Pride in Badge Keeps Officers on Beat
By Mary Pat Flaherty
"I shine this badge every day, and I wear it proud."
The pointing finger of Officer Robert King gets close, so close, to the metal but pulls away, leaving Badge 3077 without a smudge.
Like King's career thus far.
Like hundreds of other officers hired in 1989 and 1990 who do their work well but under the cloud of former police academy classmates who don't.
King joined the D.C. police department in 1990, in the biggest class to go through the academy. He was in 90-10, the 10th class of 1990 at the academy, the one that broke the records with 76 people.
King works in the 3rd Police District now, patrolling downtown and enduring the occasional cluck about "you young cops." He insists that "I wouldn't do anything else anywhere else."
He's just 26 and looks it. The minute he steps out of his patrol car, he puts a face on the classes of 1989 and 1990. Just as does Officer Juan Burford, 27, in the 4th District in upper Northwest Washington or Officer Mark Harrison, 34, in the 7th District in far Southeast or Officer Tonia D. Delaney, 29, in the 5th District in Northeast.
Each has been named an Officer of the Month for an act of special valor or service. What the officers have in common goes beyond that, though, and suggests what has helped them succeed.
Each was in the military before joining the police force and was accustomed to teamwork and a chain of command. Each had a police training officer in the field with at least eight years of experience. And each has a clear and expressed belief that the officer makes the uniform, not the other way around.
"I take everything I do as a reflection on me," says Burford, all polished metal and starched shirt. "I'm accurate. I write neatly. I'm concise in my reports. Eventually, that piece of paper I fill out is going to make its way into court and it's going to be a sign of how well I do my job. I want it to send the same sign I do when I walk the street."
Burford is a graduate of Anacostia High School and a District native, like Delaney, who graduated from McKinley Tech. Harrison came from Detroit. King came from Calvert County in southern Maryland and took the D.C. police exam after hearing as he was applying to the Maryland State Police that the city was hiring.
None of them, they say, got the job they'd expected when they took the police test. There is more violence, more stress and exposure to more hardship self-made and inflicted.
"It tears you up when you go in some of these places and find no electricity, no food," Burford says.
And no peace of mind. "I had an old lady tell me how happy she was when I come on foot beat because she can come outside her door and walk to the store," instead of taking a chance "and doing what she usually does: asking one of the drug boys on the corner to go for her and wondering whether he'll come back with her groceries or her money," Burford says. "It killed me hearing that."
They also got more satisfaction from "the people who are happy to see you show up," as Delaney puts it. But they find there are fewer of those people than they thought. "You'd be surprised how many people hate the police and how many parents teach their kids to," Burford says.
Harrison works now on the vice squad, but used to be on patrol, where he was forever talking to children and talking up learning.
"I'd give them little gratuities, a few dollars, for a good report," he says. "I had one guy who kept the card in his pocket every day till he saw me to show me how well he was doing. He was one of those kids caught in between. He's smart and can do right but is battling every day with people who drag on him to do wrong."
For Burford and Delaney, their work is a chance to invest in their home town. "I want to live here and stay in D.C. when I buy a home. I'm not getting chased out of my city," Burford says.
Delaney apologizes for "sounding a little hokey, maybe, but when I was in the Army, I served my country. I took this job to serve my city."
The pall cast by the arrests of other younger officers has made it harder to do their jobs, the four say.
Eight of the 12 officers arrested in last December's FBI narcotics sting worked in the same district as Delaney; one, she says, was a friend. Two of the 12 were academy classmates of Burford's.
Delaney, who looks pained as she talks about watching the newscasts the day of the arrest and seeing her colleagues in "the nasty orange jumpsuits" jail inmates wear, says: "I can't tell you what went wrong. There was no hint, no clues."
There always are temptations, Burford says cash at crime scenes, jewelry "but I haven't seen enough money yet to throw away my life on and my worth as an officer and a man. You do your job, you'll make money eventually, and you won't be looking over your shoulder the whole time wondering whether someone caught on that you're crooked."
People on the streets and other officers "will ride us about being the class," King says, "but you act professional, you dress professional and you speak professionally, and you separate yourself from that stereotype."
Harrison says he wants to spread a similar message. He's had people say to him, "You young guys all are crooked." But he says: "I'm proud of the organization and of the majority of guys who are doing right. So, you explain that as best you can when you get a chance, and you hold your tongue the rest of the time.
"We're out there for them. I guess that's what I really want to tell people: 'Keep the faith in us.'"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company