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Owen Davis; Police Force Leader Amid D.C. Turmoil

Owen White Davis, known within the police force as
Owen White Davis, known within the police force as "Gentleman Jim" and among demonstrators as "Mad Dog Davis," overcame racial limitations in what was then a predominantly white force. (By Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post)

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007

Owen White Davis, 92, the first black deputy police chief in the District, who led the patrol division and who was responsible for keeping the peace during tumultuous protests in the 1960s and 1970s, died of kidney disease Oct. 7 at Providence Hospital. He lived in Washington.

Mr. Davis, known within the police force as "Gentleman Jim" and among demonstrators as "Mad Dog Davis," was given the unenviable task of leading the special operations and tactical units just before the 1969 Poor People's March on Washington.

He was at all the city's upheavals during those volatile years: the 1971 anti-Vietnam War May Day disruptions, the Three Sisters Bridge brawl in 1969, and untold numbers of welfare sit-ins, race riots and disturbances at the District's Lorton prison complex in Fairfax County.

At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, even without his riot helmet and gear, Mr. Davis was an easy target for anti-establishment demonstrators.

He took a hard line against disturbances and personally hurled tear gas when a May Day crowd at Dupont Circle refused to disperse. He dodged countless rocks and was severely cut in 1970 by flying glass during a welfare riot, but he fired his gun only once, after being shot at while responding to a domestic disturbance in the 1950s.

"I believe in locking people up for violations of the law," he said in a 1972 interview with The Washington Post. "And I believe the best way to stop an illegal demonstration is to lock up the demonstrators -- very gently, though. . . . I don't believe in killing people . . . but I certainly believe in arresting people and I also believe in the copious use of tear gas."

Although he denigrated demonstrators as "hippies, yippies and crazies," he said in the 1972 interview he came to agree with their opposition to the Vietnam War. The war protests never threatened the stability of the government, he said, but if the race riots across the country had lasted longer, they "would have brought us closer to anarchy than anything else."

Mr. Davis crossed a metaphorical police barrier, consistently overcoming racial limitations in what was then a predominantly white police force. He was the second black corporal to be appointed, the first black uniformed sergeant, the second black lieutenant, the first black captain, the first black inspector and the first black deputy chief.

He had often been called upon to provide a calming influence during the volatile street uprising. "You do what you have to do and the hell with the rest," he told a Post reporter in 1972. "I just think of myself as one of the troops."

He was born in Elkins, W.Va., and moved to the District at 13. He graduated from the old Armstrong Technical High School, then worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps at camps in Virginia and Maryland.

He returned to Washington in 1936, attended Howard University for a year, then made mailbags for the Post Office Department. In 1939, he joined the city police, because a patrolman made $1,900, which was $700 more a year than he earned at the post office.

Only about 30 African Americans worked in the 1,500-man police force in 1939, and six were detective sergeants. No black officers ever rose higher. But in 1951, a new police chief, Robert Murray, promised to promote based on qualifications. So a group of black privates took the promotion exam, and Mr. Davis passed. He became a corporal and started his steady rise through the ranks. He made captain in 1964 and deputy commander in 1965.

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