BLACK HISTORY MONTH: SALUTE AND TRIBUTE TO EARL K. BELL
MONDAY APRIL 2, 1984
“I’m coming up on the rough side of the mountain,” declares a popular gospel song. That theme of 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, “see that he was too honest.”
But three weeks ago the vicissitubes 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 overpass 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 andhe was suffereing 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 a 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 were 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 Northeast 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 officer who was sentenced to a year in jail.
In a retrial, however, he was found innocent. In recent months 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 then the job,” said downs.
Police spokesmen say they don’t know of Bell getting any assignment that was not one sergeants 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.”