Photo by Randell Norton

Gary Abrecht

Gary Abrecht’s interview spans the years 1967 to 2000 and is a warm and poignant recollection of over 30 years working in law enforcement in Washington, DC.

Moving up the ranks from patrol officer to deputy chief of police and then to chief of Capitol Police, Gary was in the front row of pivotal transitions in the city of Washington, its police force, and Capitol Hill.

Gary was born in Berkeley, California, spent his formative years in Geneva, Switzerland, and came to Washington, DC, in 1967, after graduating from Yale University. His first job in DC was as an itinerant Latin teacher in the DC public schools. He married Mary Ellen Abrecht (interviewed March 23, 2018), and their first home together was an apartment in Fairfax Village in Anacostia. Mary Ellen was hired as a policewoman by the Washington police department. Gary also joined the Washington police force in 1969, lured away from the prospect of teaching Latin to generally unreceptive students by the stories Mary Ellen had to tell at the end of her day.

In this interview, conducted by his friend and accomplished interviewer Randy Norton, Gary gives us a kind, compassionate, and generous recollection of the day-to-day life of a police officer, the difference between law enforcement in the city and law enforcement at the Capitol, and important events, some heartwarming, and some heartbreaking.

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Interview Date
March 21, 2023
Randell Norton
David MacKinnon
Diane Platt

Full Directory

Interview with Gary Abrecht
Interview Date: March 21, 2023
Interviewer: Randy Norton
Transcriber: David MacKinnon
Editor: Diane Platt

photo by Randell Norton

This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

NORTON: This is Randy Norton. It is March 21, 2023, and I am at Gary Abrecht’s place of abode, 250 Ninth Street SE, Washington, DC. I’m interviewing Gary Abrecht. Good morning.
ABRECHT: Good morning, Randy.
NORTON: Where were you born?
ABRECHT: I was born in Berkeley, California, where my parents were both students at the University of California at the time.
NORTON: How long did you live there?
ABRECHT: Just six months. My mother was about to graduate, and my dad was doing post-graduate work at the time anyway. He was dating a student, which, of course, now would be completely verboten, I’m sure.
NORTON: I see. And your mother was the student.
ABRECHT: My mother was a student, and he was a graduate student, so, I guess he was teaching sections or something like that.
NORTON: Where did they go after that? Where did you all go after that?
ABRECHT: We moved to New York City where my dad became a student at Union Theological Seminary. We lived in the married student dorm or apartment building, I guess.
NORTON: Do you remember any of the time in New York?
ABRECHT: No. I was five by the time—like always, you’ve heard stories, so you don’t know whether you remember it or not—I thought I had some recollection of falling off my tricycle in the hallway and the elevator operator who had helped, who was a long-time employee—but that may have been from visits after that time, I’m not sure.
NORTON: Where did you all go after that?
ABRECHT: When I was five, my dad, who had finished all but his PHD under Reinhold Niebuhr—all but the dissertation—took a job that Niebuhr, I think, arranged for him with the brand-new World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. So, we all, me and the two siblings who had been born while we were [in New York], including one who was only about six months old at that time, all headed over to Geneva. This is sort of right after the war, so, the situation in Geneva was all right, but I can remember going through France in the train from Le Havre to Geneva, and there was still plenty of destruction to be seen.
NORTON: Did you go over by ship?
ABRECHT: Oh yeah. The S.S. America.
NORTON: You say this is the brand-new World Council of Churches.
ABRECHT: It was founded in ’48, so, it was a year later, basically.
NORTON: What was your dad’s function there?
ABRECHT: He was in charge of the Department on Church and Society—Social issues, ethical issues. Ethics was his field. Had he ever gone back to the United States, he probably would have become a professor of Christian ethics at some seminary or college.
NORTON: Do you remember what that involved on sort of a day-to-day or week-to-week basis—what his job was?
ABRECHT: I think day-to-day, week-to-week, he was involved with helping the World Council of Churches develop positions on social issues. He wrote a book on nuclear energy, for instance, which looked a lot different in places. In Africa, for instance, the churches of Africa [thought differently] than the churches of the United States. Churches in the Third World were very interested in developing some energy source that they did not have. Of course, by that time people were becoming worried about nuclear energy—the risks of accidents and that sort of thing in the developed world. But the Third World had plenty of open space, was less worried about that. Just one example of the sorts of issues they would get involved in.
NORTON: How old were you when you went to Geneva?
ABRECHT: I was five.
NORTON: So, you spent pretty much your entire youth there, is that right?
ABRECHT: From age five through high school, basically.
NORTON: What do you remember about living in Geneva? Did you like it?
ABRECHT: Oh, I loved it. I had a wonderful time there. Rode my bicycle everywhere. Rode my bicycle to school—then a little Velo Solex, one of those little motor bikes with the motor mounted over the front wheel … French made. I had one of those that I rode back and forth to school when I got a little older. Ran a Boy Scout patrol. It was lovely. A great place to grow up.
NORTON: Where did you go to school?
ABRECHT: Went to the Collège de Genève, which was founded by John Calvin and was still being operated in the building that he built for it in the 16th Century.
NORTON: You took your classes in French?
NORTON: That’s interesting. Did you speak English at home and French at school?
ABRECHT: Basically. Certainly with my parents, we spoke English. Among the kids, we would speak French. It seemed to depend on what the topic was. If we were talking about soccer or something like that, we would shift to French. If you were talking family issues, we would speak English. My brothers and I, and later my sister, all were bilingual. My parents never got beyond just shopping; my mother was from Canada, so she did speak—she had some French. My dad had learned—all the French he knew, he learned going shopping in Geneva. He only knew the present tense. He would write a speech that he was going to have to deliver in French, and I would change all the verbs to the right tenses, but when he delivered it, it was still—he just used the present tense for everything. [Laughter.]
NORTON: Did you kids use French as sort of the secret language when you didn’t want your parents to understand what you were saying?
ABRECHT: I don’t remember doing that.
NORTON: You said you were in Boy Scouts, a patrol leader. So, you enjoyed Boy Scouts?
ABRECHT: Yeah. I had a wonderful time. The Boy Scouts of Switzerland were more close to the English example of Baden-Powell [Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the World Organization of the Scout Movement] in the sense that it really was boys leading boys. There were very few adults involved. I would go off leading camping in the woods for three or four days with my patrol, and I would be the oldest person there. That was when I was a high school student.
NORTON: How old were you when you graduated from high school?
ABRECHT: I think 18 because it’s 13 years. I graduated in ’63 so, 19 almost.
NORTON: What sort of considerations did you all go into determining where you’d go to college?
ABRECHT: At the time in Geneva, Switzerland, generally, you really had to be Swiss to be a professional of any sort. A doctor or something like that. My parents, I felt, still thought they were ultimately going to come back to the United States. So, I decided to go—I’m sure with their involvement, though I don’t really remember the details—to go home, to go to college in the United States.
NORTON: Why Yale?
ABRECHT: Yale accepted me. I’d applied to a number of colleges. Looked seriously at Pomona out in California near my grandparents, just to be close to some sort of family. Ultimately, Yale came through with a nice scholarship offer, so I went there.
NORTON: What field of study did you undertake at Yale?
ABRECHT: I majored in economics.
NORTON: I did too. But I won’t ask you any questions about it.
ABRECHT: As you remember back then, economics was a lot less numerical than it has become nowadays where you really have to be a—more like being a computer scientist than being a social scientist. I studied sort of labor economics, which was very interesting.
NORTON: That was my favorite course in economics, was labor economics. I gather during college you met Mary Ellen?
NORTON: How did that happen?
ABRECHT: I was involved in—we were both involved, she was at Mount Holyoke—and there was an organization called the Student Christian Movement in New England, which was a sort of a liberal student-Christian organization. It was a dating service for people of Christian [faith], who had an interest in Christianity, who were at one of the many single-sex schools. She and I were both in the leadership of the Student Christian Movement in New England. I got to know her there.
NORTON: Do you remember when you met or how you met?
ABRECHT: I’m sure we met originally [in] a meeting. Our first date—I’d been trying to date her for several years. Whether she was not interested, or whatever it was, but finally in our senior year, spring of our senior year, I told her, “This is your last chance, would you like to be my date for the Yale prom?” I think her thought was, “Well at least I get to go to the Yale prom out of this.” I think the Supremes were performing. This was a very big deal in those days. She agreed to come. That weekend clicked, and we dated furiously thereafter until she came home with me that summer to Geneva to spend the summer there.
NORTON: This would have been the summer after both of you graduated from college?
ABRECHT: Right. We both graduated in ’67.
NORTON: When you say you dated furiously, I only ask because I see Mount Holyoke is not particularly close to Yale, so was there a lot of travel?
ABRECHT: There was bus service between the two. It was not great. It was a trip either way.
NORTON: I call her Mary Ellen although almost everyone who reads or hears this will know her as M’El, capital M, apostrophe, capital El , but I gather you pretty much always called her Mary Ellen.
ABRECHT: I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t think so.
NORTON: Alright, well I’ll call her M’El then from hereinafter—or maybe.
ABRECHT: Sometimes when I refer to her, I refer to her as Mary Ellen. She used both, sort of. I guess she used Mary Ellen outside the family.
NORTON: You said she came back home with you to Geneva the summer after you all graduated. How long was that?
ABRECHT: The prom was like in March, so, it was only a few months after we had first met. She realized that she had—she was all set to go to Union Theological Seminary in September. I had no plans for September when we went home. I worked at the job I’d worked at for several years for Caterpillar Tractor that had a big overseas operation in Geneva there. It was their world headquarters, sort of international. I worked in the parts fulfillment part of that.
NORTON: Interesting. So, you didn’t have any other career plans or anything like that after you graduated other than your immediate plans to work for Caterpillar?
ABRECHT: That’s about the size of it, yes. Hard to believe nowadays that I was so nonchalant. I was planning to come back to the States and look for work somewhere. I read the New York Herald Tribune. There was a little short piece about three or four inches of type that said the city of Washington was in dire need of teachers, and that they couldn’t get enough teachers to teach in the public schools. So, blithely, after the summer, I packed up my belongings and headed to Washington to see if I could capture one of these jobs teaching school, being completely untrained in education or anything. It was a most ridiculous idea, but it worked as it turned out.
NORTON: Had you actually applied for a teaching job before you moved down to DC?
ABRECHT: Nope. [Laughter.] My father had a friend here in Washington who was the ambassador from Botswana. He was on one of my dad’s committees. He was a Christian. He agreed to put me up in the ambassador’s residence for an unspecified period of time. I think he was glad when I ultimately got a job and moved out.
NORTON: How long did you stay at the Botswana ambassador’s residence?
ABRECHT: Gee, I don’t really remember. Probably a month or so.
NORTON: What was M’El doing this whole time?
ABRECHT: She was a student at Union Theological Seminary [New York City] in the Master of Religious Education program. Obviously, nobody was ordaining women at the time, so, she was not taking the BD [Bachelor of Divinity] curriculum that would lead to ordination. She was working toward a job running the Sunday school of a large church or something like that.
NORTON: Why don’t you walk me through your process of finding a teaching job in DC.
ABRECHT: I’m not sure exactly. I showed up at the Board of Education, this is after Labor Day mind you. [Laughter.]
NORTON: That’s right, you spent the whole summer in Geneva.
ABRECHT: “Hi, here I am, the savior of the DC public schools. I’d be interested in teaching.”
They said, “Oh, what can you teach?”
I said, “Well, I majored in economics, so I could teach social sciences, social studies.”
They already had enough teachers of that.
“But,” I said, “I could also teach foreign languages. I could teach French, I could teach Latin. I’ve had seven years of Latin.”
They said, “Well, we might be able to use you as a Latin teacher. Here, go up to the Foreign Languages Department, and speak with mister so and so.”
I’ve forgotten his name. He handed me a Latin book, a Latin textbook, and had me translate a short paragraph in there to see that I actually knew some Latin. That was that. I got a temporary, emergency certification as a Latin teacher.
NORTON: School had already started though, presumably, when you got this job.
NORTON: I’m interested. Were they still teaching Latin in DC public schools back then?
ABRECHT: They were still teaching Latin at the sixth grade—to sixth graders and some seventh graders. This was as crazy as my getting the job—the way this program operated. I was a roving Latin teacher. I had six schools in Anacostia where I would go and teach one class a day—short twenty-minute class. Roving Latin teacher.
NORTON: Did you have to prepare curriculum for them and all that kind of stuff?
ABRECHT: Oh yeah.
NORTON: You give tests and stuff?
ABRECHT: Oh, right.
NORTON: Did they seem to learn anything from you?
ABRECHT: I think they probably learned a little—a lot of different things. They learned some Latin. I think they learned something about the concept—I’ve always thought that they learned a little about how language is organized, because Latin of course is completely different, and they had to learn to put the verb at the end of the sentence, and that you had to have complete sentences, and you had to pronounce the end of words because all of the endings were what made you understand what the sentence meant. Then I also taught some mythology and ancient Roman history.
In most cases, I was the only male that they encountered in school. All the other teachers were women. There were very few white teachers in the schools at that time. So, I was also the one white person that they would get to interact with. So, that was interesting in a couple of different ways.
NORTON: What year was that?
ABRECHT: ’67. ’68. I did it the following year again. One more year.
NORTON: So, ’68, ’69 as well.
ABRECHT: I did it for two years.
NORTON: What schools were you the roving teacher for?
ABRECHT: Let’s see if I can remember. Stanton, Beers, Ketchum annex, Green, and Sousa Junior High School the first year and Douglas Junior High the second year.
NORTON: What was M’El doing all this time?
ABRECHT: The first year she was doing her first year of studies at Union Theological Seminary. I would go up most weekends to spend the weekend with her.
NORTON: What happened during the second year?
ABRECHT: The plan was that I would try and go and teach in New York the second year, but New York was not interested in people with as few qualifications as I had. I would have had to get a teaching certificate to be in New York. So, she dropped out of Union. We got married that summer— Labor Day weekend basically—of my second year of teaching in ’68.
NORTON: You would have been teaching in the DC Public Schools at the time of the Martin Luther King riots in the early part of ’68. What was that like?
ABRECHT: I certainly was. The day after he was killed, I came in to teach my class. You could tell that the kids had been up all night. They were all—I also figured I would be the only white person they would see all day, so, I took time to have a little discussion with them about how I felt about all this. The situation sort of deteriorated out in Anacostia during the day. I was riding around on a motorcycle, a little 50cc motorcycle. I arrived at Sousa sort of early afternoon—Sousa Junior High School. The secretary saw me coming in and said, “What are you doing here Mr. Abrecht?” I said, “I’ve come to teach my class.” She said, “You get on the little motorcycle and get out of here. We’re going to release the students here in a few minutes.” She—obviously there had been trouble already at the neighborhood—so, I took her words of advice and went back. I was living in an apartment just across the District line on Branch Avenue in Marlow Heights.
NORTON: Marlow Heights. Okay. Was that where you moved after you’d moved out of the embassy quarters?
ABRECHT: Yep, exactly. Went downtown to catch the bus to New York, like I did every weekend, the Trailways station there at 11th and New York Avenue [NW].
NORTON: This was the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed?
ABRECHT: Yeah, right, the next day.
NORTON: Did you go to each of your classes?
ABRECHT: I got to all of them except the Sousa class. All the elementary school classes I got to. Riding the bus downtown, I watched as the people would come running out of stores with big armloads of clothing. They would run up to the bus terminal and put them in the storage lockers of the bus terminal.
NORTON: This is the Greyhound station?
ABRECHT: Think it was the Trailways station, which was across the street—the intersection of 12th and New York Avenue.
NORTON: Right, wow. You actually saw people using the storage lockers to store stuff they had stolen?
NORTON: Let’s keep going on that day. You caught the bus to New York, and then what?
ABRECHT: New York was–I don’t have any recollection of any trouble getting up to the Seminary.
NORTON: That’s not far from Harlem is it?
ABRECHT: No, it isn’t. I really don’t have much recollection of what went on that weekend. When we got back, the city was—there was a curfew in all of downtown Washington. The bus had to circle around and come in. There was one road that was left open for the buses to get through to downtown. Then you’re downtown. I was able to find another bus that was going out of town toward the Branch Avenue area. I think it was sort of a commuter bus or regional bus of some sort, and [I] got back to my apartment. But it was spring break then so there was no school the next day.
NORTON: So, there wouldn’t have been any school anyway at that point. What happened after spring break?
ABRECHT: We went back to school, and there was the whole trauma of the city, and all around the funerals. I don’t have much recollection of how it impacted my teaching after that.
NORTON: You indicated that Mary Ellen decided to come down, and you guys got married the next school year. That’s an interesting decision to move down to a place where such a traumatic event had just happened.
ABRECHT: Well, a traumatic event had been everywhere. You’re right, there had been Harlem—we both had—she taught Sunday school at that big church next to Union. … Riverside Church, the huge church that Rockefeller [John D. Rockefeller, Jr.] had built. I think that’s right. They needed somebody to deal with the kids who were a little rambunctious, so, they had hired me to take the kids that had a little more energy than Sunday school teachers could deal with—I would take them out and give them a little more physical exercise activities. Then the fairly structured Sunday school teaching could be done. Sort of the juvenile delinquent version of Sunday school. [Laughter.]
NORTON: Were you staying up there? Was this over a weekend?
ABRECHT: Yeah. One of my Yale classmates was a student, and he allowed me to sleep on his couch on the weekends when I was up there.
NORTON: What did you all do during the summer of, I guess, ’68?
ABRECHT: What did we do during the summer of ’68?
NORTON: It’s not that important. Let’s move along—you got married around Labor Day of ’68.
ABRECHT: Right. I went up to—the summer of ’68 I spent at Harvard Medical School in the dorm of two of my college roommates who had started medical school and had jobs in the labs for the summer. They let me come and sleep in their dorm room as long as I did the cooking. I made dinner for them every night and slept in their dorm room. M’El was down at her home on Cape Cod.
NORTON: That’s her family home?
ABRECHT: Yeah. That’s where her parents had moved in retirement.
NORTON: Were you thinking of a medical career or anything like that?
ABRECHT: No. It was just a place to spend the summer that was nearer to her parents’ place on the Cape.
NORTON: They being your classmates from Yale?
ABRECHT: My two classmates, yeah.
NORTON: Where did you get married?
ABRECHT: At her church in South Hadley—actually the wedding was on the Mount Holyoke campus in the Fellowship of Faiths Hall.
NORTON: What was it like? I always remember seeing pictures of your wedding. It was very much like—
ABRECHT: —It was very much of its time, shall we say, [laughter] of the 60s. Sister Mary Corita was well represented in the art that was on display, and so forth and so on.
NORTON: When M’El moved down with you to DC, where did you all live?
ABRECHT: We lived in an apartment in Fairfax Village which is at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Alabama Avenue out in Anacostia. One of those many developments that was put up during the second world war to accommodate the influx of people coming to work at the Defense Department and places during the war. Most of the ones we think of are out in Virginia, but this was one in the District.
NORTON: Was it a nice development at that point?
ABRECHT: It was. It was lovely.
NORTON: What was M’El doing while you went back to teaching?
ABRECHT: She was looking for work. She started out just being a housekeeper, covering things with that stick-on paper stuff.
NORTON: Contact paper.
ABRECHT: Contact paper, thank you.
NORTON: That was also of its time.
ABRECHT: It was of its time, right. [Laughter.] After a while I told her, “Why don’t you go find a job?” We only need just so much housekeeping in this one-bedroom apartment. [Laughter.]
NORTON: In terms of your career, were you planning to stay a schoolteacher, or did you have any other plans?
ABRECHT: I think I was, if I remember correctly, I was planning to go on and become a schoolteacher by getting some proper training, but I really had no great plans that I can remember now, anyway.
NORTON: Had you started any kind of education training or anything like that?
ABRECHT: I had taken a couple of courses at DC Teachers College, which later became the University of the District of Columbia.
NORTON: Merged with a couple of other schools. Mary Ellen trying to find work, what did she find?
ABRECHT: She was going down to the U.S. Employment Service. She did a whole interview that you may [know]of, and your listeners can refer to, that tells how she sort of stumbled into this job as a policewoman, which was a separate kind of job than being a police officer or a patrol officer.
NORTON: Do you remember how long she’d been looking for work when she took this job?
ABRECHT: I don’t remember when she was sworn in, but not very long, I don’t think. She had looked at some jobs teaching Sunday school and running the social programs at a couple of churches in the city. I remember going to church on Sunday at a couple of places where she was considering job openings that they had. Not very long. I think it was by the fall or Christmas time, she was already in the police department.
NORTON: Did you and she have a discussion about her taking a job as policewoman? I’m just curious.
ABRECHT: I actually encouraged her to—I came home from work one day, and she said, “You’ll never believe what happened to me today. I was calling all these numbers that I’d got from the U.S. Employment Service, and this guy tried to recruit me to join the police department.”
I said, “Well, tell me a little more about it.”
She told me a little bit about what the guy had said. He was very persuasive apparently.
I said, “Well, I don’t know, that sounds kind of interesting.”
I don’t know if I was just desperate for her to find a job or whatever. I really thought so. So, she went down and talked to them and ultimately decided to take the job. I don’t think she intended to spend her career in that and the law.
NORTON: Ultimately, you became a police officer yourself.
ABRECHT: Right. She would come home every day from the recruit academy, [and] would tell me all the interesting things she had learned there. Meanwhile, I would come home from something I was not properly trained to do—nor very good at—teaching sixth graders, who really couldn’t care less about what I had to say about Latin. I became very interested in what she was learning.
One Saturday I went down to RFK Stadium parking lot where there was a little trailer there with a sergeant in it— it was a recruiting station for the police department. Took the test, which was a simple cognitive skills test, basically. I was best at the competition, very easily, shall we say. [Laughter.] The sergeant was very interested then in having me apply because he could see that I was going to be a recruit he could be proud to say he had gotten.
NORTON: Do you remember roughly when this was that you went down to the recruiting center?
ABRECHT: I was still teaching. It was on a Saturday.
NORTON: It would be the spring of ’69 probably?
ABRECHT: Probably, yeah. I joined the department on June 30 of ’69.
NORTON: This was part of a big police recruitment campaign right after the riots?
ABRECHT: Right, exactly.
After the riots the two presidents, first Johnson, said, “I’m going to deal with this. I’m increasing the size of the police department by a thousand officers.”
Then Nixon was sworn in, and he said, “I’m going to show him: I’m going to put another thousand on top.”
So, all of a sudden, the department goes from 2,100 to 4,100. At least the authorized strength does. They couldn’t hire them that fast.
NORTON: So, there was a lot of interest in getting recruits.
ABRECHT: Oh yeah. They were granting early outs from Vietnam. People who were in Vietnam could get an early out from the military to come join the DC police department. There was a nationwide recruiting campaign going on.
NORTON: Were you sworn in before you did your training or after?
ABRECHT: We were sworn in right away and given weapons without any instruction. It was pretty half-baked [laughs]. They had a little range in the basement of police headquarters. They would go down and show you how to qualify. Basically, tell you enough so you could qualify and hit the target, and that was about it.
NORTON: Is that the headquarters down at Third and C [Streets] NW?
ABRECHT: Yes, 300 Indiana Avenue.
NORTON: What did your training involve?
ABRECHT: It’s about four months of a combination of law and police procedure. All the things you might expect.
NORTON: Were there a whole lot of people in your training class given that they were trying to increase the size of the police department?
ABRECHT: The sort of home room, if you were, was about 30, if I remember correctly. But we were part of a group of about four times that size. I believe they were broken down into groups of 30. Aggregate groups of 120, something like that.
NORTON: Do you remember what the demographics were of the police department back at the time you signed up?
ABRECHT: At the time I signed up, it was still very much white. [It was] About ten percent, if I remember correctly, were African American. The rest was all white, mostly from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, the states surrounding Virginia, North Carolina, the East Coast of the United States.
NORTON: How about your recruiting class or your training class? Had that changed some?
ABRECHT: Oh yeah. The training class was—I would have to go look at a picture—but I would suspect it was at least 25 percent African American.
NORTON: Even so, the demographics of the city was, at that point, fairly African American.
ABRECHT: Yeah. It was more than 50 percent.
NORTON: What happened after training?
ABRECHT: By virtue of being first in my graduating class—also not a terribly difficult competition [laughs]—I got to choose where I wanted to go. So, I chose to go to the First District downtown.
NORTON: Was that in Southwest at the time?
ABRECHT: At the time it was in the police headquarters building at 300 Indiana. It moved to the building in Southwest fairly early in my time.
NORTON: What were your duties with the First District?
ABRECHT: I was a patrol officer. Every day I’d come in on a rotating shift, or two weeks of each shift. starting with the day shift, let’s say, and then moving backwards. Two weeks you worked from seven to three in the daytime; then the next two weeks you worked 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., the midnight shift; then the two weeks after that, the evening shift; and then back around.
NORTON: As a patrol officer were you in car or were you walking a beat?
ABRECHT: It varied. You either walked a beat—When you were new, you had a partner until you were certified, as it was called, to patrol alone. So, for the first few weeks, at least, you worked with another partner either in a car—probably more likely in a car than on foot–but not uncommon to be walking a beat up by—there were some beats that were covered all the time—up by the bus terminals, for instance, was a regular assignment.
NORTON: Why was that?
ABRECHT: Oh, because there was lots of activity up there. Twenty-four hours a day there were buses. It was a major transportation hub. All those bars on 14th Street were a problem (cuckoo clock chimes). There were two beats that divided at 12th Street.
NORTON: When you were walking the beats, did the beat change, or did you stay pretty much on the same beat?
ABRECHT: No. When you were new, you would never know where you were going to be that day until you showed up for roll call.
NORTON: Who was your partner until you were certified?
ABRECHT: Some of the crustier old guys, or some guys that only had another month or two more [than you] that were already certified. It was very quick. You moved up. You started out with Tuesdays and Wednesdays as your days off, but they were expanding all the other parts of the department, so people who had been around for a while were becoming detectives or moving to special operations or other more interesting assignments than working around the clock. So it was not very long after that I got assigned to a beat of my own.
NORTON: Where was that?
ABRECHT: Over by the Government Printing Office. North Capitol to Fifth Street, G to L NW.
NORTON: I can remember. In recent memory that was a fairly bombed out area. What was it like back then?
ABRECHT: It was pretty bombed out back then. There wasn’t a whole lot on the beat itself. There was one public housing project that was on the north side of it. It was actually off the beat, but if there was a call, you’d always go with the guy in the adjoining car. So I would spend a lot of time on his beat.
NORTON: What would you do, I mean, it was just you in the car, right? Just one person once you got certified.
ABRECHT: Once you got certified, it was typically one person.
NORTON: Did that change later on?
ABRECHT: Or a recruit officer who had to be brought up to speed.
NORTON: Did there come a time when people tended to have beats together or walk beats together or drive together in the same car?
ABRECHT: Typically, some of the cars had two officers usually with a trainee. There were not very many where there were two officers regularly assigned because there were always young officers to be trained in those positions. So they needed to keep those for them.
NORTON: Do you remember any particular adventures while you had that particular beat up there by the Government Printing Office?
ABRECHT: Huh—particular adventures. I remember a homicide scene I went to up there. There was a poultry warehouse. I think they had live poultry there that they killed and prepared for the restaurants or something. It was up on Fifth Street near Mass [Massachusetts] Avenue, up in that area which was all sorts of warehouses and commercial buildings. [One of these skewers that] This guy had used one of those skewers that you sew chickens together with. I can still visualize this thing. He had killed his fellow employee up there, I guess, in some kind of dispute they had had. I was first on the scene to that. It was kind of interesting. A homicide squad came and took the case over.
NORTON: How long did you work that beat?
ABRECHT: I had that beat until I got promoted to sergeant four years later.
NORTON: Did you have to apply for sergeant or take the test?
ABRECHT: Oh yeah. You had to take a test.
NORTON: Even though you were the fair-haired boy [with], always at the top of your class, you had to wait four years?
ABRECHT: You had to have three years’ experience to take the exam. I came out number one on the exam, so I was the first person promoted. But they were promoting them in blocks of  20 or 25. There was so much growth going on in the department.
NORTON: This would have been about four years after you started then? What, ’73 or so?
ABRECHT: I have that information. I was promoted to sergeant in 1974.
NORTON: What happened then?
ABRECHT: Transferred to the Fourth District, upper Georgia Avenue.
NORTON: Peabody Street and Georgia Avenue [NW].
NORTON: Georgia and Peabody, correct. Mostly worked down in Mount Pleasant area. Ended up supervising several police cars that patrolled the lower end of the Fourth District, just north of Harvard Street.
NORTON: How did it happen? How did you go about supervising other officers? Did you drive around in your own car?
ABRECHT: Yeah. There were typically a couple of sergeants working in the section I was in. We each had a car. You’d respond to calls that we thought sounded like there would be something more important than one officer could handle. There were certain things that the officers had to call the sergeant to the scene of. If you got a call for certain things, you would ask for an official, as I said, to respond, to assist you. We had shot guns in the cars. So, some of the gun calls, we would go on those.
NORTON: What would you do with the shot gun?
ABRECHT: If you had to go into a building where somebody was supposed to have a gun, you would go in with the shot gun at the ready, shall we say.
NORTON: Did you ever have to use it?
ABRECHT: No, other than at the range.
NORTON: How long did you stay up at Four D?
ABRECHT: I made lieutenant a couple of years later. Same system prevailed at the lieutenant rank as well. [It was] A written examination played the largest part in it. Something I had skills [in] that others failed to have had. I made lieutenant in a couple years. As soon as I was eligible, I made lieutenant. Surprisingly, stayed at the Fourth District.
NORTON: How long did you stay there?
ABRECHT: Til I made captain.
NORTON: Which was when?
ABRECHT: 1978.  I made two years as a sergeant and two years as a lieutenant, and then I was a captain.
NORTON: This is probably too general a question. I’ll ask it anyway and see what your response is. What was the culture like of the police department when you started, and did it change up to the time you became captain?
ABRECHT: Oh, it changed dramatically because one of the things that they did was to insist that if there were two officers in the car, one of them had to be African American.
NORTON: When was that put in effect?
ABRECHT: That went into effect fairly early in my time as a patrol officer.
NORTON: I remember reading that in the paper.
ABRECHT: That changed the culture of the place right fast.
ABRECHT: Because [of] ingrained racial hostility—You just could not survive if you’re spending your entire day with this person of an opposite race. It challenged your preconceptions; made you change the way you referred to people. I think the officers correctly felt that they were being watched by their partner. I think it had a tremendously good effect on the department, forcing people to get over their prejudices and so forth.
NORTON: Any other ways that the culture changed?
ABRECHT: The culture of policing changed a lot after the riots generally. All sorts of nationwide reports—The Kerner [commission]report. There was a whole series of commissions established on law enforcement in America—A much bigger example of what happened after the George Floyd homicide this past year. There were all sorts of navel gazing, examination of what we were doing and how we should be doing it. Some of it was modernization of police work generally. Some of it was increasing amounts of training.
People started going to college at night to study law enforcement and police work. AU [American University] had a huge program where the department was paying people to go. The department would pay the tuition. Most of them were on the GI Bill, so they could actually come out ahead between the combination of the stipend from the GI Bill and the stipend from the department to go to college.
NORTON: That’s American University when you say AU?
ABRECHT: It was American University, yes.
NORTON: How had police practices changed during that time?
ABRECHT: I don’t know about the police practices before because I was not there. It became more technology. When I first went out there, there were no radios. You could walk a beat, and all you had was your call box key, and you would go to one of those blue call boxes and call in. You had to call in every hour and let them know you were still alive, [and] if they had any messages for you. It was a big deal when we got portable radios.
NORTON: When was that?
ABRECHT: It was right about the same time. These things existed, just that the department didn’t own them. By the time I was on the street, they were beginning to have them. We would have one for two officers typically who were walking a beat. You [surely] didn’t have [one,] a portable one in your car. You had the car radio. Once you got out of your car you were incommunicado. [Laugh.]
NORTON: How long did the call box system operate for the police department?
ABRECHT: It was still operating when I was a captain.
NORTON: I can remember [at]one time, [that you could actually;] they had a phone in there and you could pick it up and dial 911. I was in an accident.
ABRECHT: You couldn’t dial anything. You could…
NORTON: …[Or] pick it up and it would go to…
ABRECHT: …The station would answer. They did have the capacity to plug you into an operator who could dial a number for you. But it was very cumbersome and rarely used for that.
NORTON: Any other culture change or practice changes that you can remember during your early time with the police department?
ABRECHT: I can’t come up with one right off the top of my head.
NORTON: You became a captain in ’74?
NORTON: Where did you go?
ABRECHT: To the First District down around here—in Southwest. The district was divided into three sectors at the time. Sector two was where I was first assigned, which was Southwest basically. and up to the bottom half of the downtown business district.
NORTON: What were your duties as a captain in that sector?
ABRECHT: There were about 100 officers assigned to me, so it was making sure that the beats were covered all [around] the time, investigating things.  If I was working, I was in charge of the whole district, unless the district commander happened to be around. Generally, you were the watch commander if you were a captain on duty. You still rotated shifts with your troops. You worked a midnight shift with them for a while. Eventually it got away from that.
NORTON: So you were still doing that same thing, that you would start with the day shift, then go to the midnight shift, and then go to the early morning shift?
ABRECHT: At some point in many places, that changed out. Even when I was up at the Fourth District, there turned out to be enough people who wanted to work the midnight shift for various reasons. And I think the Fourth District may have been the first place that tried this. They created a permanent midnight shift. The same people worked straight through. So then there were only two other shifts, day shift or evening shift.
NORTON: When you became a captain there were three captains for each of the…
ABRECHT: …Four actually. One was in charge of the detectives and the specialized units within the district. The other three were in charge of areas of the district.
NORTON: There would always be a captain on duty at any given time, or is that how it worked?
ABRECHT: On the day shift and the evening shift. Sometimes there was a lieutenant in charge of the midnight shift.
NORTON: What sort of things would you do on a daily basis as a captain?
ABRECHT: Mostly bureaucratic kinds of things. Assigning people, reviewing reports, running an organization with 100 people. With 100 subordinates there were just enough personnel problems and issues of one sort of another. Dealing with the community. Going to community meetings in your sector. I was in Southwest at the time. You remember, Southwest was a place that had just been essentially leveled. It was, apparently—before I got to Washington—it was already gone. The old [Southwest] was already gone by the time I joined the police department. That building you were referring to at 415 Fourth Street SW was just set standing literally in the middle of—you could look in any [, in fact every] direction [and] as far you could see were just rubble fields where they had bulldozed the buildings that were there. [That was a good part of my] They were starting to build things, but [it was sort of] my recollection of it was that it was just a place that had been prepared for something else to happen. It had not yet happened.
NORTON: Interesting because I—so this would have been around ’78 when you started as captain?
ABRECHT: No, this was when I went down there as an officer. By then [1978] I think most of the construction had actually happened.
NORTON: Okay. But when you started as an officer?
ABRECHT: [It was] When I was down there as an officer, that was the headquarters even though I didn’t patrol down there, but that was [where we had our, as an officer,] where we had roll calls.
NORTON: Is that how it worked? [I mean you would go,] As patrol officer you would go to roll call, then you would go out on your beat?
NORTON: Who was the chief when you were captain, when you became captain?
ABRECHT: When I became captain, who was the chief?
NORTON: I don’t need to know exactly. I’m just trying to think about chiefs that you worked under and ones that you remember. Why don’t I make it a more general question.
ABRECHT: Jerry Wilson was the chief—I guess Layton [John B. Layton, DC Metropolitan Police Chief 1964-1969] was still the chief when I joined the department, but he was sort of on his way out. Jerry Wilson [Jerry Wilson, DC Metropolitan Police Chief 1969-1974] became the chief shortly thereafter, and he was a  formative influence of my early career, certainly. He was on the cover of Time Magazine.
NORTON: Why was he on the cover of Time?
ABRECHT: Because he was the chief who took over after the riots basically and redid the whole police department. Changed a lot of things. He is the one who brought the women on. Despite himself not being from [a] terribly well-educated [background, he] was quite the progressive thinker. Really remolded the whole police department.
NORTON: Did you have any direct dealings with Jerry Wilson that you can recall?
ABRECHT: Not as a member of the department at that time. Later, certainly. I believe he’s still living. [Jerry Wilson is still living]. In later years, after he had retired, I got to know him at various social occasions.
NORTON: Do you remember roughly how long he was chief?
ABRECHT: I don’t. [August 1969 to September 1974]
NORTON: Who took over after him? Do you remember?
ABRECHT: It may have been Maurice Cullinane , I’m not certain. [Yes- Maurice J. Cullinane, DC Metropolitan Police Chief 1974-1978.]
NORTON: How about after him?
ABRECHT: I think Burtell Jefferson was the chief that followed after Cullinane, but I’m not certain. [Yes. Burtell Jefferson, DC Metropolitan Police Chief 1978-1981]
NORTON: Was he the first African American chief?
ABRECHT: I think that’s right. There was recent coverage of that. Cullinane just died. There were some articles about his time on the police department. It mentioned, I think, that Jefferson followed him.
NORTON: At some point, you got to 1D1 or the First District substation. When was that?
ABRECHT: When did I go to 1D1? Probably about 1980, I would say.
NORTON: That was directly after you’d been down in Southwest as the captain?
ABRECHT: Yeah. [Commander of 1D1] was always thought of as the plum of the three [, at least,] sector captain slots at the First District, [was to be the commander of 1D1] because you had your own building, and it was an interesting neighborhood. It was a challenge. People who did well there as captain had a tendency to get promoted, so people wanted that assignment. The gal who had it before me got promoted.
NORTON: Who was that?
ABRECHT: Joyce Leland. I was able to argue for it and get assigned there. You may remember that it was closed for a period of time while they renovated it. We were in a school building down by M Street [SE] that’s no longer there. It was wiped out as part of the redevelopment of the Navy Yard area. An old school, we got turned into a First District headquarters. I guess it was actually not the substation that was being renovated. It was renovated at the same time, but the whole First District was being operated out of that school for a while.
NORTON: Did you operate out of the current 1D1, the one there on Turtle Park or Marion Park? [Fifth and E Streets SE]
ABRECHT: I did. We were not operating out of it for the first part because it was being renovated, I believe, at the same time, but I’m not certain. We were in a schoolhouse. Yes, I was there for the grand reopening.
NORTON: How long did you stay as captain at 1D1?
ABRECHT: A couple of years.
NORTON: I’m going to shift gears a little bit.  [because you;] The last we left it, you and M’El were living at Fairfax Village. Where did you move after that?
ABRECHT: After that we moved to number nine Eighth Street NE on Capitol Hill.
NORTON: And that is fairly well documented in M’El’s Overbeck interview, so I won’t go into gory details, but what do you remember about how you got to that place?
ABRECHT: We got to that place, as I think M’El documented in M’El’s interview, when we were directed by relatives we should go visit great aunt Marg [Margaret Smith] because it was her birthday. We went by the Eastern Market and got some flowers, and went over to visit the old lady because we had been told to. When you are at that age, how many 86-year-old ladies do you want to spend time with? Turned out to be a delightful old lady full of interesting stories about the police department, because she had been there during the riots. They looted the pharmacy [Morton’s] on the corner across the street, recounted in M’El’s interview. She [M’El’s great aunt] had a police radio scanner, and she was listening to the police radio transmissions. We thought this was kind of entertaining. The other thing that happened, we were invited over one time [; she were being] and used as bait to get the minister at Christ Church [620 G Street SE] to come over and visit her. He [said that he] had better things to do than to go visit older parishioners if he could avoid it. This was Dave Dunning. The thought that he might get to meet some young people who might want to be part of his church was more appealing, so, she baited him to come over by saying she wanted him to meet her great niece and her husband.
NORTON: What happened? Did he come?
ABRECHT: He did come. We got to meet Dave Dunning. [We started to go.] We had been going to church way up in Northwest. We decided this sounded like an interesting guy and started going to Christ Church. She was responsible for our becoming members of Christ Church.
NORTON: When was that?
ABRECHT: Gosh, that would have been in the early 70s. It would have to have been fairly early 70s because shortly thereafter she left, and we moved in.
NORTON: As I understand it from M’El’s interview, she was sort of hospitalized or went to a rehab place. What was the arrangement for you all to move in?
ABRECHT: We would pay whatever rent we were paying for our apartment in Fairfax Village. Basically, if she did recover and had to come back, we would have to move out. As it turned out she ultimately could not live independently and stayed in the rehab—it was out in Virginia somewhere, I’ve forgotten where.
NORTON: Ultimately you purchased the place?
ABRECHT: Ultimately, we purchased it from her estate, basically. It was inherited by her niece, one of M’El’s aunts. We bought it for the appraised value plus $500 for the contents.
NORTON: What did you do? Did you do any kind of renovation or remodeling or redecorating or anything like that when you bought the place?
ABRECHT: The other thing we did [as soon as we moved in], we put bars on the windows on the alley side; well, all the way around the first floor.
NORTON: It’s one of the few free standing row houses in the city, right? Anything else that you all did upon moving in?
ABRECHT: Upon moving in, M’El described in her interview that all the furniture was pretty dilapidated. Over time we were able to replace the furniture—I worked overtime because they couldn’t hire people fast enough to use up all the money that was allocated for these thousand new officers from each of the two presidents. They would use the money for overtime. You could do what was called “walking for dollars.”. [Laughter.] You could work an eight-hour shift in the regular patrol operation, and then they would assign people to work foot beats in residential neighborhoods for an additional four hours. Or you could come in on your day off and work either eight or twelve hours of overtime. I did that one whole summer—as much as I could get my fingers on. We had to get $5,000 together to put the down payment on the house.
NORTON: Do you remember where you walked the beat?
ABRECHT: Any place they sent me.
NORTON: Was it anywhere in the city?
ABRECHT: No, but anywhere in the First District. Some of them were on Capitol Hill. Some of them were in Northwest, Southwest, wherever. They would just assign you higgledy-piggledy.
NORTON: This was actually walking the beat. This was not in a car, right?
ABRECHT: Yeah, this was actually walking the beat. There definitely were not enough radios for all those people as well, so you definitely were…it was basically a visibility thing. Get out there and show the flag.
NORTON: What was it like doing that, just walking the beat in Capitol Hill?
ABRECHT: It was wonderful. You got to chat with people. They were fairly small beats, so you could walk around them fairly easily, several times in a tour.
NORTON: What was the neighborhood like when you were walking the beat? This would have been, what, early 70s right?
ABRECHT: This would have been late 60s, early 70s, yeah.
NORTON: What was it like?
ABRECHT: What was it like?
NORTON: That’s too general a question. I know it’s…
ABRECHT: It was more diverse in a lot of different ways. There were white and black people who had [been] stayed behind. There had been a great out-migration to the suburbs of the white population, generally, but there had been some who had stayed put. [There were some real;] I remember one family of white ne’er-do-wells who lived near us that we dealt with on a number of occasions. [Both] M’El dealt with the kids at the youth division. … I sort of remember it as being more diverse in terms of age, for instance, there were older white and African American people living side-by-side in houses. There was a transition going on—Gentrification. There was clearly the ultimate trajectory, but in the meantime, there was more mingling. Some people would be the first people to buy a place and renovate it on their block. Slowly this would sort of creep east and north. So, you would walk in those transitioning neighborhoods and talk to people of all sorts of backgrounds.
NORTON: Did you have a lot of crime issues as an officer walking the beat during that period?
ABRECHT: Really not. Those calls would go out to the guys in the cars because had the communications.
NORTON: You might not even have the radio.
ABRECHT: Right. Might not even know that something was happening until you turned the corner or saw the sirens coming.
NORTON: If you saw something, I’m just curious, at that point if you didn’t have a radio, did you have to go to the call box?
ABRECHT: That would be what you would have to do, for sure.
NORTON: Were you among the first folks who fixed up your house? Or did you do much to fix it up?
ABRECHT: We fixed it up over the years. We didn’t have the money to do a whole lot of work. It was not in that bad of shape. It was just dated. Everything worked. We replaced a number of appliances. We put some window air-conditioners in. I think there was one in the bedroom when we arrived. So we put some in some of the other windows to make it cooler during the summer. [I think one other—[phone rings] We did some painting. [We took some drywall.] There was wallpaper everywhere. We stripped the wallpaper and spackled up the walls and painted them.
NORTON: When did you have time to do that?
ABRECHT: One of the interesting things about this is that, for a while at least, I had Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. What else are you going to do on Tuesdays and Wednesdays? It’s not like you had the weekend off. For most of my career, up through the rank of captain anyway, you either had Friday and Saturday, or Sunday and Monday off. Nobody got— or practically nobody— had both days of the weekend off. One sort of interesting thing about the job is you had a day every week to do things like go renew your driver’s license, which you couldn’t if you worked Monday through Friday, nine to five. [you really couldn’t find;] There was no time to do that. One of the things about police work, you always had one weekday off where you could do things.
NORTON: Was it fair to say you did a lot of the work, renovation work, on your house yourself?
ABRECHT: A fair amount of it for a while. Eventually, with both of us working—particularly after we both got promoted—we had enough disposable income, we could do some hiring. We hired a guy to do the bathroom upstairs who was a sergeant in the Third Precinct over by GW [George Washington University]. He carried a cast-iron bathtub down the stairs on his back. I just can’t imagine how he did that.
NORTON: Amazing. Going back to when you were working at the First District, what was it like being a police officer and living in the neighborhood? I know that from the time you became a captain, you were pretty much working in the First District or the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
ABRECHT: I was a little concerned when I got the assignment that my life would not be my own. People would be knocking on my door. That was completely wrong. People were incredibly considerate of my private time, probably more so than they should have been. There were a couple, I don’t remember the specific instance, but a couple of times I thought, “Gee, I wish I had known about that,” on a weekend or on my day off, whenever it was, when something had happened that I would have liked to have intervened in [that in] some way. There were just a couple of incidents where people that I knew did foolish things that I had to try and tell them—let them know that—what they were doing was not correct. I was not going to do anything about the fact that they got arrested for disorderly conduct when they had been disorderly.
NORTON: Did people, even in nice ways, sort of, ask you or tell you about problems they were having in the neighborhood?
ABRECHT: Oh yeah, sure. That I wanted to hear about. I went to a lot of community meetings. I used to go to all the ANC6B meetings which were the sort of core of the substation’s area. The fire department had a lieutenant who would sit in these meetings with me. The Marines had a representative who would sit there. Most of the time, they had no questions for any of us, but we would sit there and watch democracy in action. It was kind of interesting.
NORTON: What was interesting about it?
ABRECHT: Just watch how community democracy works, where people get ginned up about very minor things. A lot of it had to do with liquor licenses, and stuff like that, that we didn’t have anything to do with. Not typically, I would go to [a lot of; typically there would always be, not typically, but there’s] some place where there was crime going out, some horrible incident would occur, some street robbery. Like you hear now—right—today these carjacking things. That was the sort of thing that would bring a big group out to a community meeting. You have to go and try and reassure people.
NORTON: But they didn’t tend to have carjackings back then, did they?
ABRECHT: No. Carjackings is a more recent phenomena. I think it was easier to steal a car back then. All you needed was a screwdriver. Why get involved in a situation where you got to have a gun?
NORTON: What were the politics like in the police department? I only ask that because [there’s always;] when you get advancements, like you do, or like you did, there’s always a certain amount of politics involved.
ABRECHT: Oh there definitely was; [sure, above the—]there were politics in assignments to districts, and there was politics in promotions, and politics in assignments at the different ranks. It helped me a lot to be a city resident when I got to a certain level, because there were very few ranking officials who lived in the city. So, I certainly used that to my advantage.
NORTON: How did you use it to your advantage?
ABRECHT: I would remind people that I lived in the city. The politicians would be supportive of somebody from their district getting promoted. So I would make sure that the city council member from the ward know of all the excellent work I was doing, and so forth and so on.
NORTON: Who was the city council member when you first got assigned to the First District? Was it Nadine Winter?
ABRECHT: Yeah, I think it was Nadine Winter. Then Harold Brazil.
NORTON: Did you ever get, sort of, overtly involved in any of the politics of people running for city council, school board, or anything like that?
ABRECHT: Oh no. That was Hatch Act stuff. You had to stay away from that.
NORTON: Going back to 1D1. Any interesting incidents you remember while you were captain of 1D1?
ABRECHT: Probably the most interesting one was—I think I was at 1D1, not while I was commander of 1D, I’m not certain about this—was the incident where the Marines threw teargas grenades into a gay bar —Remington’s up on [600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE]—I can’t recall. M’El was already at the U.S. Attorney’s office when that happened. She ended up prosecuting it. I would have to do the math. But, I was certainly involved. I think I was a commander at the substation at the time—as a captain— when we had to work that one out. Fortunately, the incident involved—I don’t know if people remembered this case—these Marines, who were, I’m sure, drunk, decided to throw a teargas grenade inside this restaurant and did a tremendous amount of damage, in addition to creating a whole lot of civil rights furor. We had to deal with it. Fortunately, the commander of the Marine Barracks at the time, Orlo K. Steele—you may remember him, he was also a member of Christ’s Church—did not put up with foolishness like that at all. These guys came in and surrendered and turned themselves in rapidly and were prosecuted. At the same time, I also became the liaison with the gay community for the department.
NORTON: I saw that in an article as far back as ’85 I think. There was some incident up in Northwest where you were quoted in the Washington Blade.
ABRECHT: Ah, that was interesting how that came to pass. I don’t know if you want to hear this whole story or not.
NORTON: Yes, sure.
ABRECHT: The gay community was heavily concentrated at that time in Southeast…all of their bars have been completely obliterated now. The gay entertainment district for the city was primarily in what is now Navy Yard and the ballpark area.
NORTON: Where the stadium is now, yeah.
ABRECHT: Literally under the stadium, I think, are the remains of several bath houses and so forth. The gay community got together, or a subcommittee thereof, and produced this document called “The White Paper on Crime in the Gay Community.” Beating the drum, they got enough, I guess, political clout behind them that the chief of police assigned the commander of the First District, who can remain nameless for these purposes, and told him he had to meet with them. Because I was in 1D1—I may have been in charge of Southwest at the time, I’m not sure—but they had a couple places in Southwest as well. So there was this big meeting in the commander’s office. He was a wonderful guy. The commander was very progressive, but he had a blind spot on this issue. What was real clear is that what the gays really wanted was what we did, which was police protection, police service. The general feeling was that they wanted to be absolved of crimes, like sexual stuff. But, when we ultimately got down to it, what they really wanted was what everyone else wanted. They wanted police service.
I said, “This we know how to do, so this should be easy.” I kept trying to convince the District Commander to let me handle this because this was not really a problem. He had been told by the chief that he was to handle it, so he would have these meetings, and they would all just explode.
Finally, I told him, “Look, just let me handle it, and I’ll take care of it for you.”  
Another of these meetings was scheduled, and I come in and I found this file folder on my desk. It said, “Here, take care of this.” So, I met with them, and it was simple. It was just a question of assigning some police officers to make sure that cars didn’t get broken into while they were in the bars, and stuff like that…and stomping down on a couple of officers who were doing things they shouldn’t be doing. All of a sudden, I get all of this big recognition for this. Then one day I’m driving around in my—I guess I must have been listening to the police radio and listening to WTOP at the same time, I’ve forgotten—I can remember being up on the Southeast Freeway, and it’s one of these interview shows. They’re interviewing the chief of police Burtell Jefferson—an hour with Burtell Jefferson, or something like that.[Burtell M. Jefferson was DC’s first African American police chief.] They say, “Chief, what are you doing about all these complaints from the gay community?” He waffles around a little bit, then he says, “I’ve assigned somebody as a liaison with the gay community to deal with these problems.” You think he would have known, well, that the next question is going to be “Who is it.” [Laughter.] Indeed, this was the next question. And there is this pause, and he says, “Oh, it’s Captain Abrecht from the First District.” I said, “Oh, really.” Fortunately, nobody ever called me up. I didn’t have to lie and say I knew anything about this. That’s how I became [recognized.]; he was grasping at straws, and I was the straw that was grasped that day.
NORTON: How long did you serve in that capacity?
ABRECHT: Until I got promoted. Then when I got promoted, I ended up as the EEO officer, so I still tried to keep my finger in it a little, but it didn’t work all that well. So, it was probably a couple of years—but it worked out very well for me.
NORTON: When you got promoted, where did you get promoted to?
ABRECHT: When you get promoted to inspector, your first assignment is always to work as the guy in charge of the department at night. So you basically worked the evening and night shifts as the acting chief of police. You just roam around the city and respond to very serious items—homicides and things like that. There were certain things that the chief, depending on who it was, wanted you to be on the scene of.
NORTON: How many inspectors were there at that time?
ABRECHT: Total number of inspectors? Probably a dozen.
NORTON: But it was you that would be sort of the midnight chief?
ABRECHT: Yeah, right. So, I did that for a couple years. Then I became the Equal Employment Opportunity officer.
NORTON: For how long?
ABRECHT: Just briefly. There was some political thing that caused it. Nobody thought that I was the best person for that job, but that was the vacancy that was available when my time came up. So, I had it for a brief period. Then I became the director of planning for the department, which was more, probably, my cup of tea.
NORTON: What did you do as EEO officer and then later as director of planning? And this is all while you are an inspector, right?
ABRECHT: Right. The EEO officer handled complaints of equal employment opportunity, which there were not great numbers of. Trying to work them out if you could. Dealing with the Office of Human Rights if you couldn’t. I only had that position for maybe, I would guess, it was probably six months or so.
NORTON: Then director of planning.
ABRECHT: Director of planning was basically the policy shop for the department.
NORTON: What was involved with that? What did you do for that?
ABRECHT: One of the big things that we dealt with was the AIDS [crisis]. I was director of planning when we had to deal with [this]—there was this great panic in the department—everyone thought you could catch it just by being in proximity to somebody who had AIDS. There was a great furor about having gloves. Each police car had to have a package of gloves, body covering suits, and all. There was a great deal of consternation about the risk of exposure. Nobody really knew how contagious the disease was. It’s hard to believe when you think about [it]; you can think about [a comparison], a little bit, with the Coronavirus.
NORTON: Right because you didn’t know.
ABRECHT: You didn’t know. In the early days it was a bit like that. Probably worse, because I think the [reaction to the] Coronavirus to some degree grew on the AIDS virus. People realized fairly quickly that it did take a little more—that you didn’t just catch it by being in the same room with somebody for a brief period or dealing with them at a crime scene.
NORTON: That was AIDs?
NORTON: What else? Do you remember anything else that you dealt with during your time as the policy director?
ABRECHT: The drug situation was particularly bad during that period. I remember that. We did a lot of preparing presentations for the chief on the number of arrests that were being made for drugs and stuff like that.
NORTON: Were we getting into the crack cocaine epidemic?
ABRECHT: Right. There was a lot of that. Gosh, I’m trying to remember all of the policy issues we were dealing with. There was plenty to keep you busy. We had a pretty good policy shop of just maintaining the department’s order system, preparing correspondence for the chief on issues.
NORTON: Then where did you go?
ABRECHT: From there I went to the First District.
NORTON: You were the deputy chief?
ABRECHT: The deputy chief commanding officer of the First District for four years.
NORTON: That brought you back into the neighborhood. I should ask you, of course, [about] our friend Rayful Edmonds (crack dealer from the 80s). I guess he was in the next district up?
ABRECHT: He was—and just barely inside the Fifth District.
NORTON: What was that like being the chief of the First District during that time? It was, as I recall, quite a time in the city.
ABRECHT: It was quite a time in the city. You got called out quite a bit at night. The chief required that everybody,[including] the district commander, show up at any homicide scene in the district.
NORTON: There were a fair number then.
ABRECHT: Yeah. He would show up himself. This was Fulwood [Isaac Fulwood, DC Police Chief 1989-1992] at the time. So, you better show up. I’d get up in the middle of the night quite a bit. We didn’t have too big of a problem, but there was just enough of it. You worked pretty hard trying to deploy against it, see what you could do about it. We also tried to do a lot of work in implementing community policing during those four years.
NORTON: How did that change from the way you’d done it before?
ABRECHT: I had sort of advocated for it as a captain when I was here. It had really not gone quite as far as I would have liked at that time. You may remember these beat meetings. The Beat 26 was the famous one, with Wally Bradford, the sergeant who just took this on. A very unlikely person. Of all my sergeants, I wouldn’t have thought of Wally as particularly the one who would do it, but he decided it would be an interesting thing to do. He organized his beat. This is the beat over by the Eastern Market, basically. The people who lived in [his beat], loved him.
So I sort of implemented that model [in] the whole district, [with] a sergeant in charge of each patrol beat. Districts are divided up into—it’s all changed since then— but in those days there were scout car beats.  The cars with the numbers on the side that said 26 would [be] the scout car beat for the area. I would assign a sergeant to each one of those. [The sergeant] only worked one shift a day, but he was responsible for dealing with community concerns and bringing them to my attention if something had to be done beyond what he could accomplish. It worked pretty well.
I always sort of thought that territoriality was a valuable thing. You give somebody something and say, “You’re responsible for this little area, now deal with it.” There were some guys [who] were good sergeants and were good at it.  Some were not. I had just enough who were good at it—who could go to the meetings in the community, that I could get a reach out. I think people feeling there was somebody they could deal with directly worked pretty well—I’m sure it’s gotten much more sophisticated now but that was working within the situation that was present at the time.
NORTON: What was Chief Fulwood like, Ike Fulwood? What do you remember about him?
ABRECHT: Ike Fulwood was a complicated individual. I think he had a chip on his shoulder—probably a justified chip on his shoulder. I think he saw a lot of things through a racial lens—perhaps with considerable justification. He was very bright. We got along fairly well. He had grown up in the First District over on Kentucky Avenue [SE].
NORTON: Over near where the Safeway is now.
ABRECHT: Yeah, right. Right around the corner from the Safeway there, on Kentucky Avenue. I guess we’re all victims of our history. I think he probably suffered quite a bit of discrimination as a young person and was not completely able to overcome, get passed that.
NORTON: Along the same lines, you were chief of the First District, and I guess maybe 1B1 when Marion Barry was mayor, right?
ABRECHT: I was [in] planning a good portion of his time as mayor. I do believe he was the mayor when I was appointed to the First District. I’m sure that the fact that he knew me from my days at planning and from community meetings that he had been to in the First District played some role in my getting that assignment.
NORTON: What do you remember about him in terms of…
ABRECHT: Another complicated individual.
NORTON: Oh, very much so, yeah.
ABRECHT: More visibly so, perhaps. I thought he was very bright, very intuitive. Made an awful lot of right decisions. But he was in a very tough time in the city. He had his own demons that everybody knows about. I can remember going to meetings in his office. The chief would drag me along if he had to go to a meeting on a policy issue—or pretty much on any issue— the director of planning typically went with him and took notes or dealt with whatever the issue was.
I have this recollection of one meeting in the mayor’s office. He [the mayor] was always late for these meetings, so, we’d all be gathered in his office. [Cuckoo clock chimes.] This was during the crack epidemic, or it was maybe during the AIDS epidemic, one or the other. [The meeting] was [about] some big policy issue involving that. A lot of the ranking officials of the police department were there. I think I was the only white person in the room at the time.
These guys started talking, deadly seriously, about who their daughters were going to be able to marry—where they were going to find anybody for their daughters to marry. It was the most heartbreaking thing to hear these important government officials [talk about this], and they were deadly serious. All these African American men were all being arrested, involved in drugs, and stuff like that. Who were their daughters going to marry? [Audible sigh.]
NORTON: Yeah. Great Heavens.
ABRECHT: Stuck with me.
NORTON: During the time that you were working with the police department, I know you were the president of the Capitol Hill Cluster School PTA and, I gather, involved with other community groups and that sort of thing. What do you remember about being the head of the PTA?
ABRECHT: Not a whole lot to be truthful.
NORTON: Do you remember why you got the position, got the job?
ABRECHT: I’ve forgotten who it was who called me up and asked me if I would do it. I agreed to do it for a year.
NORTON: It was sort of a critical time, I think, when they were founding the cluster, when it was going from Peabody to Watkins. Then Stuart-Hobson got involved, or Stuart Junior High School got involved.
ABRECHT: Yeah. I have really only [a] distant recollection of that period. I’m not sure what. I remember we organized—as was probably the fashion—we had an organizational meeting, brought a facilitator in, and did all this stuff. I remember we met up at Gallaudet [College]. We got a room up there they provided for us. Had somebody come in to help us structure the organization and all that. Beyond that…
NORTON: Was Veola Jackson [Veola M. Jackson, first principal of the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools] involved in all that stuff?
ABRECHT: Yeah, she was the principal at the time.
NORTON: And a force to be reckoned with.
ABRECHT: And a force to be reckoned with.
NORTON: Shift gears one more time, because you said how you started going to Christ Church. That was what, early 70s?
ABRECHT: Very early 70s. Yeah, it had to be before Aunt Marg moved out.
NORTON: You’ve always been a pillar of the church since I’ve known you, but I wasn’t there [in] the early time. What do you remember about the church when you started?
ABRECHT: I’ve been told, I don’t remember by whom, that Dave Dunning had been sent essentially by the bishop to either make this church [a] go or close it down. There were four Episcopal churches on Capitol Hill. It had grown that small, mostly by outflow. The rector didn’t even live on the Hill anymore.
NORTON: Where’d he live?
ABRECHT: Dunning lived in the rectory. I believe the previous rector—after the riots—had bought a house out in Prince George’s County—Hillcrest, I believe. That was the state of the situation. Dave Dunning was a steel salesman from Pennsylvania. He had been a businessman before he became a priest. He was a dynamo. He did succeed in turning the place around and getting it back on the right path.
NORTON: What do you remember him doing that got it back on the right path?
ABRECHT: Just sort of energy. Going out and doing just like he did with us, looking for people to recruit to come to the church, basically. The neighborhood was on the upswing, so he had the wind to his back, if you will. I think it was just his personal dynamism. He got it turned around. I didn’t know what it was like before. I’ve heard stories.
NORTON: Why the Episcopal church? Why did you all gravitate to an Episcopal church?
ABRECHT: I grew up in the Episcopal church in Geneva. …. I don’t know when it was built, probably in the early part of the 20th Century, I would imagine, just judging from the building. The American community in Geneva was small when I was growing up there. Practically all the people worked in the international organizations. … I think it was four years after the war [the end of World War II] by the time we got there. That was where the American community gathered. It was the American church and it was Episcopalian. So, I grew up as an Episcopalian even though my dad was a Baptist—an ordained Baptist minister.
What happened was that a few years later in Geneva, all of a sudden, large American corporations had started establishing their international headquarters in Geneva—Chrysler, Dupont Nemours, Caterpillar, as I already mentioned. So there was this influx of Americans coming to Geneva. Very quickly the Baptists figured out that my dad was there, and why didn’t he have services for them? There were other Americans working at the World Council of Churches by then from other denominations. They were getting the same sort of questions.
They [other Americans working at the World Council of churches] said, “Great, we’re all going to be working for this ecumenical organization, and we’re going to go off and have these little house churches all over town. This doesn’t make any sense.”
They all got together with the then rector at the American church and said, “Tell you what. Keep the services sort of low church where our people will feel comfortable, and you let us preach every now and again, and … we’ll tell everybody we all need to go to the same church.”
That’s what they did. My dad would preach every now and again. According to the rector that was great for him. He got the day off. So, we all grew up as Episcopalians. That’s how.
NORTON: Was M’El an Episcopalian too?
ABRECHT: No. She was a Congregationalist. She was from New England.
NORTON: When you said you were going to church up in Northwest before Dunning introduced you to Christ Church, where was that?
ABRECHT: Judging from what you knew about what the wedding was like, it was St. Stephen and the Incarnation [1525 Newton St NW]. Very socially active, progressive.
NORTON: Mr. Wendt [William Andrew], right?
ABRECHT: Mr. Wendt was the rector, indeed, who got himself in trouble for allowing a woman who had been irregularly ordained to celebrate the Eucharist at his church—I believe, is what got him in trouble.
NORTON: Dunning, how long did he stay after you all joined Christ Church?
ABRECHT: I don’t know. There were a various succession of rectors. [1968-72]
NORTON: Who was next?
ABRECHT: Who was next? Was it Lynn McCallum [yes, 1973-77]? I’m not certain.
NORTON: Is she the one that is sort of known with the hippies.
ABRECHT: No. Those were from before Dunning, [with] all the stories about marijuana being smoked in the church and all this stuff.
NORTON: Stashed in the altar rail and all that sort of thing.
ABRECHT: Stashed in the altar rail. All that stuff predates my time just as much as yours.
NORTON: All good stories, but we can’t verify them. Did you get involved in activities at church?
ABRECHT: It didn’t take you long at that time [to be asked to take on responsibilities], I think I was on the vestry within a year or so. Clerk of the vestry shortly thereafter.
NORTON: Were you there on the vestry when they were turning Congressional Cemetery over, or had that happened before?
ABRECHT: I don’t know if I was on the vestry or not, but I certainly was there while that was going on.
NORTON: What do you remember about that?
ABRECHT: That we were just really incapable. Every vestry meeting was consumed with issues of the cemetery. How were we going to get the grass mowed and keep the place from completely collapsing. I was not involved in any of the negotiations over the creation of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.
NORTON: Do you remember any of the proposed solutions to Christ Church’s problems about the cemetery?
ABRECHT: No, I don’t.
NORTON: What else do you remember about your activities? When did you get involved with the liturgy committee?
ABRECHT: I’ve always been interested in liturgy. I did some of it in the student Christian movement. We would write liturgies for ourselves, published a hymnal of folk hymns, folk songs that were appropriate as hymns. I guess I got involved to that extent. We wrote our own wedding service, M’El and I. Very much of its time if you read it [laughs].
NORTON: I’m sure it was wonderful. How about the liturgist at Christ Church. Was that a going concern or a going committee when you started?
ABRECHT: The history of it, getting it sequenced correctly, we had an altar guild of sorts, which was all women. Somebody decided the way to do this was to merge the altar guild and the worship committee, and make it [so that] you had to work on both at the same time. We had one priest, obviously, [and we] couldn’t afford an assistant. So, you needed some help on the altar. If you were going to do that, you also had to do the set up kind of work…
NORTON: The altar guild kind of work.
ABRECHT: The altar guild work—because we were having trouble getting anybody to do that. That’s essentially how it came to pass.
NORTON: Were you involved in the worship committee fairly early on from after you started there?
ABRECHT: Yes, I think so, but I can’t tell you when I joined or any…it took on different permutations with different rectors who had different ideas.
NORTON: Yes, different rectors. Any good Christ Church stories? I could walk you through your time there, but that could be a little tedious, I guess.
ABRECHT: It’s probably not particularly special in some ways—the church being impacted by the situation in the neighborhood. We never were much of a commuter congregation. There were small numbers of people who would be on the Hill, then leave and they would come back for a few years on Sundays, but that doesn’t really work. It’s still very much a local congregation of peoples.
We sort of always described ourselves as occupying the space between the yellow lines down the middle of the road. There were churches that were much higher church on the Hill. Others were more enthusiastic about doing distinctly different things in church than we were. We were able to hold on to the center of that. I think that’s a pretty good analysis of the situation, that people who were not rabid progressives, but not rabid conservatives, found a home at Christ Church in the broad middle of the Episcopal church. That’s what we represent, pretty much, on the Hill.
NORTON: Has the demographics changed in terms of racial breakdown and all that stuff, or is it pretty much always been mostly white?
ABRECHT: It’s always, I think been, mostly white. We’ve always had some African Americans, some of them commuters, some of them of the relatively small number of African American Episcopalians on the Hill.
NORTON: I know you’ve been at least involved in the selection of two—the last two rectors. How about before that. Were you involved in the various search committees or anything like that?
ABRECHT: I was definitely on the search committee of the one guy we selected, then thought later that we had made a bad decision and uncalled him.
NORTON: When was that?
ABRECHT: I’ve forgotten exactly when it was. I don’t even remember the name of the…the bishop was not happy. [Laughter.]
NORTON: Do you remember what it was that the bishop was unhappy about?
ABRECHT: Bishop was not happy about our doing what you really can’t do.
NORTON: Is uncall somebody.
ABRECHT: Right. I’ve forgotten what the issues were that caused this to come up where we had second thoughts, basically.
NORTON: Was that before Bob Tate?
ABRECHT: I think so, yes.
NORTON: Was that the same time that Bob was…
ABRECHT: I’m not sure whether that was who we ultimately called. I’ve forgotten all of the details of this, but I do remember a stormy meeting in Carolyn Johnson’s parents living room where we had to meet with the bishop and get our knuckles rapped.
NORTON: Which bishop was it? Do you remember?
ABRECHT: I’ve forgotten that as well.
NORTON: Was it Walker, was it…
ABRECHT: No, it was definitely not Walker, I would remember if it was him. I think it was his predecessor. It was awkward.
NORTON: One story I do remember is that when your oldest daughter, Karen, got married, you basically went and repainted the inside of sanctuary and put up those sconces. I don’t remember if that was when you put the sconces up.
ABRECHT: I’m not sure. I was thinking about that myself, whether that was when I put the sconces up. You and I put the sconces up as I recall correctly.
NORTON: Yes, I was very nervous, because you, and I know you and M’El had essentially bought them. I remember Linda went and ordered them from Virginia Metalcrafters down in Waynesboro, I think. They’re very nice, nice candles and stuff. I remember putting them up. It was interesting, because it was the old plaster walls and everything. I was very nervous that I was not going to do this right. It may have been during…
ABRECHT: They are held by one screw, each one.
NORTON: There was some sort of an anchor in there.
ABRECHT: Yeah. You had to put an anchor; I don’t know if we used plastic or lead anchors. I’ve forgotten. I remember we were doing it, the two of us.
NORTON: You wanted to make sure that…
ABRECHT: Whether they were put up for her wedding or not, I’m not sure.
NORTON: I don’t know, but I know you were insistent that it was going to look good for her wedding.
ABRECHT: I did insist on that.
NORTON: Yes, yes you did. All right. You became chief of Capitol Police in 1992, right?
ABRECHT: That’s right.
NORTON: How did that come about? I gather there was a fair amount of politics involved.
ABRECHT: There was a tremendous amount of politics involved. Some of it was neighborhood politics, or neighborhood connections. Joe Reese and Sherry Saunders were living at the time in the 700 block of A Street NE across the street from Martha Pope, who was the Senate sergeant at arms, and the chairman of the Capitol Police Board the year when this all occurred.
NORTON: Was that a rotating duty?
ABRECHT: It rotated between the two sergeants at arms. The appointing board for this position was the Capitol Police Board which was made up of the two sergeants at arms and the Architect of the Capitol. As far as I know, it’s still the appointing board. Martha was the chair that year. The job only rotated between the two sergeants at arms. The Architect was on the board, but he was never the chair. So Martha’s the chair, and she’s moaning to Joe and Sherry, who are members of Christ Church and friends of ours, that she has to go hire a police chief and she doesn’t know anything about hiring a police chief. Joe and Sherry say, “Well, you should go talk to Gary Abrecht about that. He’s a deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police Department. He can tell you how you go about hiring a police chief.”
So, she calls me up, and I said, “Sure. Come on over.”
So, she and her assistant, Bob Bean, come down to my office in the First District on Fourth Street. I tell them there are various organizations who will do this search for you. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum, and there are two or three others that help you recruit a police chief and do some screening for you and all of that.
“That’s what you want to do,” I say.  
It is a different kind of position. It seems to me most city police departments…and they had had some experiences with people over the years, apparently, that had not been successful hires from a city police department. There was one from a city in Wisconsin, which will remain nameless, they had some difficulty with. There were several others over the years, where they had hired in different ways.
I said, “You probably ought to be a little careful that people understand what they’re getting into. It’s not the same as being chief of a city police department, which would be the sort of normal way you might think to go.”
As they were leaving, she just said, “You wouldn’t be by any chance be interested yourself?”  
I said, “If you post the position, I’m definitely going to apply, but I’m sure there’ll be others who would be interested as well.”
That’s, I guess, the connection. There were a number of applicants, and I guess it would be fair to say that I was the Senate sergeant at arms’ candidate, and the House sergeant at arms had a secret service agent that he was in favor of.
NORTON: That was Jack Russ [who] was the House sergeant at arms, right?
ABRECHT: Right. It was stalemated for at least a year between the two of them [the Senate and House sergeants at arms].
NORTON: Why was it such a stalemate?
ABRECHT: Because they both wanted their candidate. This is the way the Senate and House are… That’s why one of the challenges of being chief up there is that the politics are not really party politics. It’s [also] House and Senate politics—all the issues up there often break down between the House and the Senate depending on whose…
NORTON: According to the Washington Post article that I looked at, it seems to say the Architect of the Capitol, who could have been the tie breaker, refused to choose between the two.
ABRECHT: Smart fellow [laughs]. Yes. Yeah, definitely I remember that, the article about that meeting where they said the chairman, I guess it was one of the oversight committees—may have been the chairman of the Rules Committee, but I’m not sure—said, “You know mister Architect, there’s a reason that they put odd numbers of people on boards.”
And, George White said, “Yes, I’m aware of that.” [Laughter.]
NORTON: But he still was not going to be the decision maker, huh?
ABRECHT: He was not going to solve that problem for them.
NORTON: During this time what changed to…
ABRECHT: Jack Russ got fired I believe.
NORTON: Wasn’t he mugged, or something, about that time?
ABRECHT: Yeah, we don’t really know whether he was really mugged. There were some who thought—I forgot enough of the details that I don’t want to go on the record because I don’t know all the facts. It was before my time. My knowledge of it would be some gossip, basically.
NORTON: What happened that you finally got the job?
ABRECHT: He was certainly reported as being mugged—there is a police report that I stumbled across in my files. But what the real situation was, I don’t know.
NORTON: How did you ultimately get the job? What happened?
ABRECHT: Jack left. I’ve forgotten whether he got fired or resigned or how he came to [leave]; but he got into some trouble with—there were all of those problems with the House Post Office.
NORTON: Was that around that time?
ABRECHT: Yeah. He was the postmaster. It was a whole bunch of mess. The new sergeant at arms, Werner Brandt, came in as the sergeant at arms, came from the State Department where he had, I believe, he had worked for Foley. He worked for Tom Foley; the new sergeant at arms.
NORTON: Foley was the new speaker.
ABRECHT: Yeah. Foley was the new speaker and he appointed Werner Brant, who had been his aide-de-camp when he was ambassador to Japan. Werner was a wonderful guy. Had had a whole career at the State Department, I believe. He called me in for an interview. Martha continued to advocate for me. Werner interviewed me and sent me over to meet Speaker Foley, and that was that.
NORTON: Did you continue as deputy chief of 1D up until then?
ABRECHT: Yeah, right. I resigned one day, retired one day from the MPD, and became the chief at the Capitol the next day.
NORTON: This is probably too broad a question, but how is it different being the chief of the Capitol Police?
ABRECHT: I’ll just give you a vignette on that. I went in my first day at the Capitol Police, and I said, “Where are your crime maps?” because you lived and died by crime maps in Metropolitan Police Department. There were big maps that had all pins on them for every offense and where they’d occurred.
Of course they said, “Well, if the chief wants crime maps, we’ll have crime maps.” They put up the crime maps of the Capitol grounds.
I fairly quickly came to realize that they’d never changed because there was no crime; crime was not the issue. Crime around the grounds, I remained attentive to, because we had staff and members living out in the ground, and we patrolled out in the ground—beyond the grounds on the Capitol Hill, so we were still interested in them, but it was not our primary function, [which] was concern about security issues and lots of other things besides crime, which in our actual jurisdiction was practically non-existent. That there’d be something stolen from somebody’s office every now and again would be the biggest problem we would have. Practically never were there any actual crimes on the grounds itself.
NORTON: Let me just segue into the, what was it called, the extended jurisdiction zone. You had co-jurisdiction with the DC MPD?
NORTON: Was that already in existence when you became chief, or did that start after you became chief?
ABRECHT: We implemented that after I became chief, I think that’s right. I think there’s a statutory change that gave us jurisdiction.
NORTON: How far out did you go?
ABRECHT: We went beyond to the next intersection … I think this was during my time that we actually implemented it. I would have to go dig all that out.
NORTON: Sorry. Anyway, I’m just trying to get a sense though.
ABRECHT: The line essentially ran past the last congressional building or area of congressional concern, which is why it goes to Seventh Street, because St. Coletta’s … or not St. Coletta’s … What’s the name of that Catholic School on…[St. Cecilia]
NORTON: … Daycare center?
ABRECHT: Daycare center for the Library of Congress [Little Scholars Child Development Center]. St. Coletta’s is someplace else.
NORTON: Right, up by RFK.
ABRECHT: Anyway, there was a Catholic school there. The Congress—I think they own it—they acquired it. So we drew the east line boundary to include that building. We had a place where we searched things that were being delivered to the Capitol down by the stadium area…I’m sure it’s gone now. South Capitol [Street] and about P Street [SE], I believe. We drew the boundary— and the Government Printing Office, which is a congressional facility up on H and North Capitol Street [NW]. You draw a line around that. That’s the zone where we actually had extended jurisdiction.
NORTON: Did your officers actually patrol that area?
ABRECHT: We have a patrol division that patrolled that area and also checked on houses of members, at their request, that were outside the extended jurisdiction zone, but in the Capitol area. If you were a member, even if you lived outside the extended jurisdiction, and you asked that we keep an eye on your place, officers would go out—they would have lists of places that they had to check on every now and again.
NORTON: Did that include residences outside DC?
ABRECHT: There had to be a threat, and all of this has changed in the 20 years since I have left. If there’s a threat on a member…Well, it’s completely changed now.
NORTON: Let’s say back then.
ABRECHT: Back then, we only traveled if there was a threat against a member that was credible enough that we had to. And we could get the locals to take care of it for us. We would go with them. But they were usually for short periods of time.
NORTON: This could be anywhere in the country.
ABRECHT: Anywhere in the country. It was very uncommon.
NORTON: I gather that has changed now.
ABRECHT: Oh, now leadership at least on both sides have permanent details 24 hours a day, I get the impression. I don’t know the facts.
NORTON: This would be permanent details by members of the Capitol Police Department?
ABRECHT: Yes, right, they’re all [Capitol Police]. I can’t imagine how many people there are in dignitary protection now. There were maybe a couple dozen when I was there. There must be hundreds of them to be doing as much of what they seem to be doing.
NORTON: Let me just read a sentence from this Washington Post article when you were appointed. It says, “The appointment of Abrecht, a 22-year veteran of urban law enforcement, will signal a new era of quote ‘Pure Professionalism’ unquote.” Does that ring any bells with you, this idea of pure professionalism?
ABRECHT: I think that would be unfair to say about the Capitol Police by the time I had gotten there. It certainly had been a political enterprise many years back, where members could recommend people for appointment, and they were appointed, and they were on the payroll of the House or the Senate. I think it would be unfair to say to my predecessors that it was any more political then, than it continued to be—it’s a political enterprise, the whole Congress.
There had been officials that came up through the ranks there. They had other chiefs that came from outside the police department, so I don’t think that. I think that might have been what I would have liked to have said at the time, that it was an improvement, but I don’t think it was that political an operation when I got there, or [that] there was [any] radical change that took place.
NORTON: Other than the absence of crime maps and that sort of thing, how else was being the chief of the Capitol Police different from your earlier work?
ABRECHT: It’s fundamentally a security job. It’s a job of protecting a large group of buildings where you want people to be able to go in. The last thing you want is to keep people from going to visit their members of Congress. That was always very important to them that their constituents be able to come in and still maintain security when there’s a risk of terrorism and just criminality, but primarily terrorism that you had to worry about.
NORTON: I remember, prior to the deaths of your two officers that occurred during your term, that it was fairly easy to go, for example, picnic on the lawn of the Capitol, and go use the bathrooms when you had kids, and that sort of thing. You seemed to have a fairly nice balance of [the] security and [the] accessibility at that point. Why don’t you tell me about the assault on the two officers, Chestnut and Gibson, I gather.[Officer Jacob Joseph Chestnut and Detective John Michael Gibson were killed in the line of duty on July 24, 1998]
ABRECHT: Right. I guess you know the facts as well as I do. Do you want me to…
NORTON: At least you give a thumbnail sketch, if you don’t mind.
ABRECHT: There were basically three people involved. One of them was not injured. I’ve blanked on his name. They were at the door, the law library door. An officer and a security aide were screening people coming in through the door on the ground level on the east side of the building, when this mentally ill individual came in, shot officer Chestnut, who was in charge of the screening process there; and then went on in through there into the office of the minority leader, or deputy minority leader[former Rep. Tom Delay, House majority whip] and was confronted there by Gibson who was the plainclothesman who was on the security detail of [Tom Delay]; I’ve now blanked on the name of…
NORTON: I have too, and I know exactly who it is too.
ABRECHT: Yes, so do I, he was from Texas.
NORTON: Yes, made his fortune as an exterminator I think.
ABRECHT: That’s right [laughs].
NORTON: But now I can’t remember the name. Anyway it will come.
ABRECHT: He [the perpetrator] confronted John Gibson, and Gibson was shot as well, and was able to get a shot off himself and shoot the perpetrator whose name [Russell Eugene Weston Jr.]  has gone out of my head as well. I was on my way back—ironically, I believe—from  a police funeral, A DC officer who had been killed in the line of duty. The radio starts going crazy—or I had just come back. I was in my office when I got the call that there was some sort of shooting over at the Capitol. My public information officer and I went racing over. My view was it was pretty clear what would have gone on there. There was a huge crime scene that had to be investigated.
I thought it was my responsibility to attend to the widows, or—we didn’t know—to go to the hospital and check. The officers were both taken to GW [George Washington University Hospital]. No, that’s not right. One went to GW, and one was at the hospital center [Washington Hospital Center]. I think that’s right. So, I went to both, and met with the two widows. I was with one of them when the doctor came out and told that he had not made it. It was a horrible situation. In the other case, I sat there awhile waiting for the doctor to come. I don’t know what more you want to hear about this.
NORTON: Well, no. I mean I appreciate it. I know this is hard.
ABRECHT: Then I went back to my office. I kept getting paged. The whole law enforcement community, The U.S. Attorney, the Chief of Metropolitan, all were sitting in my office when I returned.
NORTON: What do you remember then?
ABRECHT: I was there—and these massive funerals…
NORTON: You were on the cover of papers all over the country.
ABRECHT: I had a wonderful public information officer who helped write all the eulogies. Then the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda itself, and the lying in state in the Capitol building. Associates, deputy chiefs who really stepped up and helped with a lot of the nitty gritty of all of that. I haven’t thought about the detail of it for a long time.
NORTON: I don’t mean to uncover painful wounds, but it was the time. It’s an important time on the Capitol. I gather that was one of the things that started a great study and change in security and stuff at the Capitol, right?
ABRECHT: Oh yeah. There was a whole—but, still trying to keep it open.
NORTON: Was that when they started talking about the Visitor’s Center or was that later?
ABRECHT: No. They had talked about doing a visitor’s center, but that’s what really got it going. I think you can thank John [Gibson] and [Jacob] Chestnut. They saw a need for a screening facility further away from the building. It was already in place for 9/11.
NORTON: The Visitor’s Center.
ABRECHT: Yeah, the idea of having it. It was in the works, basically. I think I’m right about that.
NORTON: I’m trying to remember. I know the Oklahoma City bombing occurred sometime during all that time [April 19, 1995]. Was that before you became chief at the Capitol Police or not?
ABRECHT: I think so. [Upon review, Chief Abrecht corrected his answer to reflect: 'I was the Chief when the bombing occurred, and it generated a great deal of discussion of how much setback was needed around the Capitol buildings and ultimately resulted in the bollards, delta barriers, and truck prohibitions in place today.]
NORTON: Okay, so that sort of changed…
ABRECHT: Quite a bit earlier. That certainly got people thinking about setback for vehicles, primarily. That’s where all the bollards come from, and all the attempts to keep…
NORTON: …Closing off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.
NORTON: What was your involvement in all that kind of stuff, the studies and stuff that occurred after the murders of the two officers?
ABRECHT: I had a couple of people who were very interested in that. So, I let them do most of the work on those committees. The House sergeant at arms had come from the Secret Service, Bill Livingood. He was very energetic on it. He took a strong interest in all of the minutia of what kinds of additional weapons we should  have, and all that. I was never terribly interested in that sort of stuff. I had subordinates who were just fascinated by—everybody still had revolvers when I got there. I held on to mine until the end. I really had no particular…
NORTON: The revolver would be what we lay people would call the six shooter, right?
ABRECHT: Right. Everybody in policing was going to automatic or semi-automatic weapons, as did we, and I had a particular deputy chief who was very interested in these issues. So, I let him—whatever he recommended was fine with me.
NORTON: How long did you stay as chief of the Capitol Police?
ABRECHT: Eight years.
NORTON: Which would make it ‘til 2000 or 2001?
ABRECHT: Yes. I was gone before the World Trade Center.
NORTON: And the Pentagon.
ABRECHT: And the Pentagon. And at the Capitol, the powder…
NORTON: …Oh, the anthrax.
ABRECHT: The anthrax was a big deal at the Capitol as well, but I was gone before both the anthrax and the…
NORTON: …Oh yes. That’s when all your mail had to be x-rayed and all that stuff or whatever.
ABRECHT: There were those that said my timing was wonderful. [Laughs.]
NORTON: It may be right. They may have been right. Since then you’ve been pretty much retired, right?
NORTON: Any other Capitol Police stories that you can remember?
ABRECHT: It had its many wonderful and enviable activities. Planning the inaugurations. There are all sorts of vignettes there. You run into things like the color of the carpet on the inauguration stand was an issue when—I guess it would have been Clinton’s first inauguration. He had a lot of people from Hollywood working on his side of the inauguration. It’s one of these dances between—it’s a legislative branch function, the inauguration, but obviously the president who’s about to be inaugurated has a lot of say in this as well. They had told him that red carpets were terrible; it’s a television event, and they should have a blue carpet.
NORTON: This is the Hollywood people saying this?
ABRECHT: Yeah, the Hollywood people were saying, “People look terrible against a red background.” I’m sure they’re probably right.
NORTON: They still have it for the Oscars [color of carpet for the Oscars was changed in 2023 to champagne]—but in any event. What happened with the fight over the carpet?
ABRECHT: This is getting pretty close to the event, and they still have to get the carpet and put it down. There’s meetings of the Inaugural Committee, I’m blanking out his name as well, Senator from Kentucky [Wendell Ford] who was the chairman of the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee is the one who does this event. He usually had one of his staffers; he had somebody from his staff that ran the Inaugural Committee, but he shows up himself one day and says, “The carpet will be Kentucky Blue Grass red.” [Laughter.] And that was that. We watched the boys from—soon to be—the White House, get a little lesson in who really runs things up on the Hill. What else? I got a chance to go to all the State of the Unions. We would do those.
NORTON: Was that a particular stressful event for the Capitol Police?
ABRECHT: It was stressful because it’s just a lot of moving parts. Parts you don’t see, like the representatives of all the diplomats, the ambassadors or their representatives, were all there. Busloads of them coming from—they’re all screened down at the State Department, loaded on buses and brought up. The arrivals of all the dignitaries are all choreographed. Our people have lists, getting people in and all of that. And the state visits where you would have…like Gorbachev came up while I was there. I have a picture of shaking hands with Gorbachev. One of the French presidents came. We chatted in French briefly. That was fun. There were a lot of great times up there.
NORTON: I have just about run through my list of points that I wanted to address with you. If there’s anything else that occurs to you that you think would be an interesting story about Capitol Hill or your duties?
ABRECHT: Thought I wrote one down here and see if I did or not. No, I didn’t. I think it was one of the ones I mentioned.
NORTON: Thank you very much. I very much appreciate it.
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
Gary Abrecht Interview, 3/21/2023

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