new allegation after another,” Evans says.
(Privately, sources close to Evans say the councilmember would switch Soulsby for New York’s William Bratton any day. Evans is scheduled to travel later this month to meet with Bratton.)
But under the city’s new paradigm, Evans can’t close the book on Soulsby. That’s up to the control board, which showed no timidity in ousting Department of Human Services chief Vernon Hawkins and Superintendent of D.C. Public Schools Franklin Smith. But until the headlines this week, the presidentially appointed board had managed to see past the chief’s highly mixed tenure as top cop.
Harlan called a press conference Monday night and indicated that he and his peers believe that Soulsby has a lot of explaining to do. In an interview later that night, Harlan defended the control board’s efforts to address chronic problems in the department. “We have made massive changes, [and] to represent otherwise is grossly wrong, and I would argue that very strongly.”
Harlan admits that he “has no idea why the chief would rent an apartment and pay cash…[but] to say that he hasn’t led and hasn’t done a very good job, I have a problem with that.”
The control board seemed content to let Soulsby absorb the punishment on public safety and depended on the consultants from Booz Allen to fashion a plan for a safer D.C. In his public appearances, Soulsby has seemed at times to be at the mercy of the consultants, who have guided him through testimony before the council and Congress.
“We’ve got technocrats running our police department,” declares a frustrated Sally Byington, a Capitol Hill resident who has been active for years in public safety issues.
But the technocrats are no doubt more qualified than MPD’s two-year chief. “Nothing in his background or training prepared him to be the president of a multimillion-dollar operation,” says Lightfoot, noting that no one currently in the department’s upper echelon fits the bill.
Even as his support crumbles, there is something mystifying about the control board’s steadfast reliance on Soulsby. The chief’s durability baffles a public that is hungry for accountability. Soulsby’s hitherto untouchable status parallels that of D.C. Public Schools chief executive Julius Becton, who was appointed one year ago by the control board and has had his share of bumps since. The five-member panel is likely loath to turn against its own appointee in the belief that such a move would serve as a giant admission that the board really doesn’t know that much about the city it has volunteered to help run. To a citizenry that was told that the control board would make the streets safe and the cops reliable, the Soulsby fiasco is disheartening.
Rowan says Soulsby’s resignation is “something that should have occurred a long time ago.”
“The Soulsby era will be remembered as one of the saddest chapters in the history of the Metropolitan Police Department,” says Rowan. “The control board needs to do some serious soul-searching about its miserable performance in all of this.”
Of all the components of municipal government, public safety drives public opinion most directly. Those who can afford it will avoid the public school system, haul their own trash, and pay surrogates to wait in line. But efforts to privatize the function of public safety are an illusion. It takes a good police force to make a city safe, and D.C.’s police force has limped from the “Dirty Dozen” to the Walltower affair to the overtime abuses to, finally, the chief’s current abasement.
Brazil, who is running for mayor, suggests that nothing short of a full-scale police corruption investigationsimilar to the Molen commission in New Yorkwill restore public confidence in the department. Another good model for D.C., Brazil says, is Prince George’s County, where a public safety commissioner, former D.C. chief Fred Thomas, oversees the work of the police department. People inside and outside of government are feeling pretty nostalgic for the Fred Thomas days, an era that had its share of warts but none of the heaving chaos of Soulsby’s tenure.
Thomas, though, isn’t coming back. The control board named 3rd District commander Sonya Proctor interim chief, based on her clean record and great reputation in the community. At Soulsby’s resignation press conference, Harlan said a national search would soon be under way.
Rowan says it will be impossible to select someone from inside the department because “Soulsby has so tarnished everything that city leaders almost have to go outside to break cleanly from the past.”
“Soulsby ruined the opportunity for any qualified people in the department to become chief,” Rowan adds.
The new chief will likely come from outside the department and will hopefully arrive with fewer chits than Soulsby. If Soulsby has done nothing else, he has proven that the process of rising to the top of MPD makes it impossible to do anything once you are there.CP