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My Brothers: Good Cops In A Bad System by Harold Bell




Robert Alfred Bell (U. S. Marshall 20 years) and Sgt. Earl k. Bell (DC Cop 14 years) were 4th generation Washingtonians and were raised in Mt. Airy Baptist Church in NW Washington, DC. Their Great-Grand Father Alfred Johnson Tyler laid the first brick to built the church in 1893.

The Tyler House built for low income senior residents is located two blocks north of the church and is named after their Great-Uncle, the Rev. Earl Tyler.

“Serpico” the movie was based on the non-fictional book by Peter Maas, the film follows about twelve years (1959-1971) in the life of Frank Serpico, a NYPD officer who wanted to do the best that he could as a policeman. Working as a uniform patrolman, Serpico completed every assignment.

He moves to plain clothes assignments, where he slowly uncovers cops doing drugs, taking paybacks and other criminal actions that fall under corruption. Serpico decides to tell others the truth about this, but other officers make it hard for him to tell the truth and threaten him with termination and other kinds of punishment.

The struggle leads to fights in his unit, problems in his personal relationships, a near death experience, and the final meeting with the Knapp Commission, which met to investigate police corruption between 1970 and 1972: it disbanded before the release of the film.

Frank Serpico’s struggle with corruption in the New York City Police Department brings mirrors a DC cop, his name, Sgt. Earl K. Bell.
The movie made its debut in 1973 and Earl K. Bell joined the DC Metropolitan Police Department in 1974.

If I did not know my brother I would swear he copied his style of policing from the movie, but I know better because he was raised by his heroes to be an independent thinker. His heroes were his mother Mattie Bell and grandmother and the family matriarch, Amy Tyler Bell affectionately known as “Grandma Bell.”

Earl and I were raised in a NE housing project call Parkside in the 40s and 50s by a single mom and a devoted grandmother. My older brother Robert was raised by Grandma Bell. Our father Alfred Bell was a “Dead Beat Dad” right out of the box. The singing group the Temptations described him best with their chart busting Number One hit “Poppy Was a Rolling Stone.”

Too long there has been a myth that a black woman needed a black man to properly raise black children—Mattie Bell and Grand Ma Bell proved that was a lie many decades ago.

The lessons of integrity and honesty taught by our mother Mattie and Grandma Bell would later surface during our adulthood, Earl as a U. S. Military Policeman and DC cop and Robert as a tire salesman and grocery store owner.

In Germany Earl led a group of black enlisted men in a boycott to downtown nightclubs that discriminated against blacks.
In the July 1969 July issue of Jet Magazine it chronicled his trials and tribulations in the military as he fought for his and other enlisted men’s civil and human rights. The story also insinuated that I was visiting the White House with Richard M. Nixon and playing footsy with the President while his little brother was fighting racism in the U. S. Army.

The truth was his big brother was visiting the White House because during his youth he caddied at the Burning Tree Golf Club in Bethesda, Maryland on the weekends. It was there the Vice-President and his brother became mentor and mentee which led me to a Presidential appointment.

During our youth my brother Earl and I carried bags of food at the Safeway and I caddied on the weekends to help our mother make ends meet.

Our introduction to cops will never be forgotten. We watched while cops conducted weekend raids on our house in the wee hours of the morning. My welfare mother held card games and cut a dime on every dollar won. She also sold dinners and bootleg liquor to help make ends meet.

My brother Earl and I would sit on the steps and watch as the cops carried my mother out in handcuffs, the charge selling liquor and gambling without a license. We would sit there crying our eyes out, but she would look back and promise us “I will be back in time to get you to church in the morning” and she always was.

There were other encounters with the police. I remember there was a time when no food was in the house. Earl and I decided to travel to the other side of the tracks to the Safeway to earn enough money to buy some food. This was a weekday and there were few shoppers in the store. We decided to shoplift for our food and we left the store with lunch meats, hotdogs and cheese stuffed in our shorts and jackets.

Earl and I were about to cross the tracks to our housing project when a police car cut us off and two white cops threw us in the back seat of the car and sped off. They were calling us all kinds of niggers and the like. We thought someone had snitched on us and we were in big trouble caught red-handed with the stolen goods.


In the meantime, we were taking our new found meal and hiding it under the seat of the car. We arrived at the 14th Police Precinct District on Benning Road NE and were hustled and pushed into a room where there was a little old white lady who claimed she had been robbed by two niggers. Without hesitation she jumped straight up out of her seat and said “Those are not the niggers.” The word nigger never sounded so good!

The cops then took us to the back door and told us to stay out of trouble and to walk our black asses’ home. We walked about 50 yards and looked at each other and headed back to the police car and got our food from under the car seat. We laughed all the way home.

In 1958, we became homeless after our mother suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. Earl was sent to Cedar Knoll (a reform school for juveniles) and I wandered the streets sleeping in parked cars. I never missed a day of school because of my coach Dave Brown and a school of dedicated teachers led our Principal Dr. Purvis Williams.

One year later my older brother was on his way to college and Earl was released from custody of the juvenile court system. In 1959, coach Dave Brown convinced Winston-Salem State College coach Clarence Bighouse Gaines to give me a football and basketball scholarship.

In 1960 Earl hitched hiked all the way to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to watch his big brother play his second year of college football. I was a rising star under the critical eyes of “Bighouse”.

It was homecoming when Earl arrived on campus out of nowhere only to witness his big brother never get off the bench. Winston-Salem State beat Elizabeth City like they had stole something. He later discovered his brother’s smart mouth had him in “Bighouse’s Dog House.” He caught a ride back to DC with friends. Earl graduated from Spingarn in 1961 and the next thing anyone knew he had made the smartest move of his life—he joined the U. S. Army.

Earl ended his Army career after 8 years plus and returned home to DC, but not before leaving his mark as a heavyweight boxing champion, table tennis champion, outstanding softball umpire and leader of a boycott of a downtown night club that discriminated against black enlisted men.

It became apparent the Army had no use for an outspoken black man who refused to walk with his back bent and head down.

In 1970 he told his brother that he was interested in a career as a DC Metropolitan Policeman. The brother had been working in the streets with youth gangs and at-risk children since 1965 (United Planning Organization and DC Recreation Department) had mixed emotions about his brother’s career choice, but reluctantly gave him his blessings.

The turn-around of his life was impressive. As a youth Earl was definitely a juvenile delinquent going to hell in a hurry. His crew included a petty thief by the name of Dave Bing who is now in the NBA Hall of Fame and was the Mayor of Detroit. His pursue of a career in law enforcement puzzled many of his former “Boys in the hood.” He suddenly would become ‘The Man’ on their turf with the power to lock them up.

Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Bill Raspberry picks up the story from here:
Washington Post
July 18, 1970
William Raspberry

Becoming a Washington policeman is not a new idea with Earl Bell. The 230-pound six-footer has been thinking about it for a long time.
But he almost didn’t make it.  “I’ve been interested in police work for years,” he said. “That’s really what I had in mind when I took those courses (at the University of Maryland’s overseas branch) in Germany.” The courses included criminology (in which he made an “A”), juvenile delinquency (“B”) and sociology and psychology (both “C”).

But until yesterday, Bell was wondering whether he would ever wear that policeman’s uniform.
He has a juvenile record. Bell who took his college courses as a solder, got out of the Army in December after 81/2 years. His idea was to return to his native Washington and join the police force.

I didn’t think I’d have any trouble,” he said. My Army record looks good; in fact, I have two good conduct citations. I don’t have any adult record at all; the only thing in my background that looks bad is my juvenile record and they’re not even supposed to take that into consideration.”

He is right on that score. Juveniles are not found guilty or innocent in the District. Rather, they are adjudicated to have been involved or not involved in offenses against the law, but as the DC Code points out:  An Adjudication is not deemed a conviction of crime ……(and) does not operate to disqualify a child in any future civil-service examination, appointment, or application for public service under either the government of the United States or of the District of Columbia.”

That seems pretty plain. But Jim Murray, the personnel director who has been one of the bright spots in the administration of Police Chief Jerry V. Wilson, thinks the framers of that law “probably didn’t have the police department in mind.”
He intimated that it is not particular unusual for police applicant to be denied an appointment on account of his juvenile record, in apparent contravention of the law.

Murray did say, however that Bell’s rejection was premature, the result of a mix-up. He explained it this way; Bell, who has been working as a correctional officer at the DC jail, passed both the written and physical examinations for the police force. His application then went to a sergeants’ review board for study, a routine step.

But the three-man sergeants’ panel, apparently re-acted to Bell’s juvenile record, refused to recommend him, and the case was forwarded —again routinely—-to Lt. Maurice Turner, chief of the recruiting section.  Turner said the next step should have been a conference between himself and Murray. Instead, “Some clerk in my office” sent Bell a form letter telling him that he had been rejected. A check mark appeared next to a paragraph that said: “Our character investigation reveals sufficient adverse material to disqualify you.”
The “adverse material” according to Bell, consists of two petty larceny charges and a disorderly conduct when he was 14 and charges of yoke robbery and assault on a police officer when he was 16.

“They say it is because one of the crimes involved a crime of violence, that’s the reason they disqualified me,” he said. “But the juvenile court judge ruled that I was ‘not involved’ in the robbery or the police assault. I was found ‘involved’ in the one of the petty larcenies and the disorderly conduct.”

What it boils down to, then, is that Bell was in danger or being denied appointment on the basic of a juvenile offense of which he was in essence, found innocent.  Fortunately, the case was brought to Murray’s personal attention and the “mix-up” has been straightened out. Bell will become a rookie officer next week, Murray said yesterday.

Still unresolved, however, is the question of turning down applicants—-because they have juvenile records. That’s one Murray might want to look into.  Footnote: If you believe Lt. Maurice Turner (later Chief) and Jim Murray’s version of this charade I have some property I would like to sell you located around the White House!

I never forget where I was and what I was doing on the morning when I got the news of the accident. My alarm had just gone off in my apartment in Prince Georges County, Maryland and the telephone rang. It was my nephew Kenny with the bad news that my brother had been in a bad accident on the way to work.

The accident took place 10 minutes from my resident off of the Suitland Parkway. My route to SE Community Hospital took me directly to Southern Avenue where the accident occurred. Southern Avenue crosses over the parkway. The bridge had ice on it and my brother’s car went airborne head on into a 16 wheel truck.  Earl’s car looked like a crushed can of soup I don’t know how they managed to cut him out of that car. When I arrived at the hospital I was told by the doctors it didn’t look good. Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam picks up the story from there.

”I’m coming up on the rough side of the mountain,” declares a popular gospel song. That theme of the struggle and survival could well be the motto of a veteran Metropolitan Police Department sergeant named Earl K. Bell. His career has been punctuated by ups and downs:

First his superiors’ commendations, and then what he saw as their unofficial censure. “His only problem,” said one of his friends on the force, “he was too honest.”  But three weeks ago the vicissitudes of his career were put on hold—-perhaps forever. Sgt. Bell, 44, had a new fight: a struggle for his life. Driving to work March 14, his car hit an ice patch on the Southern Avenue and Suitland Parkway SE over pass bridge and his vehicle careened into a sixteen wheeler cargo truck traveling in the opposite direction. They cut him out of the car and rushed him to Greater SE Hospital. His entire chest was smashed, his legs were lifeless and he was suffering from internal bleeding with a clot on his brain. Surgeons operated for six hours and one called it the most traumatized case he had seen.

While Bell lay fighting for his life, the corridor outside his hospital was decked with so much brass that it looked like a top level meeting of the city’s police force. Police Chief Maurice Turner visited half times; Assistant Chief Marty Tapscott and Deputy Chief Rodell M. Catoe and dozens of police officers also came. They thronged the visitor’s lounge and brought food to Bell’s family.

“It was unbelievable,” said Bell’s Brother Harold, host of radio station WYCB’s ‘Inside Sports.’

“The people at the hospital were trying to figure out who he was. The top brass might not have always liked him but they respected him. It was a heck of a time to rally around. I appreciated it, but I said to one, where you when he needed you?”

Where was Bell’s superiors when he needed them seems to be a matter of interpretation. Bell’s friends feel he was penalized for not “playing the game.” Police officials disagree.

Bell started out in his own neighborhood in far North east then worked in upper northwest where he was promoted to sergeant. It was at 6001 Georgia Avenue (the Fourth District) that he got involved in a celebrated local case. In 1978, Bell was one of two officers who complained to their superiors that fellow officer Tommy C. Musgrove allegedly had beaten a man while he was in custody at the police station on a disorderly conduct charge. The man reported the alleged beating; a grand jury returned an indictment against the officers who was sentenced to a year in jail—only Musgrove served time the white officer never served a day.

In a retrial, however, Musgrove was found innocent. In the months that followed the deaths of several men in police custody have brought increased scrutiny to the use of force by police officers. But in 1978 the indictments and conviction of a city police officer as a result of brutality was unusual.

“Ever since that incident they turned Bell up one side and down the other,” said Goldie Johnson, President of the Metropolitan Washington Wives Association. “When he saw officers abusing citizens’ rights, he began to report it.”

Sgt. Irving Downs of the Sixth District recalls that Bell once blew the whistle on a group of officers assigned to apprehend stolen autos and bogus license tags who were harassing people by taking legitimate tags off cars.

“He didn’t go along with it…..he got the foot beat and was told to keep quiet but he wouldn’t. His principles was stronger than the job,” said downs.
Police spokesmen say they don’t know of Bell getting any assignment that was not one sergeant are normally required to perform. The spokesmen added that there are many police officers who stop bad things from happening.

Bell’s 14 years on the force have been marked by continued fighting for his beliefs. At the time of the accident, he had been transferred again after an alleged dispute with a lieutenant.

Doctors are guardedly optimistic about Bell’s recovery but whether he will ever return to police work is in question. His friends and family say the sergeant is still climbing up the rough side of the mountain. Only now, they add, he has broadened his motto to include another line from the song. It goes: “I’m holding onto God’s unchanging hand.”

Note Worthy: My brother Robert faced the same Code of Silence and Thin Blue Line as a U. S. Marshall, but unlike DC brass and homeboys Maurice Turner, Issac Fulwood and Marty Tapscott, former U. S. Marshall in Charge, Luke C. Moore had his back. I slept in the visitor’s lounge of the SE Community Hospital for two weeks straight until my brother Earl came out of the ICU. His wife and children seldom visited. He finally succumbed to his injuries August 2014 alone in a Bethesda Hospital.

Harold Bell is the Godfather of Sports Talk radio and television in Washington, DC.  Throughout the mid-sixties, seventies and eighties, Harold embarked upon a relatively new medium–sports talk radio with classic interviews with athletes and sports celebrities.  The show and format became wildly popular. Harold has been an active force fighting for the rights of children for over 40 years with the help of his wife through their charity Kids In Trouble, Inc.   To learn more about Harold Bell visit his official web site The Original Inside

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