Chaos Left Behind

Lessons from Officer Monk, A 19-Year Police Veteran

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MPD Officer Charles Monk. Photo: Christine Rushton

Metropolitan Police Department Officer Charles Monk stands toward the back of his police cruiser as he checks off a list of equipment he needs for his daily 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. patrol shift: active shooter gear, crime scene kits, on-board patrol tech, and police body camera. Five minutes later he jumps into the SUV, grabs the radio handle, and turns the feed on.

“Day work, 1053.” He’s ready to go.

Monk, 50, patrols police service area (PSA) 105 in the First District, which covers the streets of Southwest and a diverse sampling of everything DC has to offer, from the waterfront and public housing projects to parts of the Mall, the 14th Street Bridge, Nats Stadium, and the site of the future DC United Stadium at Buzzard Point.

Advanced training enables him to respond to crisis situations across PSA or ward lines. If he needs to respond to active, dangerous situations, he can. And he has the intimidating appearance to command attention, with a strong build, shaven head, and tattoos peeking out from under the collar of his blue uniform.

As a 19-year veteran of the force, he has learned the difference between policing and acting in a public service position. “I used to think, you lock people up and it gets better,” Monk said. “That’s not the case.”

Police can’t take away a father, mother, or other integral person in a relationship or family without it affecting others. Monk learned that while working on the Vice Squad and now uses his experience to shape how he mentors trainees on the force and youth in the community.

A Dedication to His Country
Monk grew up in a single-parent household with a mom who refused to let him live without. In his home in Arlington County he always had the food and support he needed to succeed. When it came time for college, he thought he should pursue a physics and engineering major at the University of Maryland, a degree that his family would appreciate. But he quickly discovered he had other ambitions, and left the university in 1984 to join the Army.

Monk served 13 years in the military. He traveled abroad, saw other cultures, learned about less-developed countries, but later realized it was time to come home. “I’ve always had a duty to help people, to serve my country,” he said.

His first few years with Metropolitan Police Department focused on getting the bad guys and putting them behind bars. But when Cathy Lanier took over for Charles Ramsey as police chief in 2007, the game shifted from policing to protecting the community and its residents.

Monk admitted that he wasn’t on board at first. “She [Lanier] pulled the department along at a time when people didn’t want to listen,” he said. She put the power in the hands of the people and turned the department’s focus on community policing. Not once did Monk think about leaving, though. Instead he realized that he had to change his own approach to the job.

Fighting the Devastation Left Behind
It started with a drug bust in Potomac Gardens public housing (1225 G St. SE). Monk was working with the Vice Squad and took part in an arrest that broke up a drug dealing operation out of an apartment in the complex. Monk remembers arriving at the apartment and catching the dealer trying to flush the bags of drugs down the toilet. The dealer had stocked the refrigerator with the substances, but something was missing – food.

Monk took a look around the apartment and realized the space had no food or living amenities. And the dealer had children living there. “I saw the devastation left behind,” he said. “There was no food in the house and the kids were unkempt. It opened my eyes.”

Locking people up doesn’t help those who remain, he said. And the scene inside of the apartment took him back to his service overseas in the Army and the living conditions in third world countries. He realized then that his job as an officer called for more responsibility. He needed to help the District’s people get the resources and services available to help them.

His insight didn’t stop at that drug bust. While on a different patrol assignment around Sursum Corda public housing, he watched low-income youth walk to school each day with bags of chips and bottles of soda in their hands. That was breakfast.

Monk has made a mission in his off-duty time to offer himself as a role model or helping hand to youth and families who need it. That has given him an “adoptive” daughter, face time with youth in need, and a chance to give back to the city that has shaped much of his life. And it helps him balance the pain he knows he causes families each time he makes an arrest. “Before I pull away from the garage, I ask for forgiveness, for the things I’ve done,” he said.

Police for the People
Monk works part-time at a McDonald’s in the District and also as a security member for WC Smith property management. He doesn’t need the money. He makes a good salary with the police and lives in Maryland, but the jobs give him a chance to talk with and offer an ear to youth and others.

Teens will often come in to the McDonald’s in a group to hang out and grab inexpensive food. They don’t pay much attention to Monk while in their group, but sometimes one will linger behind as it gets late. That’s when Monk will take a few minutes to sit down and listen to whatever the teen needs to talk about. “It’s not black or white or not even being American anymore. It’s how we come together,” he said.

That’s the lesson he teaches police trainees during their four weeks of riding with him, their field training officer. He’s noticed that the new crop comes in with more degrees, a higher knowledge base, and a different level of professionalism. They want to serve their community, not just lock people away.

Back in his cruiser on patrol in PSA 105 – the region First District Commander Morgan Kane transferred him into near the start of April to combat recent shootings – Monk keeps watch over the Southwest community he knows so well. Driving down a tight alleyway between public housing units near Nats Park, Monk yells a greeting to a man he knows is likely smoking marijuana. He keeps driving. It’s his presence he wants to assert in the area.

But he makes a stop at a home with a young boy playing on his bicycle. Monk parks the car and jumps out to shake a man’s hand and embrace him. They chat, talk about how the man has cleaned up his life. The man points to the boy – that’s his son. Monk smiles. Years ago he had run-ins with the man and knew him as a problem. Not anymore.

“Those things are what make it feel good,” he said.