Soulsby Brought Himself Down
By Doug Struck and Michael Powell
In the end, Larry Soulsby knew too little too often.
The D.C. police chief's 28-month tenure periodically has been marked by his expressions of surprise at uncomfortable revelations. His latest claim that he was unaware of how his roommate got a deep discount on rent on their downtown luxury apartment was the last of a pattern that finally led to his departure yesterday.
The West Virginia coal miner's son, whose rise to the position of top cop in the nation's capital was smooth and unbruised, closed his career with a turbulent record of denials and disavowals over the last year that ended his credibility as a reformer at a time when reform is the cry of the city.
When his homicide section was exposed as dysfunctional, Soulsby said he was unware of the problems. When detectives collected huge overtime checks, Soulsby disavowed knowledge of the scheme.
When he appointed a convicted wife-beater to head an anti-crime effort, Soulsby said he had not heard about the man's background, although it was described as common knowledge in the department. When consultants issued a scathing report of departmental management practices, the 24-year veteran said much of it was news to him.
This record was grist for enemies, and in his short tenure as chief, Soulsby made enemies. In his effort to accommodate his bosses first Mayor Marion Barry and later the D.C. financial control board Soulsby proved agreeable to hiring and firing at their direction.
Just as the politics of image and connections helped propel Soulsby to the top, the politics of grudges may have helped bring the 47-year-old chief down. Some argue that Soulsby succumbed to leaks and criticisms from departmental rivals.
"There's no question in my mind that there were some people out to get him," said Detective Ron Robertson, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee. "Of course, he didn't help himself with some of the things he said. I don't think he's a deliberate liar, but he misstated some things."
Soulsby's strength and weakness were embedded in the same foundation: He was a lifelong veteran of a highly politicized police force. To his advocates, among them control board Vice Chairman Stephen D. Harlan, Soulsby's background gave him a unique insight into the department's problems. D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), another supporter and head of the council's Judiciary Committee, said, "He knows where the skeletons are buried."
But to his critics, Soulsby's lifelong tenure and appointment by Barry (D) spoke more to his keen political sense. Even Harlan, in comments last month, said, "I have to admit, I sometimes wonder about what the chief knew and when."
Soulsby grew up in Beckley, W.Va. Poor academic scores kept him from his dream of going to West Point, and he spent two years at Marshall University. On a visit to Washington, he answered a newspaper ad for police recruits and joined the force in 1973, walking a beat on Georgia Avenue NW. Two brothers followed Soulsby onto the force and now are sergeants.
Soulsby was a large white cop with a country drawl in a force becoming predominantly black. Yet he rose quickly through the ranks and became the city's first white chief since 1977.
He was made a lieutenant within four years of joining and had a knack for community relations: He soon found himself in charge of public information, and he was ubiquitous at neighborhood meetings.
Soulsby's quick rise bypassed many of the traditional steppingstones for advancement. Although he had no experience as a detective, he was named head of the homicide section in 1984, and he stayed four years.
His career was undamaged by the surge of crack-related killings homicides rose from 147 to 369 a year during his tenure in the unit. Ironically, his career was not saved by the drop in serious crime in the city this year.
In the early 1990s, then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly (D) saw him implement a "community policing" program and found him "solid and competent." His reputation in the department was of a steady, unblemished insider with good connections.
But Barry, who returned to the mayor's office in 1995, did not rush to embrace Soulsby, instead naming a 17-member search committee to replace outgoing Chief Fred Thomas. He finally named Soulsby to the job that October, Barry said, because "he really is an honest cop. He knows the department. He's been everywhere. He's not an armchair cop."
In fact, Soulsby never was able to escape the suspicion that he was appointed because Barry thought he was pliable. Soulsby's actions did little to dispel that: When Barry wanted something, Soulsby was obliging.
"Barry picked Soulsby in the beginning because the people the mayor preferred were already under a cloud," said Dwight Cropp, a professor at George Washington University and former aide to Barry. "But Soulsby was more than willing to carry water for Barry and an essentially corrupt department."
Until February, Barry appointed the 20 officials on the force above the rank of captain and had a heavy hand in the department's hiring and assignment details. When Barry wanted Detective Ulysses Walltower on his security detail, Soulsby made the assignment, even though Walltower was being investigated for alleged witness tampering. In return, Barry defended his chief.
From the beginning, Soulsby needed defending. Virtually his first personnel decision became a fiasco.
When Soulsby transferred Capt. William L. "Lou" Hennessy from the homicide unit to the police academy, Hennessy had an angry confrontation with Soulsby that he surreptitiously tape-recorded. To end the dispute, Soulsby and Hennessy signed a secret agreement, in which Hennessy agreed not to testify against Soulsby at confirmation hearings and Soulsby agreed to improve Hennessy's assignments. When the pact eventually was exposed, it made national news on television's "60 Minutes."
Soulsby's next steps were no more steady. He tried to rally the department to take back the streets from crime. But the rally quickly faltered when he picked Inspector Adrian D. Barnes to lead the charge, only to dump Barnes after discovering he had been been convicted years ago of battery against his wife.
Soulsby claimed he did not know about Barnes's conviction, but others grumbled that it was common knowledge on the force.
The chief also did not engender loyalty among his troops because of his willingness to criticize his own department and offer up the jobs of others to deflect complaints aimed at him.
In May 1996, for example, Soulsby publicly declared that his department bungled the case of a Ballou High School student found strangled. When the control board wrested oversight of the police department from Barry earlier this year, Soulsby showed his loyalty to the board by accepting the resignations of four top managers, colleagues with whom he had worked for decades.
To replace Hennessy, Soulsby installed Alan Dreher, a longtime friend who had no experience as a homicide detective. On Dreher's watch, the homicide rate shot up 15 percent and case closures plummeted to 36 percent for the first eight months of this year. Soulsby tried to stanch the problem by ordering unlimited overtime. But closures remained low, and overtime spun out of control.
Carl Rowan Jr., a Capitol Hill lawyer and harsh critic of the police department, contends that Soulsby was too adept at sidestepping blame.
"The Chief Soulsby era will be remembered as one of the saddest chapters in the history of the police department," Rowan said yesterday.
Robertson credited Soulsby with "taking a department at rock bottom and trying to help." But, Robertson said, "the majority of our members probably couldn't care less that he's gone."
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company