Tom Davis came to the Prince George's County police force in 1976 -- not a good year for the department's image in human relations and civil rights.
A record 76 formal complaints of brutality, abusive language and harassment were filed against police officers that year. The year before, police had shot and killed six blacks within an eight-week period. The civil rights division of the Justice Department began an investigation into 16 cases of alleged brutality after the highly publicized beating of a Laurel man when he refused to sign a parking ticket.
There was also a Justice Department suit alleging hiring discrimination in the nearly all-white force.
Enter Davis, a short brown man with a soft voice. He was hired by then police chief John W. Rhoads to teach cultural awareness -- i.e., how to treat blacks and other minorities fairly -- to "everybody from the chief on down."
"That wasn't the most appreciated course ever taught," said powerful police union president Laney Hester with deliberate understatement. "It was done because we're supposed to be so brutal and culturally ignorant. . . . We didn't appreciate that."
One year later, complaints fell off from 76 to 32, thanks to the cultural awareness seminar and an increased number of black officers on the force, according to Davis.
The Justice Department dropped its suit in 1979, satisfied with the county's efforts to recruit more black officers. Investigations of the brutality complaints resulted in few convictions or disciplinary actions.
Davis said he succeeded in getting the police officers to open up to him during his three-day seminars and discuss their feelings. He did it by listening, following advice he received as a child.
"My mother used to say, 'you won't learn anything with your mouth open,'" said the stocky retired Army lieutenant colonel.
Davis, 51, still is listening to what police officers and others have to say about the department, but in a new office. On July 1 he will become one of four deputy chiefs and the department's highest-ranking black, appointed by County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan.
Davis will be in charge of personnel, including recruitment and training of new police officers.
As a civilian, a political appointee and a high-ranking black in a predominantly white department, Davis is a triple outsider. The force now has 690 white males, 92 black males, 23 white females, two Hispanic officers and one Asian, according to a spokesman, Cap. E. H. Tippett.
But Davis said it is a circumstance he has faced and surmounted before. During his 20-year career in the Army, he was frequently on the cutting edge of changing racial relations as part of the new black leadership in a formerly segregated institution.
"I tell you this: I will not lose any sleep worrying about being accepted in this organization," said Davis. "Every job I've had I have tried to give my best and earn respect. That's who I am. In fact when I go home, if I think I've done a good job, I feel good -- that's who I am."
Davis was born in the small town of Georgetown, S.C., the seventh child in a family of 12. He majored in chemistry at all-black South Carolina State College, hoping to become a physician.
"There was only one black doctor in Georgetown. He was kind of elderly, and I saw myself replacing him someday," said Davis.
But when he graduated in 1954, he said that despite good grades, he did not know anyone who could furnish recommendations that would get him into Meharry Medical College in Tennessee or Howard University medical school, the major medical schools for blacks at the time. Davis spent a year as a high school teacher, hoping to find some medical school backers, when the Army called him into service.
At Fort Riley, Kans., Davis, as a second lieutenant with an ROTC commission, was a platoon leader in charge of 40 soldiers, both black and white. His superior officers were impressed and persuaded him to make a career of the Army. Davis says he decided he would shoot for the top and that he would avoid being shunted into the supply or transportation commands then considered fitting for blacks.
"I had never seen anybody black above the rank of captain. The thought then was 'if I could only make it to a captain in this man's army.' That was the dream."
Davis sought and was assigned to a position as personnel officer for a battalion of 1,200 men. Later, in the early 1960s, he became a company commander in West Germany. It was the beginning of an era when the frictions of a racially divided society were beginning to produce heat.
"Many of the problems were those of minority soldiers -- housing, fraternizing and dating," recalled retired colonel Robert B. Burke, who served three years with Davis in Germany. Burke said Davis managed to smooth the integration of Army units and often talked with local people about integration as part of "what I call a human-relations type mission."
"At the time we were the only two minority officers of any rank," Burke added. "Many officers in Europe had to take the banner up. Some were successful; some were not. Davis was."
In West Germany Davis earned a reputation for solving problems in his unit, leading other commanders to transfer to him soldiers they could not handle.
"They would say, 'Well, if I send him over to Tom, at least he'll listen to the problem,'" said Davis. "I feel that if you listen, (a person will) probably walk away solving his own problem because he has talked about it. You cannot solve an individual's problem. You can only create an atmosphere for people to solve their own problems."
Davis' experience in West Germany kindled the interest in human problem-solving and race relations that propelled him toward his present assignment. It also led him to 58 hours of psychology courses at Temple University and Ohio State and Bowie State colleges, enough to prompt the Veterans Administration to question why he had taken almost enough courses for two masters' degrees without completing one.
Before he retired from the Army in 1975, Davis was head of the Army Race Relations and Equal Opportunity Office for the First Army, based at Fort Meade. His group advised Army installations along the eastern seaboard and in Puerto Rico on how to handle racial problems.
Davis admitted that his new position may cause him problems of his own. His appointment is political, following a referendum passed last fall allowing the county executive to create up to three deputy chief positions in the police department that are exempt from the merit and seniority systems. The purpose was to allow the department to put a minority person in a high-ranking police slot within a short time.After Davis, the highest-ranking black in the department is a sergeant.
But Davis himself is not political, and he is not protected by the merit system.
"To my knowledge Tom doesn't have any political connections. He may have a few friends on the County Council, but they don't talk to Larry Hogan," said union chief Hester.
Moreover, he will have to hear the continued demands of the black community for a more integrated and responsive police force, while police chief John McHale and Hester insist that rocky relations with that community are more an "image problem" than a real one.
Davis agrees that this sticky issue is a question of "different perceptions" held by the citizenry, both black and white, and the police. He said Prince George's now has one of the lowest rates of brutality complaints in the metropolitan area but he conceded that "many of the police still use abusive language and excessive force, even today."
"My greatest frustration is also my greatest challenge: how to effectively deal with the organization while being perceived as an outsider," said Davis.
"I work hard to control my frustration and anger. I feel if I become angry I lose control," he said.
"When I feel something is frustrating, I will find a good listener, because I know they won't say anything," said Davis, who often confides in his wife Jacqueline and his 13-year-old daughter Gerri.
His 28-year marriage has also given him another daughter, 27-year-old Thometia, now married, and two sons, Tom Jr., 21, and Alan, 20.
"I do not see myself as a messiah. I have never been a messiah, but I feel I can give good information. Some people seem to feel you can change things overnight."