Ronald Hampton, a Black criminal justice consultant, who worked for the Metropolitan Police Department, spoke about the need for holding the police accountable for their actions on Sept. 6. (Courtesy Photo)
While residents of the District of Columbia haven’t had to endure the drama of racially-tinged incidents involving police officers shooting unarmed Blacks, residents are still wary of the city’s law enforcement department. On Sept. 6, 76 residents gathered at the Busboys & Poets restaurant on 14th Street to talk about the relationship between the Metropolitan Police Department and the neighborhoods they serve at a monthly A.C.T.O.R. (A Continuing Talk on Race) meeting, a program the eatery holds.
Ronald Hampton, a well-known Black criminal justice consultant who used to work for the District’s police department, told the gathering that an ongoing discussion about the police department is critical to residents. “We should hold our police department and its officers accountable for their actions and the department should be transparent on how they deal with residents,” Hampton said.
The District’s police department consists of approximately 3,900 officers and 400 civilian staff and is the sixth-largest municipal police department in the United States. The department serves an area of 68 square miles and a population of 672,228 people.
Unlike many big-city police departments, the District’s force has had a reputation for hiring a large number of police officers even during the era of racial segregation. In 1970, the department was 35 percent Black but the city was rapidly becoming more Black at that time.
Today, the department is 59 percent Black, 32 percent White, seven percent Latino and two percent Asian. The first Black police chief in the District was Burtell Jefferson, who was appointed by then D.C. Mayor Walter Washington. He was followed by Black chiefs Maurice Turner and Ike Fulwood.
Several people at the discussion said they believe that the department’s strong Black workforce and outgoing police chief Cathy Lanier’s emphasis on community policing are the reasons why no highly-publicized racial killings have taken place in the city. Nevertheless, the police force has its problems and Hampton said he blames it on the department’s culture.
“Even though we have had Black officers, the unofficial policy is to protect the White community and monitor the Black community,” he said. “All of the minorities in the force, even the chiefs, couldn’t change the culture.”
Officer Kevin Johnson works in the Special Liaison Division of the District’s police force. The Division works with the District’s gay and lesbian, deaf and hard of hearing, Latino and Black residents. Johnson said the police force has worked hard to engage residents. “This is why we come to community events like this,” Johnson said. “We want to listen to what you have to say and work with you.”
His colleague, Officer Myra Jordan, said residents should consider signing up for the department’s citizens’ police department.”If you participate in the citizens’ police academy, you will be able to walk in our shoes, see what we see, and you’ll see how tough our job is,” she said.
The forum was co-sponsored by D.C. United Against Hate, an organization formed to counter the racially-insensitive rhetoric of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. D.C. United organized the gathering into six groups with facilitators leading the discussions. The groups were charged with listing the problems of the police department and possible solutions. After 45 minutes of often loud discussions, selected members reported out the conclusions.
Courses of action included more racial sensitivity training for officers, requiring officers to live in the District, and more opportunities for officers to interact with the community.
Georgia Warren, who coordinated D.C. United’s role in the discussion, said there will be follow-up. “We want to know what you want to do,” Warren said. “We want to move forward with this.”
A.J. Head is the events coordinator for Busboys and Poets and said that the session was beneficial. “We may not have had the problems with the police other cities have had because we are a political town,” Head told the AFRO. “We react in peaceful, non-violent ways such as rallies, and discussions.”
While Head was positive about the event, District resident Jelani Wilkins wasn’t. “My true thoughts are that this was public relations for the police department,” Jelani Wilkins, a resident, said. “There wasn’t any talk about real solutions and there was no real discussion about race. I understand that people need to blow off steam and release pressure but we need real progress for good police-community relations.”