The sound of breaking glass could be heard for miles. Thick plumes of smoke filled the air as looters sacked businesses and spread havoc. Officer Charles Samarra, a new recruit to the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, felt helpless as his commanding officer ordered him to remain on the porch of the Precinct 11 substation in Anacostia and let the rioters have their way.
“It was a week from hell,” Samarra said. “I had never seen anything like it.”
The year was 1968, and the scene was reminiscent of a war zone. The capital had erupted in violence after the April 4 assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. Samarra had been on the job only a year — a rookie cop who had a walking beat through one of Washington’s toughest neighborhoods.
“At the time, I thought they should have let us go out and do something about it,” Samarra said. “Now I know that in order to stop what was going on, it would have taken the use of deadly force.”
It was a critical lesson for Samarra, and one that he has never forgotten. In the intervening years, he had a 23-year career climbing up the ranks in Washington before leading the Alexandria force for 16 years. When Samarra announced his retirement in May, he suggested that his heart had grown weary from the never-ending tragedies associated with police work.
“My 39 years of law enforcement experience have been wrought with more than my share of officer-related tragedy, tragedies that have a personal and long-lasting effect,” Samarra wrote in his May 16 resignation letter. “This is probably the only example of a situation where gaining experience takes your strength rather than making you stronger.”
His colleagues suspected that he had accomplished all of his goals — reducing crime, reaching out to the communities, establishing a sense of respect for the department and shepherding a new generation of leaders within the organization. The three candidates that are being considered to replace Samarra are his deputy chiefs, a show of the internal strength of the department.
“When he got here the morale was very low, and he turned that around,” said police spokesman Capt. John Crawford. “I think he wanted to go out on a high note.”
A NATIVE OF Natrona Heights, Pa., Samarra graduated from Har-Brack High School in 1963. He majored in English for two years at Roberts Wesleyan College in North Chili, N.Y., before marrying classmate Mary Dunkle and moving to Washington to take a job as a police officer.
“I always wanted to be a police officer,” Samarra said. “My parents tell me that if anything looked like a badge, I would pin it on me.”
The rioting that happened in his first year as a police officer left lasting scars in Washington — both physical and psychological. For Samarra, it was a trial by fire in which he learned the volatility of human nature and the boundaries of public safety. It was a time when the Washington police force was being integrated, and racial animosity hung like a cloud over the city for years after the riots.
“I had never seen so much anger,” Samarra said. “You could feel it in the air.”
The next year, Samarra took a position as a speechwriter for Washington Police Chief Jerry Wilson. This was when he met a group of up-and-coming police officers who would later rise to positions of prominence in the organization — people like future Police Chief Maurice Cullinane. For Samarra, it was an opportunity to see the internal workings of upper-level management.
BECOMING A DETECTIVE was a goal for Samarra, so he took the aptitude test. Little did he know that he would receive the top score or that his success on the test would bring skepticism. He remembers the day that three captains summoned him to an interrogation room to grill him.
“One of them threw a book on the table and said, ‘Boy, you cheated, didn’t you?’ That was how the interview started,” Samarra said. “They screamed for a while and scared the hell out of me. These guys were a completely different breed of people than we have today.”
Samarra spent years ascending through levels of the responsibility in Washington, investigating burglaries of local luminaries and tracking recidivism among repeat offenders. He built a resume of successes and reputation for thoroughness — one that had the Federal Bureau of Investigation eager to duplicate his research methodology. He organized the plain-clothes detail of the 1973 inauguration and investigated corrupt police officers and public officials.
“We had officers working with organized crime,” Samarra said. “One of our officers was a bank robber.”
ULTIMATELY SAMARRA’S steadfast nature and work ethic brought him to the highest levels of power — overseeing the transition team that would install Maurice Cullinane as chief and Samarra as the deputy chief of special operations. During the 1980s, he oversaw security measures for the daily protests that clogged the city’s streets.
“It would be Act Up one day and people from Afghanistan the next day,” Samarra said. “They would be at the Labor Department and in front of the World Bank. They were everywhere.”
When Isaac Fulwood asked Samarra to head his transition team, the job came with an uncomfortable secret — an ongoing investigation of Washington Mayor Marion Barry. Seeking to insulate himself, Fulwood asked Samarra to create an independent internal-affairs office to prevent the new police chief from having any operational knowledge of the investigation.
“The next day I got a call from Marion Barry, and he wanted a briefing on the case,” Samarra said. “I told him that I would have to notify the U.S. attorney about the request, and he hung up on me. That was the last time I talked to Marion Barry.”
Several months later, the FBI and Samarra’s operatives in the Washington Metropolitan Police Department organized a sting operation at the downtown Vista Hotel — now known as the Wyndham Washington. The videotaped evidence showed Barry smoking crack cocaine with a prostitute, uttering “bitch set me up” as authorities took him into custody.
MEANWHILE IN ALEXANDRIA, the Police Department had become a source of shame. Although the murder rate — a critical reflection of law enforcement in any community — had been on the decline since the 1970s, public opinion was scraping rock bottom. By the late 1980s, the department had reached a new low.
“We had problems with budgets that didn’t add up and memos that had parts missing,” said Vola Lawson, who was then the city manager. “We spent more time on police matters than almost all the other departments combined.”
The problems started in 1977, when Charles Strobel was named chief of police in Alexandria. Although he was eventually acquitted, his federal indictment on eight counts of perjury and obstruction of justice created a perception the Police Department was run by a good-old-boy network. He was finally forced from office in 1987, capping 10 controversial years of scandal and intrigue.
STROBEL’S REPLACEMENT, Gary Leonard, did not fare much better. His ongoing disputes with the police unions created a sense of gridlock that threatened the effectiveness of public safety in Alexandria. He angered several officers with a seeming indifference to employee groups and a reluctance to attend roll calls.
Financial turmoil left the department $500,000 over budget in fiscal year 1990.
Tired of micromanaging the police and eager to find a chief that could handle the department, Lawson approached Samarra to take the chief’s position. His reputation as a skilled bureaucrat earned him the nickname “Mr. Fix-It,” a moniker first used by former Washington Police Chief Fulwood to describe Samarra’s penchant for solving labor disputes and organizational predicaments.
“I was looking for a professional chief who would have the respect of the officers,” Lawson said. “Samarra has brought the Police Department into the computer age and created a professional police force that the city did not have before he came to Alexandria.”
SINCE 1990, Samarra has worked to increase access to technology, implement community-policing efforts and ease the relationship with police unions. His management skills and behind-the-scenes negotiating have brought criticism that he spends too much time out of the public eye. But mostly, the announcement of his retirement has brought a chorus of applause from people who have worked with him over the years.
“Charlie’s principal reputation, and I think it was borne out, is that he’s a cop’s cop,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who was mayor of the city when Samarra was hired. “He’s been a terrific police chief, and confirmation of that has come from the officers themselves.”
Samarra said that his biggest regret is not being able to close the Nancy Dunning murder. He defends the right of his officers to open fire on moving vehicles, like one off-duty officer did earlier this year killing a teenager. And he has mixed feelings about living in the post 9/11 era.
“If we have another incident, then we’ll be light years ahead of where we were,” Samarra said. “But does it help day-to-day policing? No, it probably takes away from it.”
In retirement, Samarra plans to embark on a teaching career. He’s been an adjunct professor for an online course in strategic communications and leadership for several years. Now that he’ll have more time on his hands, he has been looking at classroom teaching possibilities in the Washington region.
“I’m always going to be involved in something,” Samarra said. “I’ll be around.”