The extraordinary outpouring of public sentiment for Bruce Wazon Griffith, the petty street hustler and accused "cop killer" slain by D.C. police Feb. 14, has intensified long-smoldering bitterness and rancor among many rank-and-file officers and plunged police morale to the lowest point in recent memory.
The sympathy for Griffith, evidence at his heavily attended wake, along with the news media blitz of events around his shooting and funeral, "was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Thomas J. Tague, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.
Officers now feel "totally betrayed," Tague says -- betrayed by the community, betrayed by the news media, betrayed by the city.
The traditional system of rewards and punishments, says Deputy Chief Alfonso Gibson, commander of the crime-beset Third District, has been turned on its head: Griffith is a folk hero and Officer Arthur P. Snyder -- remember him? -- has been buried with little thanks after he gave his life trying to make the inner city a little safer.
"Morale is now probably the lowest it has ever been," says Tague.
Morale problems are a tradition with police bureaucracies. There have always been murmurs of disgruntlement and grousing in the D.C. police department, but when dramatic events like the Griffith-Snyder incident occur, the murmur becomes a shrill cry.
The current bitterness and disgruntlement go far deeper than the Griffith-Snyder incident of two weeks ago. The origins are rooted in long-simmering disenchantment with a wide variety of factors, including internal bureaucratic practices, changing political forces in the city, tangled and often conflicting racial pressures, the personal leadership style of D.C. Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson (including his failure to attend Snyder's funeral) and what many officers feel is a diminishing climate of support in the courts, Congress and city hall.
Interviews with officers throughout the city and at various levels of the police department hierarchy show these principal factors lowering morale:
Expected budget cuts will reduce opportunities for officers seeking promotions to higher ranks and lower motivation. "We are pressured to do more with less," says Third District Officer Robert A. Jenkins. "You can't keep cutting the budget. You're going to get a big turnaround (in crime) soon. Budget and staff cuts mean fewer promotions."
White officers, still grumbling over suspected cheating by some black candidates on the 1978 promotional examinations, say the next exam, scheduled in two weeks, is designed and controlled by the new black hierarchy of the police department and may be used to favor blacks. Top department officials deny this.
The 3,900-member force is about 45 percent black.
Blacks officers say that, despite black leadership in key top positions in the department, middle management -- the sprawling bureaucracy of captains and lieutenants with direct supervision over officers in the street -- is still overwhelmingly white. Aspiring black officers thus lack "strong role models," says Third District Officer Ron Hampton, head of the D.C. Afro-American Police Officers Association. "There's still a lot of bias and prejudice among those white lieutenants and captains . . . Black officers have a hard time going to a white supervisor with their personal problems."
Burtell Jefferson, chief of police since January 1978, tends to be aloof and lacks a personal tough with rank-and-file officers. Many officers were enraged when he failed to attend the funeral of Officer Snyder. Attendance by the chief at a funeral of an officer slain in the line of duty is considered one of the most important and sensitive ritual functions of the chief. Jefferson has told reporters he did not go to Snyder's funeral because he had to attend a required executive board meeting of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officials in California.
With home rule and the shift to an elected and predominantly black political leadership, many white officers and some black officers feel that Washington officialdom is less sympathetic to the police and police problems. Gone are many of their traditional "friends" in key positions in the mayor's office, in the corporation counsel's office and other city departments. Even key-District-related congressional committees on Capitol Hill -- once the refuge of the police department -- now have new leadership, some of it hostile to the police.
Police operation have become subject to political intervention. The latest example, in the view of many officers, was the failure of the police department last week to close down a dance attended by 1,000 gays and their friends at a Northeast Washington warehouse that has been cited for numerous fire-code violations by the fire department. Many officers believe police officials were instructed, directly or indirectly, by Mayor Marion Barry's officer to let the dance go ahead. The gay community provided significant support to Barry when he ran for mayor in 1978.
Perhaps most significant, many officers say they feel misunderstood by the community, that they are wrongly perceived as indiscriminately harassing and shooting innocent citizens and that they amount to an army of occupation. The press has contributed to this image, they say.
Gibson, commander of the inner-city Third District, said this misunderstanding has been especially true in the current police crackdown on drug traffic along the 14th Street NW commercial corridor where Snyder was shot and killed Feb. 11 while trying to arrest Griffith on a narcotics charge.
Gibson insists there have been no indiscriminate "sweeps" by police to move pedestrians off the sidewalks, "and people aren't just being jacked around for standing on the corner," as reported by witnesses in news accounts.
The crackdown started last July 2, the result of a request to Mayor Barry's office by the Fourteenth Street Corridor Business Associates to remove the large, drifting population of heroin addicts, dealers and assorted hustlers who congregated along 14th Street between S and U streets. Merchants complained these people intimidated legitimate shoppers and drove away business.
At times last summer, the 14th Street sidewalks were aswarm with hundreds of pedestrians and bystanders, most of them "involved with the criminal element," says Gibson. "This was their domain."
Police planners assigned a 16-member, uniformed detail to dislodge the crowds. The city's old antiloitering law had been struck down as unconstitutional some years earlier, "so we couldn't disperse a crowd simply because it was standing there," Gibson said.
"So the technique we used was to arrest or ticket people for violation of specific police regulations -- you know, things like urinating against a wall or jaywalking or throwing a sandwich wrapper on the ground (depositing trash in a public place)," he said.
The idea was to drive the junkies and drug dealers out of the area by making life generally miserable for them through strict enforcement of police Regulations, Gibson said.
"That's not what the laws were enacted for," he said, "but I don't see how anybody could object to it (as a law enforcement too)."
The tactic worked. The floating population was largely driven out of the area by the end of September; many arrests and drug seizures were made, and the police detail was cut back.
"The streets were clear," said Capt. Richard Gurz, who headed the detail. "You began to see old people and little kids on the sidewalks again."
According to Gurz, the 16-member detail, working in two eight-man shifts, took a heavy tool of offenders between July 2 and Sept. 30: 255 drug arrests, 235 other misdemeanor and felony arrests, 2,684 assorted tickets for jaywalking and other police regulation violations and 465 traffic arrests.
Gurz acknowledged that some citizens involved in street drug activity may have been stopped by police, but he said they were all ticketed or arrested for specific violations, "and I doubt that they would complain."
Gibson also acknowledged that the crackdown did not necessarily eradicate drug-related crime "but probably just move it around some."
In fact, shortly after the summer crackdown, police in the adjacent First District noticed a sudden increase in drug activity in the Fourth and M streets NW area and set up their own detail to dislodge it.
The junkies and dealers began drifting back to 14th and U streets in November, Gibson said, and the Third District heroin detail was fully reactivated. Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 24 this year, officers made 285 more drug arrests, 107 other misdemeanor and felony arrests, but only 46 jaywalking and other minor police regulation arrests, according to police statistics.
"Apparently the junkies learned their lesson," said Gurz. "You could see 'em waiting at the (traffic) lights before crossing and not throwing trash on the ground and things like that."
The slaying of Officer Snyder on Feb. 11 set off a massive and intensive manhunt for Griffith, identified by witnesses at the scene as the suspect. Griffith was killed three days later in a shootout with police in the 2200 block of First Street NW.
Some 14th Street area residents complained that police were especially rough and aggressive with pedestrians and bystanders during the three-day manhunt. Gibson acknowledges that "policing was intensified" but denied any improper actions by officers.
Some officers on the street saw it differently. "The police had to come down hard. Had to," said Officer William Shearin Jr. "People got to know that . . . I'm not saying he (Griffith) should have been shot down Jesse James-style. He had to be caught . . . Police are the first line of defense."
"They're going to crack down. A lot of innocent people are going to be kicked," said Hampton, head of the black officers association, during the manhunt.
Many officers were angry at the new media for characterizing Snyder's death simply as a "police shooting."
"It was an out-and-out execution," said Tague of the Fraternal Order of Police. Homicide detectives said that Snyder was knocked down first by two bullets that were deflected by his belt buckle and a flak jacket, and then his killer stood over him and shot him through the head. Snyder was in uniform and had not drawn his service revolver, police said.
Gibson, Gurz and other officials also objected to news stories quoting the common belief of many blacks citizens that when police are looking for the killer of a fellow officer, they ignore constitutional due process and seek to kill the suspect out of vengeance.
Not so, say police. Homicide squad detectives say 51 D.C. police officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty since 1871. Until Griffith, however, not one suspect had been killed in a subsequent manhunt, they said. The suspects have been either captured alive or never found, they said. The only times suspects have been killed, dectectives said, have been in an immediate shootout at the time an officer was killed.
"The glorification of Griffith . . . and the characterizing of Snyder as a brutal cop is just not fair," said Gibson, who was Snyder's chief in the Third District. "The community has no thanks for what (officers like Snyder) are doing -- protecting the community."
News accounts quoted witnesses as saying Snyder was hated by many 14th Street habitues for his aggressive policing.
"I don't like the word agressive," said Gibson. "I would say he was conscientious and dedicated."
Ron Hampton of the black police officers association says the police establishment has read the community wrong.
"Griffith is not a hero," he said. "He is not a hero to the street folk. They weren't saying that when they went to his wake and all. What they were doing was speaking of the injustice of the system" -- the economic inequities leading to poverty and the confrontation of the poor and police in such places as 14th Street.
"In a way," Hampton said, "both Snyder and Griffith were victims of the system . . . But a lot of officers just closed their minds off to that and said, 'We got to get Griffith.'"