As Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. outlined his new “transforming public safety strategy” for D.C.’s mean streets this Monday, visions of Patti LaBelle danced through LL’s head. When Barry announced the appointment of Larry Soulsby as the permanent chief of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), he declared that he has “a new, transforming attitude” about public safety.
LL fully expected Hizzoner to burst into song, belting out his own jazzed-up version of LaBelle’s “New Attitude,” with Soulsby and fellow officers crooning the chorus.
I love cops,
I hate crime,
Who the heck cares that I had to do some time?
I got a new attitude
Oooh-oooh Oooh-oooh Oooooooh!
He’s got a new attitude
He’s my chief,
Black and white together we’ll clean these streets,
With my new attitude
Oooh-oooh Oooh-oooh Oooooooh!
His new, blue attitude
Needless to say, Barry resisted the temptation to sing, perhaps because his wife, Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, was looming in the second row at the news conference. Lady Mac might well have viewed such conduct as unmayoral.
But the appointment of Soulsby may signal a shift in the mayor’s stormy relationship with his police department. The man who launched his political career by bashing the D.C. police, and who saw that career nearly ended by a police drug sting, took considerable time on Monday trying to convince skeptical reporters and citizens that “public safety is the No. 1 priority of the Barry administration.”
Of course, many longtime Barry watchers believe that controlling the police department is the No. 1 public-safety priority of the Barry administration.
Barry’s famed ambivalence toward his police force mirrors the sentiment in many D.C. neighborhoods, where the cops are viewed as members of an occupying army, not as trusted public servants. So when Barry said on Monday that “re-targeting the resources of the Metropolitan Police Department and rebuilding a citizen commitment to neighborhood safety requires a transforming experience,” LL thought: Hizzoner knows of what he speaks.
Now the mayor must convince most of MPD that he himself has been transformed, and that his words are sincere.
In picking Soulsby as the new chief, Barry proved he can still recognize a shrewd political move, especially when it’s standing right in front of him. Soulsby, who has been acting chief since July, is well-liked by the overseers on Capitol Hill, where Barry and the city need all the friends they can find. The new chief is especially friendly with Rep. Fred Heineman (R-N.C.), who was appointed by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) last summer to devise a plan to stem D.C.’s public-safety crisis.
And while skepticism of Barry runs deep in the MPD’s rank and file—cops know his history of trying to run the department from the mayor’s office—Soulsby is a popular choice with many officers.
By picking a white police chief for a predominantly black city, Barry also blunts criticism that he always plays racial politics—although the Soulsby choice may just be a different brand of race politics from Barry’s typical black nationalism. Hizzoner may be calculating that a white chief will be easier to control than a cop who has deeper ties to the black community.
During Monday’s news conference, Barry said he realized “two or three weeks” after naming Soulsby interim police chief on July 7 that he needed to search no further for a new chief. So he scrapped plans for a national search, though he then waited more than three months to appoint Soulsby to the job. Over the past several weeks, Barry has brought Soulsby to “town meetings” across the city, where the interim chief seemed to be auditioning for the permanent job.
At those gatherings, the good-natured Soulsby showed he could play to his audiences. He performed especially well at the mayor’s Ward 5 town meeting Oct. 26. Soulsby praised the Million Man March and told those gathered at Israel Baptist Church on Saratoga Avenue NE that if the National Park Service estimated the size of the town meeting, the 500 in attendance would be reduced to 35. It played well, and showed that the West Virginia native can sound like a politician when he needs to.
“He’s clearly qualified to be chief,” Carl Rowan Jr. says of Soulsby. “The fear is that he will not be able to withstand the inevitable pressure he will get from the mayor’s office.”
Son of the famed columnist, Rowan heads Alliance for Public Safety, which organized an Oct. 25 rally in support of the cops outside police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW. The demonstration, which attracted about 150 officers and citizens, was designed to pressure Barry, the council, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to embrace Heineman’s $42-million plan to rebuild the police department. But that plan died this week in the wake of Barry’s opposition, which was expressed vehemently during Monday’s news conference.
“I think the big test for Soulsby,” says Rowan, “will be whether he’s going to be a tough crime fighter who is strong and independent and above the rather suffocating politics that envelop every office in this town, or whether he’s going to get caught up in some of the same type of [politics] that tarnished reputations of prior chiefs.”
Soulsby did not get off to a good start on his first day as permanent chief, at least by Rowan’s standards. Even as Soulsby promised to push officers from behind the desks into the neighborhoods, he also announced the creation of the Community Empowerment Policing Office, adding another layer of blubber to the flabby MPD bureaucracy. And, after pledging to set a higher standard for honesty in a department where 200 officers are currently on administrative leave facing criminal trials or internal disciplinary reviews, Soulsby made several appointments that Rowan says “send a bad signal.”
Keeping Charles Bacon as deputy police chief in charge of patrols in the southern half of the city, despite accusations by female officers that Bacon sexually harassed them.
Elevating Wendell Watkins, considered a favorite crony of Barry’s in the department, to deputy chief in charge of support services.
Promoting Joyce Leland to deputy chief for personnel development. Leland has close ties to Lady MacBarry, and was rumored to be the First Lady’s choice for police chief. But some officers who worked for her told LL that Leland is not a good administrator.
Barry said Monday that he and Soulsby consulted on all of the new chief’s appointments.
But the appointments, says Rowan, further threaten the integrity of the department. “If someone in the management ranks can do the things Charles Bacon has done and still remain on the job, it sends a bad signal to the rank-and-file officers, and also makes it hard to discipline them,” he says.
“A police department without discipline is in a sorry state of affairs,” Rowan continues.
Rowan and other MPD observers agree that the new chief faces a Sisyphean task. Handicapped by shrinking resources, demoralized and underpaid officers, and an alienated citizenry, Soulsby must revive a department that is perceived—both within and without—as undisciplined, inefficient, out of control, and highly politicized.
The new chief can’t accomplish that by serving as the mayor’s chorus. He’ll need the courage to step forward, grab the microphone, and sing the lead.
SMITH CAN’T GET NO RESPECT
Ward 1 Coun cilmember Frank Smith was cruising around his ward the evening of Oct. 24 when he spotted a house fire in the 1800 block of Kenyon Street NW. So Smith parked his car in the middle of Kenyon Street and got out to inspect the scene. Smith peered into the blazing house, then worked the crowd that had gathered to gawk.
When Smith returned to his car, he found the usual gift from the city: a parking ticket tucked under the windshield. By double-parking next to a fire rescue vehicle, the councilmember had blocked Kenyon Street and the path of one of the firetrucks arriving at the scene. After discovering the ticket, Smith approached a D.C. police officer standing nearby. According to a resident who witnessed the encounter, the following conversation ensued.
Smith: Do you know there’s a parking ticket on my car?
Officer: Yes sir, I know.
Smith: You want I should bring it back to you?
Officer: No sir, I don’t want that.
Smith: How long you been a police officer?
Officer: Three years.
Smith: Well, I’ve been a councilman for 12 years, and I know how to get these tickets fixed down at the 4th District.
Officer: All right, sir. You’ll have to go to the 4th District if you want to talk about it.
At that point, Smith turned in frustration and headed back to his car. As the councilmember drove away, the cop gleefully high-fived a fellow officer, celebrating his small victory over raw political power.
Smith offers a slightly different version of the exchange. “I didn’t say I could get [the ticket] “fixed.’ I said I could get it “taken care of,’ ” says the councilmember. “I thought it was inappropriate [for the officer to ticket me]. I was on duty.”
He also claims that there was room for the fire engine to maneuver around his car. The councilmember says he has written a letter to the officer’s commander informing him of the conduct of “the rookie cop.”
D.C. DEMS PARTY
Energy Secretary HazelO’Leary was the featured speaker for the D.C. Democratic State Committee’s annual dinner Oct. 20, but the rare appearance of former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly created the biggest buzz. Kelly has become almost invisible in D.C. since leaving office in January, especially after House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R-N.Y.), began threatening to subpoena her. Walsh wants Kelly to answer questions about whether her administration purposely cooked the city’s books to mislead Congress and Wall Street investors about the true, dire state of the city’s financial affairs.
Kelly, fresh from her teaching stint at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, strolled into the Capitol Hilton ballroom for the Democratic banquet looking more relaxed than she ever did when she held the reins of power. (The trappings of power are gone, as well. Kelly walked into the banquet alone—no security guards, no fanfare, no aides, no husband.) Herroner sat at the head table next to Hizzoner, who was decked out in a business suit and tie instead of his customary African dress.
But the banquet wasn’t entirely pleasant for Kelly. O’Leary, doing her best Oprah impression, roamed through the audience, mic in hand, to deliver a rousing speech and narrate a slide show titled, “Great Women Make Great Nations.” The great women on the slides included Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, At-Large Councilmember Hilda Mason, and Norton. Four years ago, Kelly would have headlined that group, but her dismal term in office knocked her out of contention. The former mayor just had to grimace and bear it.