The First Black Female Capitol Police Officer
In Washington, DC, the US Capitol Police are responsible for the protection and safety of the members of our country’s legislative bodies, as well as the 3 to 5 million annual visitors who stop by the US Capitol Building. When the US Capitol Police was founded in 1828, spots on the force were only available to men—and it remained this way until 1974, when the force was finally opened to women. It was this same year that Arva “Marie” Johnson applied and became the agency’s first Black female police officer.
Capitol Police Officer Arva “Marie” Johnson at her post. Image courtesy of Arva “Marie” Johnson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives.
Arva Johnson was 24 years old when she began her career with the Capitol Police, and she was one of only four female officers in the inaugural class. She was the first Black woman to join the Capitol Police force, and she was also the first woman in uniform—the others were plain-clothes officers. She decided to join the Capitol Police after a family member, who was working on the hill at the time, informed her of the department’s hiring of women.
Officer Arva “Marie” Johnson (second from left) and her fellow female officers hired in 1974 when the US Capitol Police Force opened to women. Image courtesy of Arva “Marie” Johnson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives.
During her tenure as a Capitol Police officer, Johnson saw and actively participated in many drastic changes in security at our government’s legislative center. When she first began as an officer in the mid-1970s, X-Ray machines and metal detectors for security screenings were still a figment of science fiction; Johnson and her fellow officers performed security screenings by personally hand-searching the bags of all visitors and staff that passed through the Capitol’s doors. After the bombing of the US Capitol building in 1983, the shooting deaths of two fellow Capitol police officers Jacob J. Chestnut, Jr. and Detective John M. Gibson in 1998, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, security at the US Capitol was drastically tightened. Johnson received sophisticated and intense training in chemical and bomb identification and watched firsthand as the Capitol Police Force became a leading anti-terrorism organization.
In 2007, the Capitol Police honored Arva “Marie” Johnson (left) for 32 years of service upon her retirement. Image courtesy of Arva “Marie” Johnson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives.
Arva Johnson watched the US Capitol Police grow and change during her time on the force, and she spearheaded efforts to reform internal policies, especially to the greater benefit of both female and minority officers. She was an inaugural member of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association—which was formed to give a unifying voice for minority officers, especially for career advancement—and she and her colleagues successfully overhauled the force’s existing promotion process during the 1990s. Johnson retired from the Capitol Police in 2007, after a 32-year career with the agency. During her time as an officer, she was greatly respected by her colleagues and legislators alike, with one congressman saying, “She’s the kind of person that you would want your whole department to be like.” While reminiscing about her career, she said, “If I was young again and could do it, I would come here and work. Yes, it’s a good opportunity, and knowing what I know, I would come back.”
Black Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement.
Category: Black History