It’s a rare occasion to see ex-felons, former youth gang members and grass-roots community activists come together to shower a police officer with praises, hugs and gifts. It’s even rarer when those who are giving the praises are black, and the recipient is a white 30-year Metropolitan Police Department veteran who also happens to be a woman.
Some affectionately call her “Blondie” because of her signature flowing blonde hair, but professionally she is Assistant Chief Diane Grooms, who recently announced her retirement from MPD effective April 30. She spent her last day on the job in the gymnasium at Ballou SHS in Ward 8, where more than 100 residents came to honor her for what was frequently described as her “compassionate service to the community.”
Minister Roger Lovett, associate pastor at First Rock Baptist Church in Ward 7, said he met Chief Grooms in the 1990s, but he got to know her better when she was assigned to the Sixth District. She often accompanied the Men’s Ministry on neighborhood walk-throughs following a shooting or auto thefts that besieged the community in Benning Heights, formerly known as Simple City.
“She was always there to make sure everything went smoothly and sometimes it was late at night,” Lovett said. “But she also helped us at back to school events, and neighborhood barbecues. She is a people person who bonded with the neighborhood; she is just a down to earth person.”
Jackie Ward, a Ward 8 resident, said when she worked in the Ward 8 council office for the late Marion S. Barry, she got to know Chief Grooms well.
“She was available day or night,” Ward said. “I knew she worked an eight-hour shift and one day, late at night, there was a shooting in Woodland Terrace. Guess who was there, in full uniform, making sure the residents were being treated with respect? Chief Grooms!”
Al Malik Farrakhan, founder and executive director of Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters, attended the event despite his battle with walking pneumonia.
“When I heard they were honoring Chief Grooms, I had to come and help honor the chief on her retirement,” he said. “We go back to 1995 and she was constantly in the community in Ward 4.
“There are others on the force who are good, but she is unique,” Farrakhan said. “She’s got love all over this city. She has bailed out a lot of kids, and because of her there are some folks who are still alive and not locked up. I’m a black militant, and she’s a blond-haired woman. If I’m here, that speaks volumes.”
When it was Grooms’ chance to speak, she said for the first time she was speechless.
“I believe God puts you in places for a reason,” she said as she recalled coming to D.C. from Pittsburgh at age 23.
With earlier aspirations of becoming a high school math teacher, Grooms said she ended up majoring in criminology and accepting a job as a dispatcher with the Fairfax County Police Department. The low salary required her to also wait tables until she applied for a position with MPD.
Once hired, she said, she was assigned to the Fourth District and her first day on the job was the same day a Salvadoran man was shot by a police officer, which led to the Mt. Pleasant riots.
“I was scared half to death,” she remembered. “What am I going to do, what am I going to say to people?”
But looking back, Grooms believes her early career assigned to a foot patrol beat “was a blessing to me. I had to walk from the 6000 block to the 2900 block of Georgia Avenue in Northwest and on the way, I got to see, meet, talk to and hang out with to everybody.”
“To this day,” she continued, “you put your arms around me and just brought me right in.”
Everyone seemed to recall the days when Grooms took on a part-time security job at a popular go-go club on Georgia Avenue called the Black Hole.
“I learned about every neighborhood working there,” she said. “Young people were coming 50 to 100 deep, and 99.9 [percent of the] times people came to the go-go’s just to have fun, just to dance, and look at the ladies and have a good time.”
Due to several violent incidents, the Black Hole was eventually closed, but Ron Moten, a community and anti-violence activist, said the club would have been shut down much earlier had it not been for Chief Grooms.
“She use to work at the go-go’s, but she was one of us,” he said. “Her skin color didn’t matter. And everyone knew if she locked someone up, you deserved to be locked up. For her to be a white woman and culturally competent, and as intelligent as she is, it says a lot.”
Moten, who sponsored the ceremony honoring Grooms, said, “She understood how to relate to people; she understood we were all humans, that it was not about police solving problems, but you had to work with the community to solve the problems in the community.”
Moten, who gave Grooms the moniker of “Chief for Life,” believes that “just like Marion Barry,” Chief Grooms’ legacy will live on for years to come.
When asked about the two officers newly appointed MPD Chief Peter Newsham hired to replace Grooms, Moten said, ” I don’t think it’s the manpower, it’s what’s in her heart. That’s what he’s got to replace.”
Grooms has accepted a position as director of security and public safety for Hoffman-Madison Waterfront (HMW), the developer of The Wharf in Southwest, where she will manage the security operations and activities for one of the District’s newest communities.