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There’s a closed room in Thomas Kennerly’s mind where he doesn’t go. At least not willingly.

Sometimes in his sleep, though, the door swings open of its own accord, and a woman’s silken voice slithers out to invade the mazelike passageways of his dreams.

“Gunfire,” she says. “Go to the gunfire.”

Always the same voice. Always the same words. And every time he goes. In the dream, he’s driving his patrol car. The woman’s voice is coming from his radio. She’s his dispatcher. Kennerly’s a cop. He goes to the gunfire.

Soon he can hear it: a staccato series of popping sounds, snapping and sputtering in a fitful cadence. It’s the only sound, the only sign of life, in a street that seems otherwise strangely empty, desolate, as if all vitality had been sucked out and a shell left in its place. Kennerly cruises slowly by doorways and dark windows, scanning shadows and alleys for movement, but there is nothing—only the sound of gunfire in a place he cannot see. He has the sensation of having entered a void, a blank space on the beat map where nobody goes—a place where he probably shouldn’t be. He parks.

Slowly, warily, he opens the car door and carefully steps out. Immediately the gunfire stops. In the heavy silence that follows he can feel a presence. Still, he sees nothing. Then, with a shudder of realization, he knows. Someone is standing behind him.

Often the dream stops here; the force of the realization simply jerks him awake like a gaffed tuna breaking the surface. He’s glad when it does, because he knows how the dream ends. It ends with a great, thundering boom, followed by the weird comprehension of a bullet smashing through the back of his skull and the fleeting final thought that he’s a dead man now.

That wakes him up all right. Wakes him up every time, gasping and shaking. Alone in the dark, Kennerly pulls himself together, wipes the sweat away, and pushes the door in his mind closed again. Then it’s back to reality. Time to put on the uniform and head out once more to patrol the streets of the 5th Police District. He may be done sleeping, but the nightmare is far from over. He goes to work on streets where someone has tried to kill him three times, twice with a gun and once with a car. The dream begets the reality he confronts every single day: Somebody somewhere wants to kill him, simply because he’s a cop.

Even in the hard light of day, the cop-killing statistics can seem like a bad dream. Across the country, there have been 32 unprovoked deaths of law enforcement officers in this decade, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Ten of those 32 officers—nearly a third of the total—were killed in or near the District. And the curve has turned increasingly deadly, with three of those 10 officers dying just this year. Nationwide, however, cop deaths dropped by 46 officers last year, from 162 in 1995 to 116 in 1996. So if cops everywhere else are safer, how come D.C. cops are dropping so fast?

Statistics don’t measure the true depth of the hellhole the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has fallen into. Yes, a lot of cops have been killed. Yes, the rate is increasing. And yes, every death is a tragedy, and often existentially ridiculous. But it’s not all that jaw-dropping that cops sometimes get killed in the line of duty. Not to be crass about it, but cops get paid to put themselves in harm’s way. It’s been that way in the District at least since Dec. 29, 1871, the day Officer Francis M. Doyle was shot in the chest on Maryland Avenue SW by a woman whose house he’d come to search for a stolen watch. Doyle was the first MPD officer to die in the line of duty. It made no sense then and it still doesn’t.

Since Doyle’s time, 106 MPD officers have been killed doing their jobs, which just goes to show that cops have been getting killed regularly in D.C. since there have been cops in D.C. No surprise there. But now cops are getting whacked just for being cops, and that adds a new and different level of threat to the job.

Officer Brian Gibson was sitting in his cruiser at an intersection waiting for the light to change when a just-bounced bar patron allegedly walked up and shot him. Officer Oliver W. Smith was just arriving home when a man ordered him to get down on the pavement, searched his wallet, found his badge, and shot him. Officer Scott Lewis was helping out a motorist when a bystander with a grudge against cops walked up and shot him. Sgt. Henry Daly was sitting in a squad room at MPD headquarters along with FBI agents Michael J. Miller and Martha Dixon Martinez when a suspect in an investigation walked into the room and shot them all. The list goes on, but the point is made.

These were not bank robberies. These were not drug raids. These were not house searches. These were not, in fact, cops working on crimes in progress of any kind. These were assassinations. Nowadays, officers are being killed for no other reason than the badge they wear. It’s not the job that’s killing them; it’s the job title.

Cops know this better than anyone. Taking aim at a badge just for the thrill of it, unthinkable even five years ago, is now something the punks on the corner fantasize about. Cops with beats in high-crime districts like the 6th, 7th, 5th, and 1st know that the street value of their lives is now less than a brag and a bullet. “No question about it—we are the targets right now,” says Capt. Joshua Ederheimer of the 6th District.

And it’s not just the killings that are telling cops where they stand. It’s the menacing stares, the veiled threats, the vandalism of MPD equipment, the insults that fly like so much spit from the mouths of children. “It just amazes me what you hear coming out of the mouths of some of these kids—little kids, 12 years old! They just have no respect for you or for anything else,” says Officer Jeannie Sullivan of the 6th District.

Kennerly says that at least half the officers in his district, the 5th, have been assaulted at least once. “A lot of the incidents are just unnoticed or unreported,” he says. “But they happen all the time.”

The rules of engagement have changed to accommodate new realities. In the 6th District, Ederheimer’s officers always try to leave at least one of their number at the curb during routine calls. Their mission: to guard the patrol car and make sure no one slashes the tires.

If it’s got cherries on top, it must be bad. And if it’s got a badge on its chest, it must be worse. In and out of uniform, Kennerly occasionally overhears comments that make his blood run cold: “Things like, ‘Man, I’m glad that officer got shot,’ or, ‘He shot him in the head!’—as if the guy’s glad of it or something. They don’t fear the jury system down here. They’re like heroes to their friends.”

Last February, Harold Cunningham Jr., who was being sentenced for murder, assault, and robbery, paid heartfelt tribute in open court to Donzell McCauley and Bennie Lee Lawson, two of the District’s more notorious cop killers.

To cops like Kennerly, it’s clear that a tipping point has been reached. With every unprovoked shooting, the old rules—the old conception of what a cop should be and how a cop should act—lose a little more power.

Kennerly remembers the first day he hit the streets as a uniformed officer of the Metropolitan Police Department in 1992. He felt like an idiot.

Not because he had only the dimmest sense of how to comport himself as a real cop on a real patrol. That was true enough, but he figured that with his partner’s help, he could fake it. What really bothered him that day was the uniform itself. For some reason, he had gotten hooked up with a uniform that was a couple of sizes too big for him, and that made him look like a rookie trying to fake it.

“Oh man, I was a baby,” he says, grinning, rubbing his beard, and all but scuffing the ground in sheepishness. “And I looked it. It was sad.”

As it happened, his first dispatch that day—his first assignment ever as a cop—was to go to the gunfire. Somebody had called in a report about a shooting at 14th and Duncan Streets NE. Kennerly and his partner were dispatched to check it out. He remembers pulling up to find a street corner drenched in blood and still rumbling with the sullen threat of further violence.

Sprawled in the gutter was a dead man with half his head shot off. Slumped against a nearby fence was another man, shot in the leg. And milling around everywhere in between was a volatile crowd of friends, neighbors, witnesses, bystanders, and gawkers, all of them talking loud, pointing fingers, and trampling evidence like a herd of spooked cattle. “It was chaos,” Kennerly recalls.

Following his partner’s lead, Kennerly muscled right into the mix. With what forcefulness he could muster, he ordered everyone in sight to calm down, move back, and shut up for a minute, the law’s here. To his astonishment, it worked; the crowd backed off and simmered down. With the lid seemingly back on the pot, Kennerly then went over to check the wounded man. By now, though, the man was surrounded by his friends, and they were having none of it.

“His group was right there,” Kennerly recalls. “And they were like, ‘He’s not going anywhere. He’s staying right here.’ The next thing I know, fists are flying. It was crazy. You remember the Riddick Bowe fight? That’s what it was like—punches flying, people running around, shouting, throwing things—crazy.”

And though he was right in the thick of the fight and throwing a few punches himself, Kennerly never drew a weapon—not even his nightstick. He didn’t need one. “It was just fists,” he says.

In the end, it all turned out OK. Kennerly’s partner called for backup, the crowd quieted down, and order was restored. The wounded man was taken in for questioning, and the case went to the prosecutors. Kennerly filled out his paperwork and got back out on the street. Other than thinking it was a hell of a thing to have happened his first day on the job, he didn’t dwell on it. To his mind, the whole experience just went to show that sometimes things get a little wild out there. You deal.

Now that he’s grown into the uniform that didn’t quite fit, those days of innocence are long gone. Thinking back on the incident now, Kennerly has to shake his head at the risk he took. He wouldn’t do it again. “In this day and age, I don’t think I would ever step out in front of a hostile crowd like that,” he says. “I’d call for backup before I ever stepped out of the car.”

Wading into nascent riots isn’t the only habit he’s kicked. For one thing, these days Kennerly is a different man on a traffic stop. Have you ever had a cop take your driver’s license and then walk backward all the way to his patrol car, never letting you out of his sight for a second? You will if Kennerly ever stops you.

“Actually, that’s the way they teach you in the academy,” he says, but a lot of cops let it slide after a while because it makes them feel silly. Kennerly used to do the same. Then one November night in 1993, he stopped a carload of young men after seeing them blow through the tail end of a yellow light. Nothing really out of the ordinary happened. He remembers feeling nervous because the guys in the back seat kept squirming, and he remembers having to tell the driver twice to take his hand out of the big front pocket of his Eddie Bauer overcoat. But other than that it was a routine stop. As usual, Kennerly took the guy’s license—Donzell McCauley was the name listed—walked back to the patrol car, and ran a check. Nothing turned up, so he let the guy off with a warning.

A month later, the name on the driver’s license was on the front page of the Washington Post. McCauley had offed a cop. It turned out that Officer Jason White had been questioning McCauley about a stolen car when McCauley knocked him down, took his gun, put a foot on his chest, and shot him in the face.

“It was a weird feeling. Eerie. It occurred to me that he could have easily killed me. I never should have turned my back on him,” Kennerly says. From now on, he won’t.

More than anything else, though, Kennerly fears bystanders. When somebody gets shot on the street, it tends to draw a crowd. And that makes it hard to keep track of what’s going on behind you. Your back is always turned to somebody. Even if it’s just one person hanging around and making a pest of himself, Kennerly gets nervous.

One time he was at the scene of a shooting, and a friend of the victim just wouldn’t stay out of the way. “He was pacing around and acting very paranoid, and I had to keep telling him, ‘Please step back. Please just back up. Please let us do our job.’” Today, Kennerly isn’t so polite. Anyone who insists on loitering at the scene of a crime gets patted down for weapons—whether it pleases them or not.

“I don’t care if it’s a family member, a friend, a neighbor…” He pauses, thinking it over. “I guess I could see letting a mom off…” He thinks it over some more. “Maybe.”

The worst are the “sidewalk lawyers,” the busybodies who can’t resist getting up on their hind legs and giving speeches whenever a cop tries to question a suspect or make an arrest. Every cop who has worked a beat has heard the rap, Kennerly says, and it’s always the same: Cops are pigs, racists, and scum.

He didn’t used to pay much attention to them, having learned from experience that if they thought they were getting to you, it just made them louder and more obnoxious. So, as long as they had the good sense to stay out of his way, he always just went about his business. Not anymore. Not after what happened to Officer Scott Lewis.

In the fall of 1995, Lewis was trying to help a motorist near 14th and H Streets NE when another fellow pulled up and started berating him, asking him whether he was aware that the motorist was deaf and mute. Lewis ignored the guy and got back to the business at hand. Feeling blown off, the meddler got out of his car and shot Lewis in the head.

As a result, a loudmouth who can’t keep it zipped in a tense situation shouldn’t expect the benefit of the doubt. Somebody who gets really high up out of the water can expect to get a 9mm police-issue Glock pointed at his recalcitrant ass. “Most officers do tend to pull their weapon more often nowadays,” says Kennerly.

It’s a fairly straightforward calculation. A gun that might suddenly appear in the other guy’s hand always trumps the one still in your holster. Twice in his career, in May 1993 and again in June 1994, Kennerly was fired on by a cornered suspect. He knew what to do—with his own gun out of the holster and already in hand, his return fire was practically instantaneous. He wounded the first guy in the hip and leg and missed the second. Both perpetrators who shot at him missed. Another time, a man trying to cash a stolen check made a break for it when Kennerly and his partners drove up. The man ran out to his car, jumped behind the wheel, and floored it with Kennerly standing right in front of the grille. Again, Kennerly already had his weapon out. He shot the guy in the face before the car had moved a yard. The man lived.

Kennerly was shaken after each of these incidents, but he got over them. They weren’t anything exceptional, after all—just crimes in progress, the sort of thing cops see every day on the job. But these days, more and more cops are worried that the job is going to follow them home. Even off duty, cops are keeping their guns close at hand. Driving home from work, for example, many are stashing their service weapons between the driver’s seat and the transmission hump. Or just laying them on the console. Anywhere they can get to them quick. “Some guys tuck them underneath their leg,” Kennerly says. “There’s just so much fear that someone’s going to follow you home and be waiting there for you.”

Cops, especially in the District, are used to working under scrutiny. But it’s life in the gunsights that has them all hinky, unsure of what should pass for routine bullshit and what constitutes a threat. And they are confronting a level of menace that other cops, in cities just as conflicted as D.C., don’t have to worry about. Right now, cops in New York own the place. Crime is down, murder is down, and the bad guys are on the defensive. In D.C., it’s the cops who are on the run.

The generalized violence against cops “does seem peculiar to this area,” says John Eck, a criminologist with the Police Executive Research Forum. The recent killings “aren’t the result of some quasi-political group such as the Black Panthers. There’s no evidence they’re based on race. They’re not related to any particular crime wave, such as bank robberies,” says Eck. “The normal things we would point to don’t seem to easily fit.”

Cops are up to here with eulogies and funerals. They want their streets back. And they want a reasonable expectation that when they give the wife and kid a peck on the way out the door it won’t be the last time.

Talk to the union and it will tell you that everything comes down to Marion Barry. The whole thing could be solved if the federal government took back the responsibility for MPD it gave up in the 1970s, the union says. Barry, who has a complicated history with the police to say the least, has tried to reassure cops that he cares about their quality of life by saying it’s time to kill people who kill cops. In doing so, he is caving in to public opinion and dumping a 30-year record of active opposition to the death penalty. It’s perhaps the only thing about Barry that many cops like.

Police officers here and elsewhere suggest that the trend goes beyond politics to an inner-city culture that celebrates cop killing in its very music. “There are no positive role models,” says Craig W. Floyd, executive director of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. “[The music] only serves to reinforce everything that’s negative.”

For his part, Kennerly likes hiphop music. When he isn’t sitting in front of the tube playing Sega Genesis, he usually finds a rap-video channel and lets it play as background music in his apartment. Though he doesn’t like it when a rapper like Bushwick Bill comes out with something that portrays cops as corrupt fools and tools of the system, he doesn’t take it personally.

“A lot of older officers, they really hate Tupac, but it’s just him speaking his mind about the streets. Like, that’s his story,” says Kennerly. “And I think most people understand the difference between listening to what he’s saying and trying to act out what he’s doing.”

Besides, he says, rap music is only a reflection of reality, not its wellspring. “In a sense, we’re paying the price for the bad apples,” he says. “In my district, a little while ago we had a thing called the ‘dirty dozen,’ where a number of officers were arrested for trafficking in narcotics. It hurt me, because I knew half the guys, and we were basically in the same age bracket. It was really difficult for the younger officers.”

The problem with rappers isn’t that their take on street life is completely invalid. Young black men who live in the middle of the zero-tolerance bull’s eye are tired of the hairy eyeball emanating from every passing squad. But Kennerly says that while cops too often assume the worst, many of the kids they are policing are too quick to accept the rap-inspired cartoon of cop-as-government-sponsored-gangster. On both sides, “You’ve got to look at the individual,” Kennerly says.

As soon as I step into the side foyer of Kennerly’s apartment building on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, three guys who look to be no older than high-school age get right up in my face. They know I don’t live there.

“Who are you? You a lawyer? You here for an investigation?” one of them wants to know. He’s leaning into my space and grinning, trying to throw a scare into me and doing a damn good job of it. He’s aided by the decor. The foyer is dark and dank, with paint peeling off the walls and empty 40s in paper bags clinking underfoot.

Well, actually, no, I’m a journalist, I tell him. I’m looking for Thomas Kennerly—you know, the cop? The cop who lives here? Right here in this building? The guy leans in closer, and his grin widens. “You want a story? I can do that. How about a homicide story?”

“As a matter of fact,” I say, edging away, “I’ve already got one. But thanks anyway.” Then I scoot up the stairwell just as fast as I can go.

Hearing the tale a couple of minutes later, Kennerly just laughs. A few days before, he fell and sprained his ankle while chasing a suspect, and ever since, he hasn’t been able to keep up on building security the way he normally does. He’s got a deal worked out with the landlord: He provides a watchful eye, and the landlord gives him a break on the rent in return. He knows my new pals at the door.

“They’re harmless,” he says. “Sometimes I’ve got to quiet them down, but they’re all right. They know me; they know I treat them with respect. And they give it back.”

And that’s his point. If cops don’t feel they’re getting the respect they deserve, neither do many of the people who live on their beats. “You should be the same person in uniform that you are out of uniform. Some officers hide behind their badge,” Kennerly says.

Different cops have different styles, and unfortunately MPD has its share of what Kennerly calls “knuckleheads.” In Kennerly’s world, a knucklehead is a cop who can’t seem to question a suspect without first getting him face down on the ground with a knee in his back.

Kennerly has never had a knucklehead for a partner, and he never will. “If that were to happen, I’d have to take my sergeant aside and say, ‘Hey man, I need a new partner.’ Because some officers are just disasters waiting to happen.” Kennerly says knuckleheads make life more dangerous for everybody on the street. Everybody, that is, except themselves. “They’re never the ones who get hurt,” he says, “but they’re always the ones who feel the worst about it when it happens.”

Kennerly understands that it can be hard to show respect when you’re getting nothing but threats in return. But it’s a responsibility that goes with the beat.

“Sometimes it’s a strange feeling,” he says. “Because, you know, you took an oath to protect and to serve the public, but at the same time you feel you’re in danger from some of those same people. What happens is, you find yourself starting to judge people. Even though you know it’s wrong—you know that not everybody’s out to get you. It just feels that way sometimes.”

Securing the streets for both cops and civilians may be a one-on-one exercise in some parts of the city, but that isn’t the case in neighborhoods where the bad guys have been winning for decades.

Neighborhoods like Simple City. Located in far southeast D.C., Simple City is full of loosely knit crews with not much to call their own except brittle pride, a mean territorial streak, and lots of firepower. It’s the part of town where a turf battle led to the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Darryl Dayan Hall in January. It’s where a guy marked territory a couple summers ago by strafing the public swimming pool. Simple City brims with the kind of atavism that has suspects turning and shooting instead of running when they get cornered.

After Hall’s death, the powers that be decided it was time to reclaim its godforsaken corners, and a battalion of cops was deployed to substantial effect. The neighborhood has a new look, and people there want to reclaim the neighborhood’s old appellation—Benning Terrace. Mention Simple City and people will tell you the name has too many bad memories attached to it.

On a recent evening, it does look as though the memories are fading. The street is bustling with activity: kids tearing around aimlessly on trikes, old folks ambling on sidewalks or resting their bones on balconies, youngsters rambling in packs.

Capt. Ederheimer of the 6th District stands on the corner and watches the evening unfold around him. “This is just wonderful,” he says. “Look at the kids playing in the streets. I haven’t seen this in months.” The pride in his voice is as much parental as anything else.

The resumption of normal urban rhythms may have cops beaming, but it’s still clear that Mr. Rogers is not moving into Benning Terrace anytime soon. For one thing, cops are not only visible, they’re everywhere. Men in blue jam the sidewalk; patrol cars are parked every which way on the street. Every couple of minutes, another one pulls up, and another officer spills out to join the crowd.

And just in case the sea of blue doesn’t alter the picture, there is the industrial-strength, trailer-size generator parked on the street. This is not something you see every day—especially not in a residential neighborhood after dark. Right now the behemoth is throttled up to full power and cranking out enough wattage to power two giant floodlights, which together are turning everything within 30 yards into a brilliant, razor-shadowed moonscape. It’s making the most godawful racket imaginable, like a wood chipper devouring a telephone pole. As Ederheimer discourses on how much better the neighborhood is now than it used to be, he has to shout to make himself heard. The generator is a tool of social control that makes its presence known because that’s what it’s there for. The citizens feel safe here because the cops feel safe here. But periodic shows of force don’t alter the feeling of vulnerability that gets into a cop every time he heads out by himself.

Just as I’m wondering what the neighbors must think of the commotion, a fellow comes out of one of the row houses nearby and sidles up to us. He listens awhile then starts venting. “You know, this is sort of intimidating to have these lights out here,” he says.

The man’s name is Gregory Martin and he works as a youth counselor in the neighborhood. He wants to know where the police were when all the shooting was going on and kids were being killed. But it’s a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer: They were somewhere else.

Meanwhile, other rough places in town are left practically untouched except for an occasional bust by a jump-out squad. “The drug dealers control Kentucky Courts,” says Jack Colhoun, who lives a block from the public housing complex on Capitol Hill. “And the police haven’t done a damn thing about it. I think part of the reason is they’re afraid to go in there.”

Kennerly can tell you by heart the exact date he was sworn in as a police officer: March 23, 1992. It was by far the most important milestone in his life, the fulfillment of a dream that had taken shape before he was halfway through Cardozo High School.

He’d never really wanted to be anything other than a cop. It wasn’t the power trip that appealed to him. He’d never been the sort of buttoned-up, name-taking Niedermeyer the cool ones in school love to mock. Far from it. He was the type that fit in with every crowd, the popular clown. He spent his adolescence having fun, getting in trouble, bringing home despicable report cards, hanging his head, promising to do better, and then, despite the best of intentions, somehow not.

But he’d never gotten into any serious trouble, and underneath all the cutting up he had that strong sense of responsibility that you often find in oldest sons. So, in his senior year, he applied for a program that would let him spend half his days at the police academy.

And it’s been a good gig. For someone who grew up hopscotching from one home to another in some of the roughest parts of the District, who has never seen the inside of a college classroom, the police has meant a steady life and career, a chance to improve himself, and financial stability. “I feel blessed,” he says. “There aren’t too many jobs where you can come right out of high school and be making $30,000.”

But a job that looked like a ticket up and out seems as if it might buy him another sort of tag. The kind they wrap around toes down at the morgue.

“I’ve got to admit that if I knew then what I know now, I’d have to think twice about it. Because it’s a different world.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.