The Unconventional Cop
As he drives the streets of Washington, D.C., in his white and blue patrol car Andy Solberg â€˜78 rolls his window down.
That simple choice, to open the window no matter the weather, means one less barrier between the 57-year-old police commander and the neighborhoods he has helped watch for the last 25 years.
When Solberg passes someoneâ€”an elderly woman on a stoop, a group of young men congregating in a front yard, a group of older men behind a liquor store, or a single person walking down the streetâ€”he puts out his arm, waves and gives a nod of acknowledgment. Almost everyone waves back. It's a small moment of connection, but one that can make a big difference, he tells the officers he leads.
â€œIf you're sitting on your front porch and a police car comes whizzing by at 30 miles per hour with the windows up, you don't have any sense that cop is connected to your community in any way,” Solberg says.“Just looking somebody in the eye can have an incredible impact, because you've located somebody in the world.”
Being out in the communityâ€”cruising the streets of North- east D.C., where he is based, or even better, getting out of the police car and talking to the people who live thereâ€”is one of Solberg's favorite parts of the job. And even as he has risen to one of the top spots in the 4,000-person Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, responsible for 280 officers and the safety of one of the city's seven police districts, that on- the-ground work is something he tries to do as often as possible.
Solberg didn't start out intending to become a police officer, but the unexpected career choice, as well as the location in the nation's capital, turned out to be a perfect fit.
His path to commander of the city's Fifth Police District was an indirect one. A religion major, Solberg, who started with the Class of 1977 but identifies as a member of the Class of 1978, had some starts and stops at Haverford, taking seven years to get his diploma. After graduating in 1980, he moved to New Orleans, where his college roommate was doing community organizing, and worked on tugboats on the Mississippi River. He wasn't afraid to go into different parts of the city, and he got to know all kinds of people.
ï¿¼Solberg saw a lot of police activity in his New Orleans neighborhood, and he thought the job seemed interesting. When he moved to D.C., where his sister was working as a legislative aide, he applied to the Police Department after learning that his first choice, the Fire Department, wasn't hiring. He was turned down because he was too tall at 6 feet 8 inchesâ€”three inches above the cutoff height. Three years later, after working as a bartender and a student teacher at a public high school, he got a call that the rule had been overturned. The first time he got in a patrol car with another officer, he says, he had no idea what to expect. What he found was that the job offered an ever-changing window into a city and the lives of its residents, plus a rush from locking up bad guys. And he learned that the uniformâ€”blue shirt for regular police, white shirt for those up the chain of commandâ€”allowed him to go almost anywhere and do anything.
â€œI was the luckiest guy ever,” he says.“This job is so much fun. I don't understand why everyone doesn't love it as much as I do.”
Police work might not be a typical career for a Haverford gradâ€”Solberg says he has never met another in his line of workâ€”and a four-year liberal arts degree isn't the traditional path to becoming a cop. But the two have blended well for Solberg. In the D.C. Police Department, he found a place where the values that define a Haverford educationâ€”respect, integrity, curiosity about other people, and a desire to do good in the worldâ€”could be used on the job.
â€œHe likes people, and he likes the differences in people,” says Jim Walker â€˜78, his Haverford roommate and friend for almost 40 years.“In the end, he likes to be doing the right thing and helping out.”
Solberg grew up in an academic family. His father was a professor at the university of Illinois (now a professor emeritus) who taught early American intellectual history, and Solberg grew up on the campus. His mother was a fifth-grade teacher, and Solberg figured he'd end up becoming a teacher himselfâ€”most likely high school, because he didn't think he had the patience for the additional schooling that teaching college required.
He chose Haverford because of the small size and personal contact with professors but did poorly his freshman year and returned home to Illinois. He worked for a year, driving a taxi, baking doughnuts, and doing“enough menial jobs to convince me that I didn't want to wash dishes for my entire life.” Haverford's admissions head at the time, Bill Ambler, allowed Solberg back after he did a semester at Penn and proved he was capable of doing college-level work.
He delayed his graduation once more to spend a semester in Moscow, where his father was teaching at Moscow State University. (Solberg played on the university's basketball team.) After receiving his religion degree and“bumming around” in New Orleans and D.C. for a few years, Solberg says, his parents began to get worried about his future. That's when he applied to the Metropolitan Police Department.
It was during this time that Solberg met his wife, Yasemin Ciftci. A Turkish immigrant, Ciftci was selling jewelry on the street and came in to use the bathroom of the Georgetown bar where Solberg was working. Their first date was to a Bloomsday reading of James Joyce's Ulysses at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle. They ducked into a nearby church afterward when it started to rain. A year later they were married there.
Solberg and Ciftci, who have been married 28 years, have four childrenâ€”Suzi, 23, Tark, 21, Matt, 17, and Ben, 14. They've raised their kids in D.C., and sent them to D.C. public schools. (Ciftci is an English as a Second Language teacher at a Virginia high school.)
Police work turned out to be conducive to raising kids. Working the midnight shift when his kids were little, Solberg could spend his off hours during the day volunteering at their elementary school and coaching their soccer teams. He took his kids along in the car on patrol. His daughter especially liked being out late, accompanying Solberg as he answered the“whoop-whoop” call of the radio dispatcher.
â€œMy kids have all seen some wild and crazy things,” he says. Some of themâ€”such as an intoxicated 70-year-old couple who, when Solberg was trying to figure out their relationship, admitted in crude, carnal terms that they were intimatesâ€”have become a part of the family lore.
His kids have also seen the results of his people-based approach to policing, and his two and a half decades working in every part of the city.“When we go anywhere, somebody says, â€˜Hey, Solberg.'”
When Solberg walks into DeVonna Petree's Center for Single Mothers in the Trinidad neighborhood, the petite 30-year-old greets the towering commander with a giant hug.
Petree has transformed a former neighborhood carryout into Tiny's Place, a warm space for her nonprofit organization. Petree, who was a single mom at 19 and whose mother struggled with drug addiction, is passionate about helping women in the neighborhood improve their lives. Solberg is doing what he can to help get her organization off the ground, including joining the board of her nonprofit, which she named Tyunin's Breakthrough, after her mother. He also has his officers checking in on her and picking up flyers to pass out to mothers in their district who might benefit from Petree's services.
â€œI'm just rooting for her so much,” he says.
Petree was struck by Solberg's love for his children (he wears a bright orange friendship bracelet on his wrist that reminds him of his daughter, because she gave him one when she was a little girl), and she was surprised at how helpful and approachable he was. She senses his leadership in the equally helpful attitudes of his officers.
â€œIt has to come from the top on down,” Petree says.“He's such a warm spirit, and it really trickles down to his department.”
When Solberg joined the Police Department at 31, he wasn't striving to lead officers, or to have his picture on the wall of the district station, next to the mayor's. He was happy working on the streets, in the community. It's where he still prefers to be.
The commander job involves a fair amount of administrative work, including answering between 300 and 400 emails a day. (His email address and cellphone number are easily avail- able to anyone who wants them.) He starts his mornings in his office on the second floor of the no-frills brick and cinderblock district station, which sits near two busy roads and the National Arboretum. On a coffee table near a window that looks out onto the parking lot is a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (When asked if he is a Shakespeare fan, Solberg replies,“Isn't everybody?”)
Three mornings a week, he drives downtown to police head- quarters for an all-city commanders' meeting with the chief of police to talk about recent crimes and potential hot spots. Solberg and the other six commanders sit in the front row of the high-tech Joint Operations Command Center, where large screens display maps of the city and pinpoint locations of crimes. The chief and her assistants sit toward the back.
In those all-city commanders' meetings, it's clear Solberg is not someone who sits behind a desk all day.“He still wears his bulletproof vest with his white shirt,” says Assistant Chief Diane Groomes, Solberg's boss.“He's a real cop, still out on the street answering radio runs.”
Solberg's district, which encompasses much of the Northeast quadrant of the city, has about 80,000 people in more than a dozen diverse neighborhoods, ranging from gentrifying Brookland, which includes Catholic University, to tiny, poor Ivy City, tucked behind industrial warehouses and a highway leading out of the city. Most of the crimes that Solberg and his officers handle are thefts, especially car break-ins. The Fifth District, like the city overall, has seen a drop in violent crime, a decline that Solberg says doesn't have an easy explanation. Last year, his district had 19 fatal shootings, down from 27 the year before.
On a busy day, Solberg's job can involve plenty of drama and risk. One Monday early in May found him on the scene of an attempted robbery at a liquor storeâ€”an incident that involved a standoff with a gunman and required a SWAT team and a K-9 unit. On quieter days, such as a Friday several weeks before that, the commander's role means answering a call from a charter school to investigate a lunchtime fight in the cafeteria.
The qualities that Groomes says make Solberg a good commanderâ€”including a calming presence and a compassionate touchâ€”are on display as he sits in a conference room with a 15-year-old girl and her parents and asks her to describe how the fight happened. He puts her and her parents at ease while another officer goes to view a surveillance video. He asks,“You a good kid?” and her parents nod vigorously, saying she is the best of their 11.“And I thought I had my hands full with four,” he says. When he asks what the girl wants to be when she grows up and her father says she can be anything, Solberg says to her,“You hear that? You can be anything you want. That's pretty neat.”
Sometimes, Solberg says, police officers don't think they are allowed to show emotion, whether they are handling a dead body or upset relatives. But that's wrong. You can be a good cop and a feeling human being at the same time.
Part of Solberg's job is to teach officers how to act on the job. It happens on calls like the one to the school, at daily roll call, and in classrooms at the police academy or George Washington University, where he teaches criminal justice and in the Safety and Security Leadership program. (This semester, he is teaching a course called“Deviance and Social Control.”) Back when he was a sergeant, Solberg, who went on to get a master's degree in philosophy and social policy from American University, would read to his officers from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which observes: People become good by doing good, and you do good by making it a habit.
But giving them straight Aristotle wasn't effective, and he ditched the book in favor of real-life examples. One involves a crude expletive. If a police officer uses the word“motherâ€”” in normal conversation, it's likely to come out in a high-stress situation, when people are watching how the officer behaves. Likewise, if an officer makes an effort not to call people that name, they're unlikely to use it when things get heated and emotions spin out of control.
When a new class of recruits is getting ready to graduate from the police academy, Assistant Chief Groomes has the seven commanders talk to them. Solberg brings along a bag containing a seemingly random objectâ€”a newspaper ad for a hamburger, or an eggâ€”that he uses in an analogy about police work. Groomes says she lets him talk first,“because I want to know what it is.”
With the hamburger ad, Groomes recalls, Solberg explained that if the recruits wanted a hamburger for lunch, they had a choice of restaurants. But when people call the police, they don't get to choose what kind of officer they want. You're the only hamburger they getâ€”so an officer needs to be the best he or she can be, every time.
With the egg, Groomes remembers, Solberg told the graduating recruits that the trust and perception of a community could be broken as easily as an egg.
On that point, Solberg speaks from experience. In 2006, after the murder of a 27-year-old British man, whose throat was slit in a robbery in upscale Georgetown, a comment that Solberg made at a safety meeting sparked outrage and was played across the pages of The Washington Post and on TV news.
The victim was white and the four perpetrators were black. At a meeting where Solberg urged community members to report suspicious activity, he said:“This is not a racial thing to say black people are unusual in Georgetown. This is a fact of life.”
Solberg says he didn't mean it the way the remark was interpreted, and he was deeply embarrassed. The police chief reassigned him the day after the remarks.
Solberg did what he could do to make it right. He didn't hide from the negative attention and wait for it to go away. He released an official apology.“I love being a D.C. police officer,” he wrote.“I tell my kids that there are two best things about being a cop in this city. The first is that I like to think I've driven down every street and ridden through every alley in the city. The second is that I have met people all across the city, and I've made a lot of friends during my 19 years here.”
â€œI believe that those who know my character will understand who I am as a police officer and as a human being. I ask that others who do not know me, and have been hurt, angered, or frustrated by my remarks, view them as inartful, rather than as mean, malicious, or divisive.”
He was reinstated after people around the city spoke up and said he was a good officer and not a racist. He had sent his kids to a predominantly black school in D.C. and was a coach for their sports teams.
â€œThat doesn't happen in a minute,” says Jim Walker, of the outpouring of support for his old friend.“That's years of being the kind of police officer he was and having those kind of relationships.”
Solberg also stood in front of a black church in Georgetownâ€” a Baptist church that had been there since the 1800sâ€”and heard how his comments about black people being unusual in George- town had hurt. He brought his daughter, Suzi, then 16, with him. His apology was written about in The Washington Post.
Looking back, the way he chose to respond to the situation, and the media attention that swirled around it, actually ended up strengthening his relationship with many people in the city, he says.
And, says Solberg,“It was the best civics lesson my kids could have ever gotten.”
ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼ï¿¼Though Solberg wasn't the strongest student at Haverford, the experience of being among so many people who went out and did meaningful work after graduation deeply influenced his life.“It's not self-oriented, it's other-oriented,” he says of the College.“That way of looking at one's place in the world seeps into you,” he says.
Walker, who works on public-housing revitalization for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Birmingham, Ala., sees the Haverford influence on Solberg in the personal integrity that shaped his life pathâ€”the kind of integrity necessary to figure out what one is uniquely made to be and then following that, even when everyone you know is doing something else. And while it wasn't obvi- ous when Solberg was at Haverford,“being a cop is who he is,” Walker says.
At 57, Solberg is three years away from the mandatory retirement age for active-duty police officers. He isn't quite ready to give up police work, but he has started to think about what he may do next.
Solberg isn't interested in taking his public-service experience to the private sector, a popular and profitable choice in Washington. Instead, he's looking for work that feels meaningful to him. One possibility is working with ex-offenders, helping them reintegrate into society. It's an idea that stems from a belief he's come to over the years, that putting people away for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses, sometimes does as much harm as good, if not more.
Those kinds of arrests, which he made frequently as a rookie cop, don't do much to make a neighborhood safer, he believes. And as a commander, he sees the problems that can come up when people return to the community from prison.
â€œI think we arrest way too many people, and we shouldn't,” he says.
Solberg doesn't know if any of his kids will try police work â€”or what they'll end up doing for a career. Suzi graduated from Temple University and is living with friends in Miami, following her father's path of taking time after college to figure out what to do. Tark graduated this spring from the University of Illinois and has a job there through the summer.
This spring, Solberg has been taking his son Matt on col- lege tours. For him and for their youngest son, Solberg's wife, Yasemin, is advocating a more practical approach: going to college with a career plan. But Solberg is a big believer in the exploration that a liberal arts education provides. He knows the difference it made in his life.
â€œIt's not only OK not to know what you want to study as an undergrad, that's a good thing,” he says. And with a few exceptions,“I think more liberal arts majors in the world would be a good thing.”
-- Kathryn Masterson