Twenty years after his death, police hold a memorial for James M. McGee Jr.

Last Saturday, about 40 people gathered inside a basement room in the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7th District to remember an officer who was killed in the line of duty 20 years earlier. If not for an extraordinary response by a handful of people, the tragedy might instead have been remembered as the spark that lit a racial conflagration within MPD.

The memorial service for Officer James M. McGee Jr. was relaxed, almost jaunty. People who knew McGee were asked to share their memories of him. Several friends, including a handful of fellow officers who worked with McGee, recalled his athletic prowess and his sense of humor. “Mac was a jokester, and a prankster, he was competitive—and he would cheat to win,” 7D Commander Willie Dandridge recalled, drawing laughs from the crowd. Dandridge was a sergeant in 7D when McGee was killed.

McGee’s father, James M. McGee Sr., also recalled his son’s athletic abilities—he excelled at basketball, baseball, and football—and quipped, “he got that from me,” drawing more laughs. None of McGee’s relatives or close friends said anything about the circumstances of his death.

But one speaker, David Kirkpatrick, a graying, retired D.C. cop, spoke directly and movingly about the depths of the tragedy, its potentially explosive racial implications, and the remarkable response by McGee’s mother.

“There could have been a real rift in 7D and a real rift in the department because a white officer had killed a black officer,” Kirkpatrick said, his voice choked with emotion. As his eyes teared up, Kirkpatrick, who is white, shifted in his seat and looked directly at Mary McGee, the fallen officer’s mother. “But the forgiveness of this woman… I don’t know that I could have done it.”

It took a exemplary reaction 20 years ago by both of McGee’s parents, 7D commanders, police union representatives, homicide detectives, and, ultimately, rank-and-file officers, to keep the racial tensions brought to the surface by the shooting from boiling over, in the station and perhaps throughout the police department.

About 15 minutes before midnight on Feb. 7, 1995, McGee, 26, was off duty, in street clothes, driving home in his red Eagle Talon, when a cab driver, Alexander Wallace, drove into oncoming traffic toward the Talon. Two men Wallace had picked up as fares were robbing him; one of them had pressed a gun barrel to the back off the cabbie’s head. In the previous year, attackers had killed five cabdrivers in D.C., and Wallace was desperately trying to reach a major thoroughfare where someone might summon police.

Near the corner of Good Hope Road and 25th Street SE, McGee and Wallace hit their respective brakes.

Wallace jumped out of his taxi, followed by the two bandits. As the three men struggled near the nose of the cab, McGee jumped out of his car, leaving his girlfriend and her two young daughters inside. McGee pulled his police-issued Glock 9mm handgun from his belt holster, dashed around the rear of the cab, and stood near the taxi’s front door.

One block north, at the crest of a hilly section of 25th Street SE, Officer Michael A. Baker, 28, and his partner, rookie Leonard T. Vaughan, were in their squad car, on their way to serve a subpoena. Barely 10 minutes into their shift, the two officers looked down the hill and saw a black man with a gun—McGee.

Baker, the driver, flipped on the cruiser’s roof lights and hit the gas. Seconds later, he turned left onto Good Hope Road, slammed the brakes, and jumped out. Baker pulled out his service weapon, spread his legs in a shooter’s stance, and trained his gun on McGee, who was dressed in a three-quarter length jacket, black jeans, and black boots.

McGee had his back to Baker as he trained his weapon on one of the bandits, who was struggling with Wallace, the cabdriver.

It was chaos: Wallace was screaming as he fought for his life. McGee shouted that he was a police officer. Baker screamed that he was a police officer and ordered McGee to drop his gun. A civilian driver got out of his car and yelled at Baker that McGee was a cop; the man had seen McGee run toward the struggling cabbie and figured he was an officer.

McGee and Baker were acquaintances, but didn’t know each other well. In the cacophony of screams, detectives would determine, it was likely that neither McGee nor Baker heard any of the warnings. Some witnesses said McGee began to turn toward Baker; others said he stepped toward the cabbie and the bandit. Whatever the case, he didn’t drop his gun.

Street cops are usually trained to consider an armed man who doesn’t comply with commands to drop his gun, then turns toward you or someone else, as a deadly threat. Baker fired once, twice. One round lodged in McGee’s left arm; the other entered near his left shoulder blade and penetrated his chest. Baker raced to his cruiser and called for an ambulance while Vaughan ran to McGee, opened his jacket, and saw McGee’s silver D.C. police badge, No. 2482, clipped to the right side of his belt. He’s one of us, Vaughan told his partner. Baker notified the dispatcher that an officer was down.

An ambulance raced McGee to D.C. General Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead 11 minutes after midnight.

At the shooting scene, Dandridge, a 7D patrol sergeant at the time, talked to Baker as the officer sat in his patrol car. “He broke down,” Dandridge recalled after the memorial service. “He wept like a baby. He was torn up.”

Dozens of 7D officers, on-duty and and off-duty, heard about the shooting and went to the scene. There, and at the station, black and white officers cried and cursed. And even before investigators provided an official account, officers at that dreary Southeast corner, many of them black, began to talk: Baker overreacted. He didn’t give McGee a chance to ID himself or put down his gun. He would not have shot a white man with a gun.

It may well have been true that Baker would not have shot a white man with a gun. But that had nothing to do with racial bias. The population of the 7th Police District was and remains overwhelmingly black. In that part of town, a white man with a gun was more likely than not to be a cop or a federal agent.

As rumors about the shooting spread with terrifying speed, then-Inspector Winston Robinson, the 7D commander at the time, realized he couldn’t just let events take their course. Most veteran officers, he knew, understood how something like this could happen, but many of the 269 officers under his command were young and relatively inexperienced. If officers began to split along racial lines, if someone said the wrong thing on the street or in the station, it could get ugly in 7D and maybe throughout the entire department.

Six months ago in Ferguson, Mo., the shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by white Officer Darren Wilson sparked weeks of sometimes angry demonstrations. Some of the anger was caused by the Ferguson Police Department’s refusal to provide basic information about the shooting. For example, the department took six days to release Wilson’s name.

Nearly 20 years ago, to keep the peace within MPD, Robinson and other police officials had taken the opposite approach, opting for transparency, however painful the facts were.

An hour or so after the shooting, Robinson made a series of phone calls and arranged for all of the officers on duty when Baker shot McGee, and everyone in McGee’s 25-officer unit, to report early to 7D. At police headquarters, Robinson asked Captain William “Lou” Hennessy, then the commander of the homicide unit, whether the lead homicide detective investigating the shooting would go to 7D to brief his officers.

Take whoever you need, Hennessy responded. “People were emotional, and talking,” Hennessy, now a state judge in Maryland, recalled in an interview. “Stories can get out of hand. We wanted the facts out there.”

For several days, homicide Detective Gregory Archer, a blunt ex-Marine who’d caught the case because he was next in the rotation, and several other homicide investigators briefed 7D roll calls and answered the questions of officers. Detective conducted some of the briefings in the basement room where McGee was honored last Saturday.

Meanwhile, Robinson and Officer Catharine Taggart-Wilson, the 7D shop steward for the police union, talked to officers, trying to keep them calm.

Taggart-Wilson also tried to help Baker cope with the situation. Baker told the union rep he wanted to say goodbye to McGee and offer his condolences to his family. The rep relayed the request to James McGee Sr. Quietly, the elder McGee agreed to meet with Baker, alone, in Galilee Baptist Church, where his son’s body, in full uniform, lay in state. Emotions were running high, and he wasn’t sure how other family members would respond to Baker’s presence, McGee explained.

Inside the church sanctuary, Baker bade his fellow officer goodbye, and told the senior McGee how sorry he was, that he never meant to hurt his son. McGee held out his hand—then embraced Baker, to show that, at that moment, he held no animosity.

The briefings by homicide detectives, the efforts of Robinson and Taggart-Wilson, and the extraordinary grace exhibited by McGee’s parents quelled the tensions among 7D officers. Some officers continued to question whether Baker had to fire on McGee, but most accepted the incident as an awful tragedy.

An investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office found no criminal wrongdoing by Baker. He left the police department a few years after the shooting.

The tragedy occurred during D.C.’s hyper-violent crack era, when the city routinely recorded more than 400 homicides annually. McGee was one of eight MPD officers killed in the line of duty between 1993 and 1997. A little more than two months before McGee was killed, a gangster had walked into the D.C. homicide office and fatally shot two FBI agents and a police sergeant, and almost killed a third agent, before taking his own life.

At least a half-dozen of those who gathered in the 7D basement roll call room to honor McGee were relatives of MPD officers who were killed in the line of duty.

Among them were Shirley Gibson, 69, the mother of Officer Brian T. Gibson, who had been ambushed in his patrol car on Georgia Avenue NW, near the 4th Police District where he worked, almost exactly two years after McGee was killed.

During the memorial for McGee, Gibson spoke of how MPD has enveloped her and her family, helping them to heal.

“Officers hug me, and when I feel those hugs and that vest and service weapon on their side, I feel my son,” Gibson said.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery