Minority Men in Policing

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Most of the history of minorities in American policing is based on the experiences of women and African-Americans; comparatively little has been written about Hispanic-Americans or Asian-Americans. The histories of African-American men and of women are similar in some key areas; both were hired primarily to police their own group and both were for much of their histories segregated within their departments.

Like women, black male police officers needed higher qualifications than white men did. Some of the earliest black officers were college graduates, but, like women, were not permitted to advance beyond the rank of police officer and were rarely considered for specialist assignments unless their race was viewed as helpful for particular types of cases.

A major difference between early policewomen and African-American men, though, is that the women sought segregation from the male police hierarchy while African-American men had this forced on them, even in parts of the country where segregation of the races was not legally imposed.

Free men of color served on the New Orleans, LA, city guard and constabulary as early as 1803 and were appointed to the New Orleans Gendarmerie in 1805; blacks would serve until 1830. New Orleans has always been a multiracial city, and these men's service was something of an oddity, although their role of policing other freed blacks or slaves was typical of the police tasks that were open to blacks. Also typical, their positions were based on political ebb and flow. Although the history of American policing is closely tied to local political shifts, minority men and all women were particularly likely to be employed only when local politicians saw a need for their services and to be dismissed during changes in local administration or during times of fiscal constraint.

By the time an African-American again joined the New Orleans Police Department in 1867, after the Civil War, other southern cities that had added newly enfranchised black citizens to government positions also added them to their police departments. Northern and Midwestern departments that employed black police officers prior to 1900 included Chicago; Pittsburgh, PA; Indianapolis, IN; Boston; Cleveland; Philadelphia; Columbus, OH; Los Angeles; Cincinnati, OH; Detroit; Brooklyn, NY (prior to its consolidation into New York City), and St. Louis, MO. New York City did not employ its first post-consolidation African-American officer until 1911. In the majority of these cities, blacks were not permitted to arrest white citizens and were discouraged from having any contact at all with white people. Their assignments were virtually always to police the black areas of their cities. To assure that no white citizens took offense at power having been granted to them, the black police officers rarely were permitted to work in uniform, since this would be seen as a sign of status having been granted to them by the municipality. Black police officers were also rarely granted promotional opportunities. Even when a very few, starting in Boston in 1895 and Chicago in 1897, were permitted to become sergeants, they continued to work in plainclothes and to supervise only black officers working in black areas.

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