Deputy D.C. police chief Arthur F. DiGennaro says he began training to head up the department's community relations division when he started out as a foot patrolman in the old second precinct in October, 1953.
"I was born and raised in Washington," said DiGennaro, 46, who retired last week. "I thought I knew the problems of this city, but I didn't know anything until I started walking that beat."
DiGennaro's retirement came as a surprise to many of his colleagues. He announced it only three days before it took effect. The deputy chief was one of 67 veteran police and fire officials from five agencies in the District who retired Oct. 1 to avoid losing a 7.05 per cent pay raise on their pensions because off a provision in the most recent pay raise bill passed by Congress.
In a recent interview, DiGennaro said he believes the officer on the street is the key to police-community relations.
The precinct that veteran officers call Old Number Two at Sixth Street and New York Avenue NW, was also known as "The Wickedest" - DiGennaro claims he doesn't know why. Its boundaries were First Street NE, 15th Street NW, and K and S Street NW. The area is still beset by housing problems, unemployment, crime and vice.
The experience that DiGennaro picked up in that precinct helped him to see some problems in a different perspective.
"I remember this woman who was on welfare pulling me aisde and showing me her children and saying, 'Officer, if it weren't for these kids, I would eat bread and onions to get off welfare,'" he said. "Never again did I think all people on welfare were only out to cheat society."
DiGennaro admits it is no easy task to improve the image of the police in Washington, but he is convinced things have come a long way since police-community relations were at a low point in the late 1960s.
"Years ago, police officers had a culture of their own," DiGennaro said. "If I saw some fellow officers at a club, I would go over to them, . . . we wouldn't let outsiders into our little circle. But there's been a complete change now. We're letting people know in very simple terms that we're human beings."
The police department has become more conscious of its role in community relations, and under DiGennaro the division's staff has grown from a handful of officers to 34 persons, including several civilian employees. Each of the seven police districts also has several community relations officers who are responsible to a lieutenant, who in turn serves on a committee headed by DiGennaro.
One of the more successful ideas is the Officer Friendly program, which DiGennaro calls "My baby." It started in 1968, the year after DiGennaro went to the division, with himself, then a sergeant, and four officers.
There are now 23 officers assigned to Officer Friendly, and they work primarily with the District's school-age youth through the ninth grade. Police and city officials say the program has done much to reduce vandalism in the schools, bridge the gap between young people and police and increase awareness of safety issues.
"When we started the Officer Friendly program, police would wave their handkerchief at us and say, 'Yoohoo, Officer Friendly,' but that stopped," DiGennaro said. "Recently, a hard-boiled police captain, who you might say isn't exactly attuned to community relations, came up to me and said, "Di, I thought this stuff was a bunch of ballyhoo, but believe me, I've seen it work."
On a routine inspection several years ago, DiGennaro, who says he is "a stickler for neatness," encountered an Officer Friendly stretched out in a teacher's lounge with his clothes messed up and shoes scuffed.
"I went to chew him out, and he said to me, 'Sarge you won't believe this." Then he took me to the lunchroom and just as soon as he walked in there, kids started jumping all over him, tugging and clawing at him, begging him to go to their room first," DiGennaro said. "So I said to him, 'that's a damn good way to get your clothes messed up. Carry on."
Calvin W. Rolark, publisher, community activist and husband of city councilwoman Wilhelmina Rolark, was a member of the first ad hoc citizen-police advisory committee, that was formed in 1964 under Chief Robert V. Murray. He credited Chief Maurice J. Cullinane with much of the recent improvement in police-community relations. Cullinane upgraded the rank of the head of the division from inspector to deputy chief, meaning that district commanders must respect DiGennaro's rank and take his unit seriously.
"We still have a long way to go, but things are really better" Rolark said. In terms of community relations, Rolark said Washington's police department is "one of the best in the country."
Rolark said that he does not get nearly as many calls as he used to about alleged police brutality, although there are still isolated cases.
DiGennaro's division is also responsible for the department's pubiic information office, which often must walk a narrow line between a reporter's need to get facts quickly and an officer's need to conduct an investigation or handle a tense situation.
DiGennaro said he'll now concentrate on getting to know his wife and three sons, aged 16, 14 and 9. "I bought a little mobile home up in Delaware on a canal near the Assawoman Bay, and a second-hand 15-foot boat," he said. "Now my kids are teaching me how to fish."