The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. police recruits are learning about Black history, go-go music and half-smokes. Leaders think it will make them better officers.

Kahliou Settle, 8, left, watches D.C. police trainees during a tour by neighborhood activists and residents in the Woodland Terrace area. The tours are designed to give the recruits a better understanding of the city and its culture. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Brenda Richardson stood before 31 young men and women in their final weeks of training to become D.C. police officers. They were on a street corner in Richardson’s neighborhood in Southeast Washington, where crews from rival streets trade gunfire.

Nearly half the recruits are White, and all but five are from cities and towns outside D.C. Many had never before stepped foot in Woodland Terrace, where Richardson has lived for a quarter century and raised a son.

“What was your greatest fear?” she asked them, about becoming a police officer in D.C.

Jacob Drew, a 25-year-old from a small and mostly White town in western New York, told the group, “I think my biggest fear in D.C., coming into this department, was being a part of a community that has a larger sense of culture and diversity than where I grew up.”

For a city whose residents long to be policed by their own, many of these recruits — from states that include Florida, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Indiana and North Carolina — are entering the force at a time of tension and upheaval in policing and as strangers to the streets they will soon protect.

Richardson was blunt in her message.

“People have these conceptions that Black people are bad,” she said as she led the recruits through neighborhoods, passing by apartment blocks and into the warrens of public housing to talk with residents. “They have this attitude that Black men in particular are bad. . . . We want you to see that we’re just people.”

Even before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to mass protests nationwide, outrage over the deaths of other Black men in police custody had forced the D.C. police department and others to begin to confront racial bias in their policies and their ranks.

In the District, that led not only to implicit bias training for recruits in the academy, but also efforts to teach officers the difficult history of policing and foster frank discussions among them about race and law enforcement. With the help of two local college professors, officers are learning more about the rich culture of the nation’s capital and hearing directly from residents outside of moments of crisis.

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On a recent afternoon, Richardson, 64, told the recruits they might soon be answering her calls for help. “I have to depend on you,” she said. “When something happens, the only people I can call on are you. And when I call on you, and I’m scared and I’m frightened, I don’t want you to see, ‘Oh my God, there’s this Black woman.’ I want you to see, ‘There’s a frightened woman who has a problem and I need to help her.’ ”

The khaki-clad trainees will be joining a department losing officers and confronting rising violent crime, and policing a rapidly gentrifying city in which nearly half its residents are Black, a demographic reflected in the police force. Woodland Terrace is in Ward 8, one of the District’s most impoverished areas, where more than two-thirds of this year’s homicides have occurred.

In recent years, D.C. police have faced questions over conduct and race, including concerns that vehicle stops disproportionately target Black drivers, and that Black residents are more often arrested for minor drug crimes than Whites. Black Lives Matter routinely accuses police of using overly aggressive tactics during demonstrations over social and racial justice. And last year, a Black officer said she was retaliated against after she alleged officers had been told to conduct unlawful searches of Black men.

Amid calls for reform locally and nationally, the D.C. Council last summer passed several measures, including one mandating the release of body-camera video when officers use force. And D.C. officials are working through a long list of changes proposed by a commission that has called for a smaller police force that de-emphasizes arrests and sheds some of its responsibilities, such as being inside schools and responding to people suffering mental health crises.

Bernard Demczuk, a professor at the police academy, and Sharita Jacobs Thompson, a professor at Prince George’s Community College, are focusing on the way individual officers think about the communities they serve.

They lead officers and recruits on tours of the National Museum of African American History and along historic U Street, rich with music culture. They set up the neighborhood tours, such as the one in Woodland Terrace, and hold classes for veteran officers — part of a continuum of training on Black history and culture that began in 2017.

They remind officers that modern-day policing was born to support slavery, and provide history and context for events that defined subsequent generations. Instructors tell officers that young people hanging on corners may be there to socialize and escape homes without air conditioning. They talk about go-go music, Chuck Brown and half-smokes.

The professors hope officers will go onto the streets with a more nuanced perspective that could help reduce tensions.

For instance, Thompson said understanding the importance of go-go music in the District helped officers better handle an outcry that arose in 2019 after a resident new to Shaw complained about the loud thump of the music on a street corner.

On the police docket, it was a simple noise complaint, but it roiled a city in a heated debate over gentrifiers taking over a historically Black neighborhood and upending established customs.

The U Street tours, Thompson said, made the officers “a little more sensitive to the movement and to the changing dynamics of the city.”

The professors also gather veteran officers to talk about race and the scrutiny of their profession. During one recent Zoom seminar, some officers participated from their homes — one against a backdrop of a poster of George Floyd — and were prodded to openly address the post-Floyd era.

Officials allowed The Washington Post to view the session on the condition that those who spoke not be identified. The Zoom had been previously recorded, and the officers did not know at the time their comments would be available to a reporter.

The group watched video clips of social justice demonstrations, some showing positive interactions between police and demonstrators, others showing tense encounters. Many of the officers are Black, and some recalled a colleague racially profiling someone. One said he understands how his uniform represents oppression to some.

“I don’t think anybody enjoys being a police officer at this point in time,” one officer said during the four-hour seminar. “We can do everything a thousand percent right, and there are 10 to 20 citizens telling us we’re doing our job wrong.”

A supervisor said “the department is in an identity crisis,” as it moves forward with reimagining to fit new demands. “We’re like a grass-roots start-up with firearms,” the officer said. “Once we settled on what our identity is, I think our path forward will be smoother.”

As it goes through this period of change, the police department is struggling to recruit officers, especially from its own city. Plans to expand the cadet program that pays members a salary and college tuition in exchange for them joining the police force have been on hold because of budget cuts. Officials hail the initiative as a way to attract D.C. residents to the force. Officials say the department has the fewest number of officers in two decades.

Police Chief Robert J. Contee III says it is crucial for the officers who are hired to understand the communities they serve. He is a native Washingtonian and a Black man who joined the force as a cadet and grew up in a neighborhood torn by drugs and violence, a narrative that persuaded council members critical of police to support him.

At his confirmation hearing earlier this year, the new chief, a veteran of 30 years, said, “If you’re coming from someplace else in the country and the images of African American males are only what you see on TV, or only what you see in the police bulletin . . . that begins to shape or form your thoughts or your thinking of the African American males you encounter, who could very well be my son, my cousin.”

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On their recent tour with Richardson, the trainees who walked through the neighborhood and its adjacent public housing complex heard little animosity and no calls to defund police — although Richardson told them an officer once told her when she complained about crime, “If you didn’t live in this neighborhood, you wouldn’t have to deal with this.”

Residents said they want to see more police out walking, talking to them and understanding their problems.

The recruits handed out pillows and sheets, donated from people at the academy. A sergeant quizzed them on whether they could a describe a vehicle with dark-tinted windows that sped by them twice, as well as describe a dirt-bike rider who did wheelies as if taunting the group powerless to give chase.

One of the recruits, Patrick Stanford, grew up two miles away in Fort Dupont Park in Southeast Washington, and frequently drives past Woodland Terrace. He lives in Ward 7; three other trainees live in Ward 8.

“Living in D.C., coming from D.C., being born in D.C., I feel my job isn’t always to lock someone up,” Stanford said. “Our job is to change that person’s life that day. If you want to know what D.C. is like, you have to come to the less prioritized neighborhoods, the less-seen neighborhoods, and make a difference.”

Alexandria Gelsomini, 25, who came to the District from Amesbury, a mostly White town on the North Shore of Massachusetts on the New Hampshire border, said she welcomed the opportunity to listen.

“It’s nice to be able to hear the perspective of the community and how we can help them,” she said. “If you don’t know the different aspects of the community, or culture, or how diverse it is, then I don’t think you’ll be able to help them as much as someone with that knowledge or experience.”

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