District Mayor Marion Barry, speaking at a banquet honoring Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. Friday night, teased the chief about not personally making an arrest in 23 years. The comments were humorous and may even have had some technical truth to them.
But make no mistake about it: Under Turner, the city prisons have been filled to capacity, and the chief shows no sign of slacking off on his mandate to bust anyone suspected of wrongdoing.
"He is uncompromising when it comes to making arrests," said Hallem H. Williams Jr., whose Department of Corrections is so burdened with inmates that it has been forced virtually to close its prison doors.
"It's just that he hates drugs," said Jimmy L. Wilson, deputy chief for the 6th District. "He tells me all the time, 'I don't care who the person is -- even if it's one of my relatives -- if they are involved in drugs, bring 'em in.' "
After 30 years of distinguished service, which included keeping Resurrection City under control in 1968 and helping mediate the release of hostages during the Hanafi Muslim takeover of the B'nai B'rith headquarters in 1977, it is the city's current crackdown on street crime that may well be his most lasting legacy.
No police chief in the nation can boast of a departmental arrest rate like Turner's. Within just a few months after announcing one of his new programs, called Operation Clean Sweep, Turner's officers hauled in more than 21,000 people.
As a foot patrolman working his way up through the ranks, Turner said, he watched as drugs seeped slowly into the fabric of neighborhood life and began to rot it in ways that poverty never could. After being named chief in 1981, he made halting street drug sales his top priority.
"You can talk about homelessness and hunger, but nothing has the impact on our community like drugs," Turner said in an interview yesterday. "From my vantage point, I have seen drugs drive people to do things that hurt loved ones terribly. When a person starts stealing from their mother to maintain a habit, the degradation of the entire community is not far behind."
Many police chiefs would have found it risky business to begin arresting people wholesale. But one of Turner's enduring strengths has been his ability to get community support for his actions.
Calvin Rolark, chairman of the Police Chief's Advisory Council, said: "In the years before Turner, I would spend many a night dealing with complaints of police brutality. With all the police action these days, I would expect to be out all night. But the chief takes time to listen, and to a large extent he is doing exactly what people say they want done."
Still, Turner's successes often leave him frustrated. Despite improved patrol procedures and more manpower, the 51-year-old chief has the same problem he started with.
"You would think that locking up 21,000 people would have a hell of an impact on drugs in the city -- but it hasn't," Turner said. "Can you imagine PCP being somebody's drug of choice? Well, it is -- for what seems to be a whole generation of black kids."
To his credit, Turner continues to broaden his approach to crime fighting. Speaking at churches and in schools throughout the city, he stresses that police are just "one spoke in the wheel, and that we need all spokes working together before we can make a difference."
Because he is a native Washingtonian and, more important, because he worked his way up from patrolman to chief, audiences give him the utmost respect. And the relationship is reciprocal.
It is this unique relationship between the police chief and city residents that prompted Barry to say he wanted Turner to stick around for another 30 years. With Turner's popularity, Barry reasoned, better to have him running the police department than running for mayor.