Washington, D.C.’s new police chief, Pamela Smith, was addressing an audience last weekend hen a woman shouted that her grandson had been shot to death the day before only a half-mile away. “My grandson was innocent!” said Delores Harris, 65, holding an oversized photo of the victim, Tyjon Clayton, 20. “He had a job! And he’s gone! He’s gone!” The chief, an ordained minister who had introduced herself as a “pistol-packin’ preacher,” joined a prayer circle around Harris, then returned to the mic, where she said police were working “feverishly” to find the killer. She recalled telephoning a commander late the other night — bothered by a rash of carjackings — to ask, “What the heck is going on? What are you guys doing?” “When I can’t sleep, nobody sleeps!” the chief thundered as residents and religious and civic leaders applauded, the Washington Post reports. “Two o’clock in the morning, I’m trying to figure out how to fight crime in your city!”
Since the early 2000s, D.C. mayors have appointed chiefs who rose through the ranks of the police force, battle-tested veterans well-versed in the bureaucracy, the nuances of local politics and what distinguishes neighborhoods. In Smith, Mayor Muriel Bowser chose a different type of chief, the first Black woman nominated to lead the department. Unlike her three predecessors, Smith joined the agency only 14 months ago, after more than two decades at the U.S. Park Police, where she became chief. She is a stranger to D.C.'s civic leaders and local activists and has limited experience patrolling the city. Smith has a rousing style of oratory rooted in her religious faith — a faith that took shape in Pine Bluff, Ark., the small city 45 miles south of Little Rock where she grew up and graduated from college. When she gives a speech, Smith can look and sound like a preacher, moving her body and hands and projecting a booming voice. The chief also has a distinctive personal narrative, the arc of which begins with a traumatic childhood dominated by an alcoholic mother and ends in soaring professional success. Associates question why Smith traded comfortable obscurity to become the public face of policing in a city where crime statistics are discouraging. As of July 27, the number of youngsters shot in the city this year — 79 — had increased by 72 percent from the same time last year. Shootings, carjackings and homicides are all on the rise.