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When the D.C. financial control board swiped his contracting powers last year, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. fumed like a smoldering forest fire. And when the board ousted longtime Barry crony Vernon Hawkins from the Department of Human Services, the mayor had his buddies threaten war.
But when the District’s top political and law enforcement leaders sat down two weeks ago to yank the police department away from Hizzoner, many in the room wondered just who was that man in their midst posing as the mayor. He looked like the recalcitrant mayor, and even talked and sweated like him. But something was wrong: Barry was willingly ceding control over Police Chief Larry Soulsby and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which had been under his thumb for nearly two decades.
Barry’s conciliatory and compromising posture left his counterparts with the uneasy feeling they were being conned.
“He gave up too easily, which means he thinks that Soulsby is still going to be his guy,” observed a control board official. “He thinks he can still run the department somehow. Otherwise why would he relinquish power? It’s just not his way.”
Barry’s public posture often contradicts and masks his covert maneuvers. He perfected his behind-the-scenes meddling skills when he was behind bars. Even then, Hizzoner managed to help derail then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly through long-distance manipulation of a bureaucracy loyal to him, while pretending to be concerned only about his own rehabilitation.
Barry may well be falling back on cellblock tactics with last week’s agreement with the control board to “empower” the police chief. After all, MPD’s ranks remain populated with officers loyal to Barry and not to Soulsby. At the end of his third term, Hizzoner once controlled the appointment of the top 150 or so police officers directly under the chief, even though he claimed last week to control only 20-odd appointments above the rank of captain.
At the Feb. 26 news conference announcing the removal of the mayor’s shackles on the department, Barry acknowledged that “some lieutenants manipulated officers by telling them that certain assignments were given because ‘the mayor wanted it.’”
No doubt Barry knows manipulation when he sees it.
“Obviously, some must have perceived that the mayor controlled everything, from which sergeants would be assigned as beat leaders to such details as whether or not officers were allowed to stop for a cup of coffee,” Hizzoner conceded.
He dismissed such incidents as “misperceptions” of his hold over the department’s 3,500 officers.
The control board is wary of Barry’s flock of devotees in MPD and is monitoring Hizzoner’s pledge to allow Soulsby to run the department and the war on crime free of intervention from 1 Judiciary Square. The penalty for another Barry breach of promise is much higher this time.
If the control board nabs Barry meddling in department affairs again, it is likely to strip him of his last vestiges of power over D.C. law enforcement: the power to choose the next police chief, control board officials confirm.
Referring to the preliminary conclusions of the damaging study of the police department by the Booz-Allen & Hamilton consulting firm, Barry claimed he found it “shocking that officers didn’t see crime-fighting as their top priority.” But Barry refused to take responsibility for MPD’s weak sense of mission, insisting only that it’s time to focus on fixing the department.
The conclusions in the Booz-Allen study are hardly news to anyone who has followed MPD: Only one in 10 officers is actually on the street, and MPD’s upper ranks are riddled with officers whose prior ethical and legal problems would have kept them off most big-city police forces. Control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan said the department’s problems had been studied 28 times over the past 10 years.
But those reports, including the fabled 1991 Rivlin Commission study, have been sitting on the shelf collecting dust because Barry lacked the desire to reform the department. And the spineless D.C. Council lacked the will to break Barry’s grip on MPD.
That won’t happen this time, swear the control board and Booz-Allen, which also participated in some of those prior studies. This time the consultant, with its advisory panel of former urban police officials, vows to remain on the scene to provide Soulsby with the muscle and technical know-how to implement needed reforms.
And Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, hoping to use his Judiciary Committee chairmanship as a launching pad for next year’s mayoral race, promises aggressive oversight hearings on implementation of last week’s agreement. “I think Barry will always interfere. The temptation is always there,” Evans said this week.
For evidence of Barry’s grip on the department, look no farther than Soulsby. A likable but weak leader, Soulsby would be a foot soldier in any efficiently run big-city police department. Barry’s patronage, and the incompetence and corruption of his rivals, vaulted Soulsby to the top in D.C.
Barry plucked Soulsby from the ranks in July 1995, thinking that the selection of a white police chief would win Barry credibility and kudos from a Republican-led Congress threatening to strip him of his powers. Hizzoner also calculated that he could easily control and manipulate Soulsby.
The mayor successfully kept the chief off balance by surrounding him with rivals who plotted his demise. The MPD buzz had deputy chief Bill Sarvis bumping Soulsby from Cruiser 1 as soon as Sarvis finished his master’s degree at Bowie State University this year. (Soulsby continues the trend of police chiefs without college degrees in the nation’s capitala trend interrupted only once during home rule, when Kelly named Fred Thomas chief in 1991.)
But before Sarvis could finish his degree, his longtime secretary was nabbed peddling hot goods in a sting operation last year. Sarvis accused Soulsby of staging the sting to remove him from contention for the top job. Never mind that Sarvis had to step over suspicious-looking boxes filled with stolen computers every time he entered his office, which he had renovated and furnished for an estimated $150,000 in MPD’s dilapidated headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW.
After Sarvis fell by the wayside, Deputy Chief Wyndell Watkins quickly emerged as Soulsby’s successor, and many in the department expected Barry to make the switch early this year. Watkins benefited from quick promotions after Barry’s return to the mayor’s office two years ago, and he served as one of Hizzoner’s spies within the ranks.
But a citywide crime wave, the brutal slaying of police officers, and the control board quashed the Watkins scenario. Now Soulsby has become chief in his own right, and can succeed or fail on his own.
As soon as the mayor’s shackles were removed last week, Soulsby replaced his four top deputies, including Watkinsa housecleaning that prompted a complaint from the NAACP. But the chief has not acted to remove potential troublemakers lower down in the ranks, particularly Lt. Lowell Duckett, leader of the black police officers’ organization and a Barry ally who has openly defied Soulsby.
With Barry’s backing, Duckett has had free rein to do and say what he pleases and has recently come under fire for devoting scant attention to his assignment on the department’s gang task force. But the control board last week handed the chief new powers to deal with insubordinates like Duckett, if Soulsby has the will to flex his new muscle.
MPD’s new era certainly didn’t get off to a fortuitous beginning last week. The city’s violent crime wave continued unabated, and another cop was murdered on the eve of the announcement of the new reforms. And the dozens of new recruits who showed up at the department’s training academy had to cool their heels all week because the classes were filled with current officers in need of retraining.
Down at headquarters, no one seemed to notice that the latest crop of recruits was just wasting away the days at the odorous Blue Plains academy.
Although Sandy McCall’s Ward 6 campaign plank of federalizing MPD disappeared last week with the “empowerment” of Soulsby, the council candidate drew the sort of fire at a Feb. 25 forum that’s usually reserved for a front-runner. The crowded field of contenders at Capitol Hill’s Unity Church accused McCall of dividing the community by steadfastly pushing a plan to bring the department under greater federal control.
But Fraternal Order of Police president Ron Robertson, who enticed McCall to run in the special Ward 6 election, has abandoned his push for a federally controlled commission to oversee the department. Robertson said last week he wants to give Soulsby the chance to prove he can straighten out the troubled department.
Amid all the talk of public safety at the forum, Ward 6 hopeful Charles Day distanced himself from the field with a couple of classic campaign-trail bloopers. When asked what issues aside from crime deserve the immediate attention of the council, Day responded, “One is economic development, which is needed drastically on the other side of the river. The other is unemployment, which is also needed drastically on the other side of the river.”
Day also delivered a spirited appeal for greater community involvement in District affairs. “I can’t solve your problems while you’re sitting in front of the TV set,” said the 70-year-old retired federal worker. “Even if I had all the right ideas,” continued Day, “I’d have to go down and fight with the seven other idiots on the council.” Day, however, won’t likely get his chance to fight with the seven idiots (and the five non-idiots) on the councilhis candidacy petition is almost sure to be disqualified this month.
When candidates got to ask each other questions during the forum, John Capozzi challenged Rob Robinson to give back the $1,000 “special interest” contribution he got from H.H. Leonards and her controversial Dupont Circle salon/private club, the Mansion. The salvo drew the loudest approval from the crowd of some 75 Ward 6 residents.
But Robinson said he would continue to accept donations from such “legitimate” businesses. “Those are the kinds of businesses we need to keep in Washington,” he said of the liquor-serving club, which is located on a quiet residential street.
Meanwhile, Howard Croft, who actively backed Dave Clarke’s 1993 return to the council chairmanship after a three-year absence, is paying the consequences for his activism. Croft, a leading contender in the Ward 6 council race, was forced to resign his post as urban studies chairman at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Feb. 21 because of what is being referred to as the “Dave Clarke amendment.”
After Clarke returned to the council, he relentlessly lobbied Congress to remove the home rule charter provision barring the council chair from holding outside employment. Irritated by Clarke’s lobbying effort, House members brought UDC under the federal Hatch Act, blocking university employees from partisan politics. The amendment killed Clarke’s plans to teach part-time at his beloved D.C. School of Law, a division of UDC.
Croft campaign counsel Don Dinan claims UDC is the only publicly financed university in the nation where faculty members are barred from running for office. “Even the people in Guam have more rights than we do,” Dinan said last week.
But the Croft campaign has decided to appeal this inequity on the campaign trail instead of in the courts…
The Washington Afro-American newspaper broke through a citywide hush with a Feb. 22 editorial calling on the ailing Clarke to step down. The editorial was accompanied by a cartoon depicting councilmembers keeping a death watch at Clarke’s hospital bed. Clarke has been hospitalized since December.CP
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