Articles in This Series

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight

Go to Washington World

Chapter Six: 1990-91

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 18, 1995

Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. had seen the duct-tape murders: hands bound behind the back and two bullets to the head. He'd seen the Jamaican specials: a gun barrel up the anus and viscera blasted through the stomach. But none of this prepared him for the spanking-white Nikes, the kind of sneakers his son wore.

They were poking out from beneath a sheet in an alley behind Fulwood's home in the Hillcrest section of Southeast Washington. Catching sight of the shoes, he turned and walked away.

It was not his son under the sheet that night in 1990. But something clicked. He went home and told his wife: "I'm out of here. I'm done with it." Fulwood did not leave his job until two years laterówhen he was feuding with then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and frustrated by his inability to stem the tide of murdersóbut his daughter, Angela, remembers that her father "just wasn't the same" after seeing those shoes.

The crime wave that shocked the police chief began building in 1986, when crack cocaine appeared on the streets of Washington. Crack and the arsenal of automatic weapons that came with it gave the city the least desirable moniker imaginable: Murder Capital. From 1985 to 1991, homicides rose 260 percent. The per-capita homicide rate led the nation for several years before inching down.

As much as the quantity, it was the quality of the killing that chilled cops like Fulwood. Before crack, the vast majority of killings were domestic. After crack, according to the head of D.C. Superior Court, maybe 5 percent were domestic.

As Fulwood saw it, murder became a lifestyle option for "for valueless people without a soul." Bullets hit children at play, as well as commuters driving through the city. "In August of 1989, I went to the scene of a quadruple," Fulwood said. "A little kid who couldn't have been more than 9 came up when I got out of my car and said, `Let me see your hat.' I asked him what had happened, and he answered, `They killed some mother [expletive] in there.' "

Fulwood took the boy over to a Good Humor truck, where he smiled as he ate his chocolate ice cream owl and told the chief about death. "I thought to myself I'd one day be arresting this boy. He was a little kid with no idea about life, with no idea that killing is a big deal."

By the mid-1980s, black flight from Washington was showing signs of leveling off, even turning around. Then crack arrived. Demographer George Grier says crack-related violence was a trip factor in an accelerated exodus. From 1990 to 1994, nearly 37,000 people fled the District, on top of the 31,000 who left in the 1980s. Crack helped sink the city's finances. In less than a decade, the budget for police and corrections ballooned to $1.1 billion, a 61.5 percent increase. Even that doesn't begin to reflect the true costs. Bills for crack babies, drug treatment and gunshot wounds all soared.

To try to head off crack sellers, Fulwood presided over Operation Clean Sweep. It made more than 50,000 arrests, packing courts and prisons. But in the process, a staggering proportion of the District's young black men collided with the criminal justice system. In 1991, an estimated 42 percent of black men ages 18 to 35 were either in jail, on probation, out on bond or being sought on a warrant. Home rule coincided with a fourfold increase in the city's incarceration rate. The shared experience of prison has helped build exactly what police are trying to fightóa community of criminality.

As bad as violent crime got, most of it did not occur in the monumental quarter of Washington or in upper Northwest. Tourists have figured this out; every year, about 19 million of them visit the city. But among residents, fear and flight continue. One recent poll found that more than 40 percent of people still living in the District have considered moving to the suburbs. The overwhelming reason, far ahead of taxes and schools: crime.

Property crimes are as critical as shootings in the decision to move, according to Fulwood. His own devotion to the District has been rattled by nonviolent crime. His Acura Legend still had dealer tags on it on the night he heard the car alarm go off. He ran out in his underwear and threw bricks at the would-be thief, who fled, leaving behind $800 worth of damage. Six months later, thieves took the car, stuffed the trunk with stolen goods and crashed it into a house.

"One more time, one more crime," Fulwood said, "and I'm outta here."

© Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top