Minority Men in Policing (page 2)
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.
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.