May 30, 2020

A different kind of cop story

Sam Smith  This is the first in an Undernews series on improving policing so we can have fewer disasters like the recent one in Minneapolis. The reaction to the murder there, as is typically true, was one of anger and condemnation. But the solutions get rarely discussed. Your editor has been involved with this issue since the  1960s when he started a newspaper in a majority black neighborhood to the east of the Capitol in Washington DC. In 1968 the community had two of the city’s four major riots. But it also had  some good things like a black police officer named Isaac Fulwood.

I first met Isaac Fulwood in the 1960s when I did a feature for the Capitol East Gazette on neighborhood policing and went with Fulwood and his partner on their beat. The pair had been specifically assigned to deal with youth problems and community relations. Less than a year before the riots that would ruin much of our neighborhood, a few cops like Fulwood (along with the Recreation Department’s roving leader program) were on the streets attempting to stop trouble before it happened. But like a lot of good things back then, it was too little and too late.

Fulwood had grown up in the ‘hood, gone to high school there, knew the places, the people and its problems. In the years that followed, our paths would cross – our children being baptized together at St. Mark’s Church, being in a jury pool together and once -  during a major anti-war protest at the Capitol - running into now Washington Chief of Police Ike Fulwood and getting a big bear hug, not the sort of thing that usually happened to alternative journalists during a 1960s demonstration.

I find myself thinking of Ike Fulwood and how he would have handled today’s situation so much better because he understood that there are all sort of opportunities to create a community that lessen the problems leading to the need for law enforcement. As he said to me back in 1967 as we drove by grim public housing jammed into a small site, “They never ask the police for their opinion when they build public housing.”

I noted in a story, “The police might have a few things to tell the planners about that happens when you crowd people into places like this. But the police come later, when the trouble starts.”

And of cops like Fulwood, I added, “If you spend any time with these men, you can’t help but believe – as they do – that their work is important and that it is fitting and proper for a policeman to aid in solving a community’s social problems as well as serving as its armed guard.”

After the riots, Fulwood was part of the community coming together again. For example, the Gazette reported:

||| The Fifth Precinct is planning to establish a 200-man auxiliary police reserve using local residents. Members would undergo training and work alongside regular officers. Precinct officials feel the plan will ease the police workload here and will improve police-community relations. Those interested are asked to call officers Cephas or Fulwood at 626-2375  |||

There was even a new group – the Capitol East Community Organization – whose board members included major neighborhood figures, among them police private Isaac Fulwood.

Years later the Washington Post would write an article about the now former police chief in which it noted his efforts to organize African-Americans as mentors for the city's young men. According to the Post, eighty-two men had signed up to mentor, and 24 had been paired with a child. About 45 men had completed training and were waiting to be matched.

What I learned from Ike Fulwood was the difference it made when police officers were actually a part of the community they served. How this not only help the community but improved the officers’ policing. They were protecting and strengthening a ‘hood with which they related, not just enforcing the law in a place that was not theirs.

Here’s a Washington Post story on Fulwood.

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