Minority Men in Policing (page 2)

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Despite these limitations, blacks in the post–Civil War Reconstruction south achieved higher enrollment percentages on some police departments than today, including 50% in both Montgomery, AL, and Vicksburg, MS; 42% in Charleston, SC; 37% in Mobile, AL, and more than 25% in New Orleans and Portsmouth, VA. Most of these gains were erased by the 1880s, when patterns of pre–Civil War segregation returned. By 1880, only Memphis, which had had no black police in 1870, had a force that was more than 20% African-American. Continuing to undo Civil War-era changes in society, by the 1890s most southern cities had removed all or most African-Americans from their departments. Beginning in the 1950s, African-Americans were able to increase their percentages of police jobs somewhat, although those percentages remained in the single digits.

In the north, blacks, like women, continued to be appointed often outside the civil service system. In cities where there was a sizable African-American population that wielded local political power, politicians encouraged police chiefs to appoint black officers. Again, as with policewomen, many small cities decided that one black policeman was sufficient to respond to political pressures for their appointments and to provide police services to their group.

Black men, like women, were segregated. Often they were in bureaus that were located within African-American neighborhoods and were discouraged from leaving the confines of those areas. A study conducted in the 1950s found that more than half of the 130 cities and counties in the south that employed black police officers required them to call white officers if a white person was to be arrested. In many communities at this time, the police cars in which African-American officers patrolled were marked differently from the cars white officers used. Even in areas that are today culturally diverse, such as Miami, FL, until the 1950s there were separate promotion tests and lists for black and white police officers. There continued to be black police beats in many cities throughout the nation until the 1960s. The Miami Police Department even maintained an African-American police station until 1963.

Again similar to the barriers that stalled the careers of women, many departments did not permit black officers to vie for promotions. The few who were promoted were often relegated to assignments in which they would not supervise white officers. They were rarely permitted to exercise supervisory responsibility over any but the few black officers below them in rank. Reflecting residential patterns, political power, and the vestiges of segregation, two Ohio cities (Portsmouth and Cleveland) had appointed black police chiefs in 1962 and 1970, respectively, before Charleston, SC, and Houston in 1971 and 1974 respectively had promoted their first black sergeants.

Despite their limited roles in policing, it is important to remember that when women and black lawmen were first granted arrest authority it was years before they were granted the vote and, in the case of African-Americans, well before they were granted citizenship. What had originally, though, seemed like a great advance in their positions, came eventually to represent segregation that each group was forced to overcome to achieve legal equality in policing.

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