When the new police chief of the District of Columbia speaks, the words may come plodding out. But there is no mistaking the message. Maurice T. Turner believes he is the best.
"I've always had the feeling that I was the best police officer in the city," says Turner, who was officially confirmed yesterday by the City Council. "I really did. I always felt I could handle anything."
Turner tells how, when he was a foot patrolman in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he knew his beat better than anybody. He tells how, in the days when blacks were rarely given responsible jobs on the force and not allowed to ride in squad cars, white colleagues would pick him up on their way to a call because they knew he could handle it better. He tells how, when Resurrection City was set up in 1968, he was the only policeman who could walk freely through the camp without being taunted by insults or pelted with debris.
Beginning today, when he officially takes over from Burtell M. Jefferson as chief of the D.C. Police Department, Turner gets the chance to show how good he really is.
But it will be no easy assignment. The department has a slew of problems that range from low morale to raggedy equipment to a continuing decline in the number of officers. And none of them will be solved simply by talk.
But Turner just might have an edge. In contrast to outgoing chief Burtell M. Jefferson, whose insistence on formality made him seem aloof to the department's rank-and-file, Turner talks to anybody and everybody. At Jefferson's retirement dinner last Friday night, Turner was introduced to a sustained standing ovation from the police-heavy crowd.
"The feeling I get is that people are really delighted about it," said Assistant Chief Marty M. Tapscott, who joined the department two years after Turner did in 1957, followed him through his various assignments and now is taking over Turner's old job as head of field operations.
"You see how he walks, don't you?" Tapscott asked, referring to the rolling, bopping gait Turner falls into when circumstances allow, a stride associated more with the street corner than with the halls of power. "When nobody's looking, he walks that jive walk and talks that jive talk, and people just think highly of him for it."
Turner -- a 6-foot-2-inch, 217-pound bear with droopy brown eyes and pendulous jowls -- sees the department's current malaise as part of the change to greater home rule for the District and the financial responsibility that comes with it.
"Historically, the department had autonomy," he says. "It was friendly with the White House, and the chief got anything he wanted. We really didn't answer to the City Council or the mayor. But as we began to get some home rule, the chief became responsible to the mayor. And we're going through a time when we don't have an unlimited expense account."
Turner says that, unlike Jefferson, he is comfortable with the new order. He is 45, the same age as Mayor Marion Barry, and the two men get along. Turner says he expects no friction between the District Building and police headquarters.
Turner's openness has already gotten him into trouble once. That happened when, shortly after being named chief, he told an interviewer that he believes critizens should have the right to bear arms. The stance appeared to contradict the city's tough gun-control policy, though it was later smoothed over. But it illustrated the need for Turner to be more guarded.
When asked now what he likes to do for recreation, for example, Turner says, "You can't do too damn much of nothing. You live in such a damn fishbowl."
Maurice Thomas Turner Jr. grew up in the 700 block of Girard Street NW, the oldest son of Maurice Sr. and Elizabeth Turner, both government workers. The upbringing was lower middle-class, with all the necessities provided along with a heavy does of discipline.
"My father was a strict disciplinarian -- with a stick," he says. "I recall that kids down the block would be out at 9 o'clock and I was in bed. I'd say, 'So-and-so gets to stay out,' and my father would say, 'So-and-so is not my kid.' I must have been 14, 15 years old and he still had us in bed by 9."
Turner was brought up to go to Sunday school every week and baptized at Metropolitan Baptist Church, but he now describes himself as "no more religious than anybody else" even though he keeps a small red Bible on his desk.
Turner graduated from Dunbar High School and joined the Marines. After a stint in Korea, where he saw no combat, he returned and joined the Police Department. He would have preferred going to college, but being a cop was a steady, good-paying job. Besides, he had decided to get married and needed the regular income.
The marriage, which produced three children, ended in divorce after 17 years.Today the only whisper heard about him around the Municipal Center concern an allegedly sharp eye for pretty women. Turner, mindful of the fishbowl effect, declines to discuss his private life.
He is enthusiastic when describing his years as a foot patrolman walking a beat in Southwest. "I enjoyed it, and I took a sense of pride in my beat. aYou dealt not only with crime, but with social problems, abandoned autos, families with delinquent children. You knew where the heart of the community was."
Those years on the beat have convinced Turner that scout cars tend to isolate officers, and he has pledged to get more officers out of the cars and onto the streets once he is chief.
Turner, a Mason, like to go to the race track to see the trotters run, and enjoys swimming in his brother's pool. He also sees his parents "almost daily," and says that, although he has many acquaintances, he has "only a few true friends. If you have one or two real friends, you're doing something."
Turner says he rarely socializes, and almost never goes to house parties. "The first thing you know, somebody pulls out some herb or something," he says. "And when I have to tell 'em, 'Look, I'm the chief and I'm going to have to lock somebody up.'"