Isaac Fulwood Jr., the hard-charging, plain-spoken D.C. police veteran who led the department for three tumultuous years marked by eruptions of political scandal and unprecedented homicidal violence in the capital city, died Sept. 1 at a hospital in Washington. He was 77.
The former chief, who was known as Ike, had been ill with kidney failure, and during his later years, he found it difficult to leave his home in Southeast Washington. His death was confirmed by D.C. police chief Peter Newsham. No cause was given.
The crack cocaine epidemic and the city’s homicide rate were rampant when Mayor Marion Barry appointed him chief in 1989, and Mr. Fulwood agonized over both the runaway violence and the decidedly negative side effects of aggressive law enforcement on the African American community, of which he was a member.
Complicating matters, Mr. Fulwood did not have the smoothest of relationships with Barry, the charismatic, dynamic and undeniably flawed political leader who came to symbolize the city’s greatest hopes and disappointments.
It didn’t help that just five months into the chief’s tenure, Barry was arrested on federal drug charges after being videotaped smoking crack in a downtown hotel, an especially sordid episode that deepened the gloom over the remainder of the chief’s 29 years as a member of the city police force.
“He was considered very important to the Metropolitan Police Department,” Newsham said Friday night. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
When he stepped down in September 1992, the ever-accessible, always quotable Mr. Fulwood did not conceal his frustration over the state of affairs — exemplified by a homicide rate that had made Washington the nation’s “murder capital” — and over his inability to check the violence. And in a bitter personal footnote, two months after his departure, his brother, 43-year-old Theodore Fulwood, was gunned down in a drug-related killing that took police two years to solve.
Mr. Fulwood once proclaimed — more in sorrow than in pride — that he had put more people behind bars than any of his predecessors. But the number of homicide victims mounted nevertheless: The 482 killings recorded in 1991 were the most ever in the District. And a hiring spree that enlarged the crime-fighting force by 1,000 officers came back to haunt the department, as poorly vetted and trained recruits repeatedly ran afoul of the law, including some as recently as 2014.
In a 2010 interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Fulwood said accepting Barry’s offer to become chief had been his smartest career move. But life after the police force did not want for other public-service opportunities and other honors, including his appointment to the U.S. Parole Commission in 2004 and his elevation to commission chairman in 2009.
After stepping down as chief, Mr. Fulwood worked on a youth initiative in the District and as an adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia, teaching community policing and ethics. He drew on his experience as a law-enforcement officer to address the effects of both crime and punishment on the African American population.
In an article in the New York Times, published shortly after he announced he was resigning as chief, Mr. Fulwood was described as despairing over the casual viciousness of young criminals and a D.C. per-capita arrest rate that was second to none. And in remarks to The Post soon after his resignation, Mr. Fulwood declared, “It has become abundantly clear law enforcement alone could not cure the scourge of drugs and violence.”
As a member of the Parole Commission, he took part in a process that freed prisoners, returning them to society instead of locking them up. And in 2013, he led a commission on racial profiling that, in hindsight, seems to have anticipated the outbursts of rage over police-involved killings of black men that have erupted since in Ferguson, Mo., New York, Baltimore and Chicago.
Mr. Fulwood appeared to sense an inherent conflict in being, at once, African American and a police officer — a tension captured in a 2005 article in The Post. Although the article was primarily about a case before the Parole Commission, he described the sympathy he had felt as police chief for people his officers were arresting, most of them black. At the same time, he noted that police were working to stop the carnage on the streets of the city where he grew up — and that most of the victims were also black.
He did not go quietly when he retired from the Parole Commission in 2015. He said that after nearly six years as chairman, he had not met with President Barack Obama or had a one-on-one meeting with then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. He said it was an indication that the White House did not support sentencing reform in a substantive way.
Isaac Fulwood Jr. was born in the District on April 28, 1940. He and his eight brothers and sisters grew up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and he graduated from Eastern High School in 1959.
His father — a carpenter, construction worker and handyman — had moved to the District from South Carolina in the 1920s. A strict curfew and other rules set for his children were enforced by the belt.
In many ways, the family was the District in microcosm, engaged in a grim struggle with the hardships of poverty, drug abuse and crime. Theodore Fulwood, known as Teddy, was locked up, accused of selling cocaine on a District street, when his brother was named police chief. Theodore’s long police record ranged from assault to bank robbery. “I loved him,” Mr. Fulwood said, “but hated his behavior.”
And Mr. Fulwood, though rarely in trouble as a youth, recalled his father’s encounters with unhelpful police officers and his own unpleasant interactions with them. “I had met very nasty policemen who would say anything to black people or do anything to them,” he told The Post in 1991. “Very rarely did you see black police officers.”
He married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Johnson, when he was 23 and she was 20, and a few months later, apparently drawn to the $6,000 annual salary, he joined the Metropolitan Police Department, which was and still is the department’s official name.
Besides his wife, survivors include two children, Gary and Angela.A complete list of survivors could not be obtained.
In the 2010 interview with The Post, he described walking a beat at the start of his career as the worst job of his life. It was 1964, 14 years before the department got its first black police chief, Burtell M. Jefferson. Black officers had few opportunities to advance and were not allowed to drive in patrol cars.
“It was hard walking that beat in the winter,” he recalled. “We had to do traffic crossings, and sometimes they would put us in there and not come back to get us for seven or eight hours, when they were supposed to relieve us after an hour. That was due to racism.”
Mr. Fulwood wasted no time making a reputation for himself as an aggressive rookie. On his first night on the street, he arrested a man who had beaten his mother; helped deliver a baby; and broke up several fights. And while still a beat cop, he demonstrated a knack for community policing, long before “community policing” was in vogue, setting up a program, Talk With Ike, to help neighborhood youngsters.
Mr. Fulwood had many jobs on his way up through the department, including community services officer and internal affairs detective. He commanded two police districts and, in 1986, became assistant chief of field operations, one of the department’s most influential positions, in which he supervised day-to-day crime fighting and about 85 percent of the force.
In 1977, Mr. Fulwood happened to be in the District Building — as the John A. Wilson Building, the District’s city hall, was then called — when Hanafi Muslims stormed in and started a 39-hour standoff that involved three buildings and nearly 150 hostages. Mr. Fulwood later recalled finding Barry, then a D.C. Council member, bleeding from a gunshot wound just above his heart.
“I don’t know whether I saved his life,” Mr. Fulwood told WAMU-FM in 2014, adding that later, “the man made me chief of police. He gave me an opportunity that I would not have had.”
Another moment from the highlight reel of the Barry-Fulwood relationship came in January 1990. The chief, dressed in a T-shirt and windbreaker, was seen rushing to the eighth floor of the Vista International Hotel (now a Westin) near Thomas Circle shortly after a drug sting operation involving the FBI and D.C. police resulted in the mayor’s arrest.
It was never determined whether the FBI had informed Mr. Fulwood of the investigation, although D.C. detectives played an integral role and the chief insisted that his officers had kept him up to date. There were reports that federal authorities were worried about Mr. Fulwood’s friendship — though frequently strained — with Barry, who served six months in federal prison before making a remarkable political comeback that included a fourth term as mayor.
Tensions over the crime rate as well as suspicions about Barry and drug use were among the irritants in the relationship before Barry’s arrest. At one point, it was reported, the chief was refusing to return the mayor’s calls.
Among his accomplishments as chief, Mr. Fulwood was one of the first police officials to introduce what is known today as community policing, and he spoke out often about the importance of drug treatment and the inability of police alone to prevent crime.
Mr. Fulwood — a young officer during the 1968 riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — was also credited as chief in 1992 with keeping a lid on violence in the District during protests over the Rodney King police-beating verdict in Los Angeles that turned violent there and in other cities.
He also had 1,000 officers enforcing a curfew in 1991 after three days of riots by members of the Hispanic community in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood after a black officer shot and wounded a Salvadoran immigrant.
What haunted Mr. Fulwood most, he said in an interview after he resigned, was “the record number of homicides, the record number of young, black men killed needlessly.” He also called being police chief a “taxing job that can leave you scarred.”
In an interview Friday night, a retired D.C. police commander said that it was Fulwood’s combination of toughness and heart t hat helped both the department and the District find their way through the difficulties of the crack epidemic.
“Even though he left the agency,” said Melvin Scott, the retired official,”he never left t he city. A lot of people owe a lot to him.”
Clarence Williams contributed to this report.
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