Washington’s first Black police chief, Burtell M. Jefferson, dead at 96

The U.S. Army veteran joined the Metropolitan Police department in 1948 when the force was largely segregated

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Burtell M. Johnson, the first Black police chief in Washington D.C. has died at the age of 96.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, Jefferson joined the largely segregated police force in 1948 as one of few Black officers. He was relegated to certain beats and areas while on duty. After he entered the force, he swiftly moved and worked his way to the top.

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Before becoming an officer, Jefferson spent a year at Howard University in the engineering program. The Washington Post, reported he dropped out of school because he “did not want to be a burden on my family.” He had assistance from his GI Bill, but needed additional funding. When he was sworn in as chief, he requested it not be mentioned that he was the first Black person in the role.

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When he retired in 1981 after nearly 33 years in law enforcement, he was recognized for helping to add diversity to the department. Post reporter Eugene Robinson wrote at the time, Jefferson “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.”

The DC Police Department shared the news of his death on social media.

“It is with a heavy heart that MPD announces the passing of former Chief of Police Burtell M. Jefferson,” the department tweeted. “His service to our city will never be forgotten.”

Jefferson started in the 9th Precinct, but by 1950 had become a detective. He worked in several different investigative units including the Robbery Squad and Morals Division. In 1963, he was named Detective Sergeant and continued to rise up.

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In 1968, he was promoted to Lieutenant, and in 1974, he became Assistant Chief in Charge of the Field Operations Bureau. In this role, Assistant Chief Jefferson was again one of few Black people to hold the title. It was in 1978 that he became Washington’s first Black police chief.

According to the police department, “Chief Jefferson initiated the new rank of “Master Patrol Officer,” and worked toward better community relations. He was Chief during the “Farmers” demonstrations when the city was gridlocked by angry farmers protesting in their tractors. His tenure saw a reduction in crime, but he had to contend with restrictions due to the energy crisis, constant threats of personnel cuts, and with outspoken dissension of some of his detectives against their commander.”

East Cost Alert, an unofficial Twitter page that recognizes police work, firemen, and other public safety fields paid their respects to Jefferson.

“Rest In Peace HERO Chief of Police Burtell M. Jefferson Metropolitan Police Department Washington, D.C. FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS.” the page tweeted.

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