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Burtell M. Jefferson, WWII veteran and DC's first Black police chief, dies at 96

Washington D.C. police chief Burtell Jefferson in 1980.

JAMES A. PARCELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

By PETER HERMANN | The Washington Post | Published: March 20, 2021

Burtell M. Jefferson, who joined Washington D.C.'s largely segregated police department in 1948 and launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to help Black officers advance through the ranks as he rose to become the city's first African American police chief, died March 19 at his home in Washington. He was 96.

The death was confirmed by D.C. police. The cause was not disclosed.

The District's first mayor under home rule, Walter E. Washington, appointed Jefferson chief in 1978, and he departed in 1981 as crime escalated and as he clashed with a new mayor, Marion Barry Jr., over budget cuts, the size of the department and what he considered Barry's meddling in department operations.

Overall, Jefferson's time as chief was quiet — a respite from the high-profile, violent crises, including riots, protests and hostage situations, that had rocked the tenures of his immediate predecessors.

He was respected as a competent steward and stabilizing force for an agency often in disarray and as an understated leader with detailed knowledge of police procedure and sharp intellect as a detective.

Jefferson often sought to deflect the attention he received as the first African American to rise to the top of the D.C. police force. He was sworn into office in a five-minute ceremony that, at his request, included no mention of the fact that he was the District's first Black police chief.

He "is remembered as the chief who brought other Black officers along in the department, a native Washingtonian who maintained his ties to the community and never embarrassed anybody," Washington Post reporter Eugene Robinson wrote in 1981 when the chief retired after nearly 33 years in law enforcement.

In the mid-1950s, Jefferson and another officer, Tilmon O'Bryant, organized study sessions where Black officers assembled in the future chief's basement to prepare for promotional exams. Many exam questions drew from experiences not open to most Black officers at the time, such as decisions made by supervisors and others that had been copied out of a private corporation's management-training book.

"We'll figure out every possible question," Jefferson is quoted in a late-1970s biography of O'Bryant as saying at the time. "We'll beat them at their own game."

The meetings ran for 10 years and were conducted with strict rules and absolute secrecy. Jefferson feared that if commanders found out, they would punish the participants. At the time, it wasn't enough to score well on the test. Officers had be deemed "suitable for promotion," a purely subjective qualification used to block many seeking advancement.

Burtell served soda, no alcohol. "He told us if we weren't interested in getting promoted, we were in the wrong place," Clay Goldston said in an interview for this obituary. He started on the force in 1958 and worked undercover for Jefferson, investigating illegal gambling and liquor running.

Although quiet and bookish — he read a Bible at his desk and was a deacon at his Baptist church — Jefferson was not afraid to confront his bosses when the situation demanded. Before he became chief, he forced the department to change an unwritten policy in which White booking officers took credit for arrests by Black officers, making their productivity numbers artificially low and hurting their chances for promotion.

"I think he may be an underrated chief," said Marty Tapscott, who joined the department in 1959 and retired as an assistant chief in 1986. "He was so quiet. He wasn't boastful. He didn't go out and toot his own horn. But what he did in terms of helping African American officers in this department was phenomenal."

Jefferson's immediate predecessors, Jerry V. Wilson and Maurice J. Cullinane, also were credited with modernizing and expanding the force to bring in more women and minorities.

Brian N. Williams, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Virginia who profiled Jefferson for the Public Administration Review journal, said that the chief "saw what was possible in a time of impossibilities."

He recalled Jefferson's work with young Black officers in the District and across the country through the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which Jefferson helped found.

"He prepared for the day that many during his time could not envision," Williams said. "His commitment was to race and gender. Nothing should hold you back if you are prepared to lead."

Burtell Morris Jefferson was born in Washington on March 14, 1925. He graduated in 1943 from Armstrong High School and within a week enlisted in the Army. He served in the Philippines and the South Pacific during World War II and was discharged in 1946.

He spent a year at Howard University's engineering school before joining the police force. He told The Washington Post he dropped out of school because he "did not want to be a burden on my family." Williams, in his profile for Public Administration Review, said Jefferson had help from the GI Bill but needed additional income.

He spent only a few years on patrol before moving into the investigatory and special unit ranks. At the time, just 10 percent of the department was Black, although the city was 35 percent Black. Black officers were largely limited to policing Black neighborhoods and were not allowed to ride in or drive police cars.

Jefferson worked in the morals division from 1952 to 1960, handling gambling and prostitution cases, and then became a detective sergeant in the robbery unit. He later commanded the robbery squad and then a police district. When Cullinane was named chief in 1974, Jefferson became head of the field operations bureau, putting him in charge of the day-to-day operations and the largest and most influential command on the force.

Jefferson was named chief by Mayor Washington but served most of his term under Mayor Barry, who according to news accounts, resented dealing with an official he had inherited in the role.

Jefferson fought the mayor's proposal to trim the size of the department, warning he needed more officers to combat escalating crime that had reached its highest numbers in a decade.

The chief wrote in one memorandum in 1980 that proposed budget cuts have "grave potential impact on the quality of life for the entire community." Jefferson won the battle when Congress overruled the District's spending plan and ordered an additional 200 officers be hired for fiscal 1981.

After he left the police department, Jefferson headed the D.C. Boxing Commission.

His marriage to Bernice Jefferson ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Joan Humes Jefferson. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Colleagues said Jefferson's impact can be seen in every Black police officer. "He tried to leave that department and his profession better than he found it," Williams said.