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 h