Fallen Officer Did Things His Way
Jelani Prather, who died in a crash on Interstate 270 last week, will be laid to rest on Monday.
On Wednesday morning, in their Douglas Avenue home, surrounded by photos and memories, Jelani Prather’s family remembered a man who, at 36 years old, seemed to have begun to find his place in life.
It was a life of increased responsibility, with a new wife and a mortgage and a baby on the way. But it also was a life that his family said Prather lived with a youthful exuberance for motorcycles and gadgetry, a constant need for neatness and a love for his family.
It was a life cut short on Sept. 16 when police say the 2011 Scion xB that Prather was driving struck the back of a tanker truck stopped on the shoulder of Interstate 270 in Rockville. Prather, a motorcycle officer with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fifth District in Washington, D.C. died at the scene.
Prather and his wife Quenell were married on Aug. 19 after seven years together. On the Monday before Prather died, they saw the first sonogram of their first child together. The baby is due to arrive in March.
The newlyweds were in the process of buying a townhouse that Jelani’s older sister, Angela Prather Hansberry, owned.
“He was coming here to get his mortgage stuff. He was just starting to grow up, getting everything in order,” Angela said, looking at photos from Jelani and Quenell’s wedding day.
“Only day he was on time,” Angela said, smiling knowingly at the hint of the good-natured sibling rivalry she shared with her brother. Spend some time with the Prathers and it quickly becomes evident that the close-knit family enjoys each other's company—and a lot of good-natured ribbing.
On Wednesday, they dealt with their loss through humor and stories, including one from a family vacation to Georgia in July—one of many trips they enjoyed together over the years.
In Savannah, the family bought tickets for a trolley tour. They were given stickers that served as boarding passes. Ever concerned with a neat appearance, Jelani went to work making sure the stickers were affixed to each person’s shirt just so.
“That took 10 minutes. We missed the trolley,” said Angela, who works as an accountant for Marriott—where her father also worked before retiring—but joked that she nonetheless diagnosed her brother as having obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“A neat freak,” Jelani’s father, Joseph Prather Jr., said. Jelani’s need for neatness meant that items in his truck each had a certain place and that Wii video game cartridges were carefully stacked.
“What’s the detective that’s on TV? Monk,” Joseph said, referring to the obsessive-compulsive detective played on television by Tony Shalhoub.
Jelani Prather did things his way, his family said.
“Everything he wanted, he’d do it [in] a roundabout way,” said his mother, Doris Prather.
When he decided he wanted one of his motorcycles to shine, he “took it completely apart and sanded and mirrored it and put it all back together—except for one screw,” she said.
“It never fell apart,” Angela said.
The Prathers have lived in their home in Rockville’s Lincoln Park neighborhood for 40 years. Their children graduated from Richard Montgomery High School, where Jelani wore No. 5 on the basketball and football teams.
“And then after ‘5,’ he graduated to these,” Angela said, holding up a “skull and crossbones” sticker that she said her brother plastered on everything, including his beloved Suzuki and Kawasaki motorcycles.
Jelani Prather graduated from Bowie State University in 1998 with a biology degree. After three years as a paraeducator, helping special education students at Col. Zadok Magruder High School, he joined the Metropolitan Police Department in September 2001 with the intention of putting his degree to use with the department’s forensics laboratory.
But he soon learned that he would have to be with the department for two years before he could apply to work in forensics.
“He never did it,” Angela said.
“He saw that motorcycle, that was it,” Joseph said.
Despite his love of motorcycles, which he had been riding since he was a boy, Jelani didn’t pass the riding test first time. He had to break himself from habits he had picked up as a civilian rider.
“You can’t ride a motorcycle?” Joseph teased him.
“That really bothered him,” Angela said.
When he retook the riding test, Jelani wore the ear bud from his mobile phone. Then he secretly called Doris, who talked her son through the course. He passed.
“If there was a way to get around something, Lani would find it,” Doris said with a laugh.
Jelani Prather’s unique way of doing things extended to helping others.
His final test at the police academy included a fighting drill. “Lani,” as his mother called him, “had every [protective] pad in the world,” she said. He also had a plan.
Female trainees taking the final test are expected to fight male trainees. Jelani and the woman he was paired with were so worried that he might hurt her that they choreographed a fight.
“And she missed a step,” Angela said. The woman wound up with an injured her leg.
“You were supposed to move right,” Angela recalled her brother saying as he told the story.
Over the past week, the people in many of Jelani Prather’s stories have come to his parents’ door, often to share funny stories that his family has never heard.
The friends included Officer Tyrone Gross—Prather’s partner—and Officer Chris Wickham, a fellow Richard Montgomery High School graduate and motorcycle officer, who told the Prathers that Jelani stayed late to work with him so that Wickham could pass his riding test.
There were phone calls from Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and from Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier. Montgomery County police officers kept vigil at the Prather home in three-hour shifts on Friday night. Doris Prather kept vigil to. After getting the news, she couldn’t sleep.
She said she wanted to “thank everybody for being so thoughtful; for the flowers and the prayers and the food—the total support of our family. I want to thank people so much for that.”
Shared memories have been a big part of that support—especially memories of Jelani's smile.
“[He] always, always smiled,” Angela said. “That’s because he stuttered early on. So he figured if he smiled real pretty, no one would say anything to him. He got over [the stutter]. But the smile—he always smiled.”
Jelani Omar Prather is survived by his parents, Doris Prather and Joseph Prather Jr.; his sister, Angela Prather Hansberry; his wife, Quenell Prather; a son, Jhmari Prather, 9; and a stepson, Rahman Xavier Williams Jr., 10.
A viewing will be held from 6-9 p.m. on Sunday at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 608 N. Horners Lane, in Rockville.
A second viewing will be held 9-11 a.m. on Monday at Inter-Denominational Church of God, 19201 Woodfield Road, in Gaithersburg. A funeral service will follow at 11 a.m. Interment will be at Gate of Heaven Cemetery at 13801 Georgia Ave. in Aspen Hill.
Prather will be laid to rest with full honors, including a police motorcade.