October 4, 2022

Tales from the attic: A different cop story

Al Kamen and Colby Itkowitz, Washington Post, 2015- There’s one issue, perhaps the only one, that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on: reducing the population of the nation’s crowded and expensive prisons, partly through reducing sentences for low-level and nonviolent offenders.

One person who would be expected to be at the table for high-level strategizing on the issue is the chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission, former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. But Fulwood, who’s leaving the post after nearly six years as chairman, has yet to meet President Obama or have a one-on-one meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder, whose centerpiece initiative has been “smart on crime” prison reform…

“It is with bittersweet sorrow that I have decided to retire,” Fulwood wrote to Obama on Jan. 8. “I have made this decision based on personal health challenges and the fact that the department has not been as supportive over the years as they should have been,” citing staffing, funding and attention to issues of prison reform.

In 2013, well before Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island and other troubling law enforcement incidents, Fulwood wrote to Obama suggesting that the Justice Department “lead a dialogue with law enforcement about racial profiling,” an issue he has long been concerned with during his decades of work in law enforcement. He got no response, we wrote at the time. Not even a robo-signed “Thanks for your letter.”

In an interview, Fulwood said that the exploding prison population is “what everyone is talking about, and we need to make sure that the Parole Commission is doing what Holder and Obama want us to do. But nobody talks to us, so we don’t know.”

Sam Smith – This story caught my eye because 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 Rec 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 by the Capitol - running into now Chief of Police Fulwood and getting a big bear hug, not the sort of thing that usually happened to alternative journalists during a demonstration.

Fulwood was no softie. After all, Mayor Marion Barry went to prison on his watch, but whenever anything like Ferguson of the Garner incidents occur, I find myself thinking of Ike Fulwood and how he would have handled it so much better because he understood that there are all sort of opportunities to create a community that lessens 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.”

As I noted, “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.”

Years later the Washington Post would write an artricle about the now former police chief in which it noted his efforts to organize African-American men 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 have completed training and are waiting to be matched.

Wil Haygood, Washington Post, 2005 - Fulwood has been known to show up at area junior high and high schools with paroled inmates by his side. They'll riff about life, crime, reform. He believes in forgiveness…

A high murder rate wasn't the only challenge when Fulwood was chief. In 1990, Mayor Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. was arrested at a downtown hotel and charged with possession of crack cocaine. He would subsequently receive a six-month prison sentence.

Once, when Fulwood was chief, a riot broke out inside Lorton Correctional Facility. (The Virginia penitentiary, which housed inmates from the District, closed in 2001.) Fulwood helicoptered over. "I'm inside the jail, looking around. There are a couple thousand people in there. I swear, they all look black."

After he and his men had Lorton under control, Fulwood took a walk around the place, bullhorn in hand. He heard a voice, a very loud whisper.

"Junior! Junior!"

Fulwood wheeled. He spotted an old family friend from the neighborhood around Kentucky Avenue SE where he grew up. "I said, 'Come here. What you in here for?' He said, 'Robbery.' "

The man asked Fulwood to visit his mother, tell her he was all right, which Fulwood did.

"I looked around that prison and said, 'What a waste of human life,' " Fulwood recalls. "I came home and said to my wife, 'Why can't we break this cycle?' It's still a question I'm always struggling with." ….

"Folks say, 'Fulwood, 50, 60 percent of the people in jail look like you. And yet only make up 12 percent of the population.' And then they ask you, 'Why are you there?' " he says of the Parole Commission.

He ponders the question as a man who came of age in a segregated America, a man who has shaken hands with presidents and been whispered at -- "Junior! Junior!" -- inside the bowels of a penitentiary. "I been here a year," he says of his service on the commission. "Some of it is very perplexing to me. This is the struggle."

He says: "I believe communities have a right to be safe."

He says: "You try to be tough. But at the same time you try to figure this damn thing out."

"I would refer to his style as street-smart," says Edward Reilly, chairman of the commission. "He's seen what's gone on out in the real world. And he reads between the lines."

Fulwood -- one of two blacks, along with Cranston J. Mitchell, on the commission -- says spending less money on prison programs, release programs and substance abuse programs will foretell disaster: "With less money you do less."

And he keeps trying to push the debate to acknowledge the realities of race in sentencing. "Most of the people I deal with look like me," Fulwood says of inmates. "And when I say it at these meetings, you can hear a rat [peeing] on cotton." ….


When Fulwood became police chief in 1989, his younger brother Teddy was sitting behind bars, unable to make bail after being charged with selling drugs. (Teddy, a Vietnam War vet, had been paroled on a 1986 bank robbery charge.)

"A smart guy," says Fulwood. "You know how you get off track and can't get back on?"

He would have liked to hang out with his brother, go out with him at night and not have to worry. But he couldn't. "I used to tell him: 'I ain't going to jail with you. No way.' "

Teddy, once released, asked his brother if he'd come to his rehab meetings. He was police chief. He had a hundred things on his daily calendar. But there he sat, family bigger than any missing saw, screwdriver, hammer or monkey wrench.

"It was hard on Ike," recalls Richard Pennington, a former D.C. police officer who is now Atlanta's police chief. "Here he was a police official and his brother was in the criminal justice system. Ike used to tell Teddy how embarrassing it was. Not for Ike, but for their mother. He worried about her. She had high blood pressure." ….

It was Nov. 19, 1992 -- a year so scary and awful it practically left a feeling anyone in the city could be slain -- when the pop-pop of gunfire yanked a police officer to 16th Street SE. There lay Teddy Fulwood in a pool of blood. Several bullets in the head and chest, and he was gone.

It happened a few blocks from the Fulwood brothers' childhood home.


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