Jerry Wilson, who has just been promoted over a number of more senior officers to assistant chief of police for field operations, was getting ready to take his 6-year-old son to an Indian Guides' meeting when the phone rang. It was about 7:30 p.m., April 4, 1968, a Thursday. The caller was Washington's new "public safety director" Patrick V. Murphy, and he was calling to report that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.
"So I got in my car and went down to communications to see what was going on," recalls Wilson. "Big crowds on the street. I went up to the Washington Hilton. The president (Lyndon Johnson) was there, so we had part of the Special Operations Division up there." On the way, Wilson drove past 14th and U streets NW. "Crowds, big crowds on the street . . . Nothing happening, just crowds milling around.
"So then we tried to get people shifted around so we could get the civil disturbance unit started to mobilize . . . but by then the Safeway store was already looted . . . we had the liquor store on fire up on 14th and Clifton."
Wilson, Murphy and Deputy Chief Raymond Pyles patrolled the 14th Street corridor in a cruiser through the height of the disturbance until early Friday morning, when more police poured in and violence began to wane.
"We finally formed a couple of squads on either side of 14th Street and we started walking up 14th Street pushing the sidwalks ahead of us and (Catholic priest and social activist) Geno Baroni's there saying, 'Jerry, this isn't the way, this isn't the way.'
"Geno wanted to go talk to them. It would have been utterly useless." Could anyone have talked to them? "Mrs. King? I doubt it. Maybe . . . You can only talk in one block at a time . . .Once a riot is underway, it's really too late."
At around 5 a.m., Wilson went home. "There really was not that much activity the first night. On balance.
"I took a shower, lay down for an hour or two, and was back downtown at headquarters before 10 o'clock. We had assumed that we would have a rough night Friday night - a rough night at sundown."
But "even when I came in . . . it was obvious that trouble was starting to break out," says Wilson. "Just from the radio traffic. 'We've got windows broken' here.' We didn't have a full-fledged disorder, but you could tell . . . everyone wasn't asleep.
"We made a big mistake . . . Too much planning.Too much information. We knew too much. We knew that the riot commission said that most of the disorders started late in the evening of the second day, and it didn't wait. We sent everybody home to come back in the afternoon . . . and the riots started around noon . . . We got hoisted with our own petard.
"After that first riot we didn't send the civil disturbance unit home. We sent them to a hotel . . . We must have spent $50,000 in hotels.
"We learned a lot of things . . . I couldn't get them to declare a curfew . . . the mayor would have had to do it. If it happened to me now I would do what (civil liberties lawyer) Phil Hirschkopf has sued me for several times - I would have declared a police line and told everybody to go home and locked them up if they didn't.
"The mayor was obviously hesitated to declare a curfew because there are all kinds of problems . . . The government was in. They had to get the government workers excused . . . You're going to declare a curfew and if you declared it in the areas where the disorders were, you had a curfew only for blacks. If you declared a curfew throughout the city then you got the problems with all those businesses and restuarants and everything were screaming . . .
"You also have a virginity complex. It's hard to declare that first curfew. After that we had no trouble getting a curfew . . . But nobody wanted to declare the first curfew for the nation's capital.
"So I went by headquarters went up to 14th Street and by the time I got there, the place was burning and looting was going on in full force . . ." At about noon Friday, Wilson remembers standing at 14th and Belmont Streets "on the callbox telling (Police Chief Joseph B.) Layton we had to get some military."
But "Ramsey [Attorney General Ramsey Clark] was still contemplating . . . There was a lot of delay in bringing troops in. The troops I think had gotten on station in the suburbs. And by the time they decided to bring them in, the government had let out and they couldn't bring them in through the rush-hour traffic. There really weren't any troops out till well after dark Friday."
In the meantime, 14th Street NW and H Streets NE "looked like a tunnel of flames. The flames from the buildings met over the top of the streets just like trees did."
Wilson and deputy chief Pyles happened to catch a pair of looters inside a Safeway at 14th and Park Road NW sometime Friday ("You lose all track of time," says Wilson).
He also remembers "standing up at a service station at 14th and Clifton . . . and across the street people were throwing rocks at us . . . rocks raining all around . . . and we were trying to get a Coke out of a Coke machine which had been ripped away from the wall and was shorted out and we were scared to death that we were going to get electrocuted . . . Thirsty! God, were we thirsty from the tear gas and the dust and the dirt and yelling and what all.
"My recollection is that (we used) something like $60,000 worth of tear gas. Actually, the biggest problem we always had was tear gas . . . control over tear gas . . . The rule is you can only use it with the authority of an official, but onece it's used it's awfully hard to stop. We used all the tear gas in the department the night of the riot (Friday)."
Otherwise, says Wilson, "the police were pretty cool. I don't remember really any overreacting, not during the Martin Luther King riots.
"There were just zillions of people looting . . . We were just waiting, hoping for the Army and after curfew . . . The magic for controlling riots proved to be curfews - curfews and once the ghetto streets were burned out, there was nothing left to effectively loot. The logistics were bad. That's why most cities have one riot and that's it. Maybe two.
"The fact is that I - and I think a lot of others - would have guessed that the riots would come over in Number 11 precinct over in Anacostia."
But "at the time I didn't understand the logistics of rioting . . . You can only successfully get lots of people involved in looting if you can grab an armload of stuff and run around the corner and be home . . . That probably would have kept Anacostia from really ever being a major disorder, because there really is not that kind of a concentrated business district.
Just when the department had run out of tear gas, Wilson recalls, "Some character pretending to be an Army major" came to the rescue, delivering baseball grenades, food and coffee from Fort Myer to beleaguered D.C. police. "He was having himself a great time until he tried to give orders to some master sergeant who didn't believe he was an Army najor. He got locked up.
"One of the other great errors was prosecuting all those cases anyhow, particularly prosecuting them as felonies. It was a political decision but it really put the court was behind . . . ground the wheels of justice to a halt."
Before the riots, according to Wilson, "there was a lot of pressure on the department for planning for disorders coming out of the Justice Department and the White House . . . Without intending to put it down, it was navel contemplation work. We ran through drills. We called the men back to three precincts out of the blue . . . we actually ran a recall in the middle of the night.
"We knew not to paint helmets (black) as Newark had done. They were afraid that they were targets for snipers . . . There were really no snipers, very few snipers. We knew that . . . Most of the sniping that was reported was friendly forces, police or guards.
"We prohibited - not totally successfully - our men from using the word sniper over the radio, because you get 20 guys out and all of a sudden somebody fires off a gun and you have a regular firefight going if you're not careful.
"The only major decision to make was whether or not to shoot looters. And Layton elected not to shoot looters. Yet after the riots the city administration, which was much more liberal than Layton, refused to admit it. Very interesting. I think they were afraid of the House District Committee or afraid of being sued (by merchants) for not shooting looters."