The Origin of Police Racism
Toward Blacks

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This article contains excerpts from the forthcoming book Revelations from an Unseen Pit: Black Voices of New York City Law Enforcement by the publisher of Kalamu Magazine, Charles L. Williams

Although the focus of the book is the New York City Police Department, the officers to whom I spoke stated that the problems in the NYPD exist in practically every department in the country.

A Brief Look at The Historical Roots of Police Racism Toward Blacks
 (and other non-Whites)
by Charles L. Williams

  • Introduction

In April 2000, New York City Police Commissioner Harold Safir stated that some policemen on the force were bigots. He also emphasized that these officers were in the minority. Safir was not the first person in his position to publicly admit that such cops existed: his predecessors of a few decades ago, Howard Leary and Michael Codd, said the same thing. These limited pronouncements, although rare by New York City police commissioners, are not unique in the country. I use the term "limited" because, irrespective of the city, practically all police officials state that any racial problems are the attitudes of a few individuals who are exceptions to the norm, that their actions and attitudes are not representative of a much larger, institutional problem.

"Institutional" simply means that behaviors and attitudes  have become part and parcel of the operation and existence of an institution or organization, and thus they are maintained and perpetuated. Functionally, it means that whatever behaviors or attitudes are institutionalized, those attitudes and behaviors permeate practically every action and policy of that institution. And although, when speaking of racism in their departments, "institutional" is a term that seems unpronounceable by police officials, it has been used frequently by Black and Latino people for decades.

For a police official to admit that there is a problem with institutional racism is to admit that  the police culture itself is contrary to the ideals upon which the United States professes to be built and to the protective mission that police departments proclaim to have. To admit this is to say the culture of the department is aberrant and also imply that there is something intrinsically wrong with the psychological baggage many White police candidates bring with them and the way they are trained. I maintain that the racist attitudes of many White police officers are reflective of the greater society, and one reason the attitudes are not adequately addressed is because the greater society has never admitted to being intrinsically and institutionally racist.

Heinous as it may seem, I also maintain that the origin, history, and perpetuation of racist attitudes among White police officers toward Blacks illustrate that it is not an aberration that innocent, unarmed Black people are gunned down and killed, but rather, business as usual.

  • An Overview of The 18th, and 19th Centuries - The Origins of Institutional Racism Among the Police

From the beginning of the country and by design, the police were not something Black people were supposed to trust. The police were supposed to be feared. Before the thirteen colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain the law enforcement authorities were encouraged, as a means of maintaining dominance and control, to be physically abusive to Blacks. Therefore, to many Blacks, the portrayals of the police as gallant upholders of the law and possessors of a sacred trust are fables from the land of Oz. The same goes for less lofty appraisals that tag policemen as the primary protectors of life and property.

Many of the laws the police have steadfastly upheld have been neither gallant nor sacred. The first status of Black people, in what was to eventually become United States law, was as properties the police had to watch, not protect. And as everyone knows, property has no rights. After slavery was eliminated, most Black people never came close to experiencing the full benefit of being legally free men. The term "free," as in free as White folk, was a hoax and a joke, for socially and legally the usual treatment Black folk received was not much different than the treatment they received during slavery.

In 1790 there were 757,181 Africans in the country and only 59,557 were not slaves. Most of the slaves were in the south and contrary to some of the so-called history being revived today, mostly by extreme right wing groups, slavery did not rescue Blacks from savagery and paganism, nor were the slaves content. Rebellions were an unwanted, though inseparable part of the slaveholders’ landscape.

Running away was common and the slaves’ most harmless form of rebellion. Crop burnings, the killing of livestock, destroying property through arson, poisoning slaveholders, and developing alliances with Native Americans and then attacking the slaveholders, were also commonplace. Most Whites saw the slaves’ actions as further proof that they were uncivilized savages just a hair above wild beasts. Yet to the slaves it was irrelevant how many people they killed or how much property they destroyed. To themselves their actions were logical and normal, for who wishes to be a slave, especially a chattel slave?

The slaveholders were predictably unsympathetic to the slaves’ viewpoint since besides racism, the minds of most Whites were submerged and trapped in law and legalities, which inherently have nothing to do with justice or humane morals. There was also a widespread acceptance of many neo-biblical and psuedo-scientific reasons why slavery was natural and necessary. Interestingly and almost humorously, the mentality of the south and much of the north was in such denial of the slaves’ humanity that slaves rebelling against slavery was interpreted as indicating something was wrong with the slaves since they were receiving food, clothing, and shelter. Pro-slavery scientists attributed the slaves’ behavior to dysaethesia aethiopica which loosely means having a propensity to destroy farm equipment and act unruly. But definitions and labels, no matter how ridiculous, do not stop a behavior. Change would come only with quick action.

Slaves that were immediately caught or suspected of illegal activity, were hung, castrated, or mutilated. And the south, with a nod from their northern sympathizers, established patrols or "patterollers" as they were also called. Their function was to seek out slaves who ran away or committed either of the above "crimes." The patterollers worked with the local militias to carry out their duties and they also traveled to the northern colonies, which later became the northern states, to bring the Black fugitives back to the south for "justice." Yet these measures were not broad enough to make the slaveholders feel secure.

In order to guarantee that crimes committed by slaves would be dealt with harshly and as quickly as possible—thus hoping to spread fear—colonial governments authorized all White men to detain, whip, and even kill slaves guilty or even suspected of breaking the law. These decrees helped form the basis of two facts that exist to this day: the feelings of superiority and omnipotence many White policemen have toward Blacks and other non-Whites, and the legitimizing and institutionalizing of a belief in White supremacy among the general population.

Before the Civil War, in order to track down escaped slaves, a diabolical race card was commonly played in the south, especially in New Orleans. Lighter skinned Blacks, or mulattos as they were called, were entrusted to track down darker skinned Blacks who were not free. The mulattos, however, were not allowed to exercise any police powers over Whites.

The mulattos who participated in the scheme did so out of pure self interest. They were considered Black, yet because they were of mixed blood and lighter in complexion than other Blacks, the mulattos were at the top of a third class totem pole. This enabled them to have access to land, mobility, and other privileges that were unavailable to their darker skinned brothers. And there was no better way to improve their social position and convince Whites that they were "Negroes who could be trusted" than by doing the bidding of whomever was in power.

Meanwhile in the north, city patrols, many of which aided the southern slave patrols, were established to cope with crime in general and they evolved into the police as we know them today. And although these new police departments had a unique history that led to them institutionalizing racism, the individual cops, like their modern counterparts, were following the norms of the greater society.

In 1867, after the Civil War, there was brief relief for Blacks in the south when the period known as Reconstruction came into being. Former slaves were now able to vote, own land, hold public office, and become policemen. Most Whites were incensed that their former slaves were not only looking at them eyeball to eyeball, but also had equal rights in every sense of the law. The Black policemen’s authorization to arrest and incarcerate anyone, including Whites, further angered the White population and led to many violent attacks upon the officers and other Blacks.

New Orleans, for example, took a bold, unprecedented step and established an integrated police force, but the Black members were not well received. In 1874 they were attacked by the White League, a terrorist group of Whites dedicated to White supremacy. Ethelbert Barksdale, a Mississippi Whig politician, summed up the feelings of many when he said, "Law enforcement means domination, and the White man is not used to being dominated by Negroes."

When Reconstruction ended (starting in 1877) segregation was instituted. Any position of power a Black person had was limited to the household. Hence, Blacks as policemen became a bitter memory to Whites and another lost opportunity for Blacks. This exclusion of Blacks from police departments in the south lasted until the mid twentieth century.

Besides being excluded southern from police departments, Black civilians were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, and it was common for local and state law enforcement officials to be Klan members. These "preservers of law and order" presided over or ignored many rapes of Black women by White men, and the beating, lynching and other kinds of murders of Black men from the late 1800s until the 1960s.

In the north, although slavery ended many years before it did in the south, Black people were never perceived as the true equal of Whites. A few Blacks did achieve some degree of prominence and influence and were considered "different Negroes," but overall they were still thought of as inferior beings lucky to be considered second or third class citizens. A few northern cities had Black policemen in the middle and late 1800s, but overall the doors did not begin to crack open until the early part of the 20th century.

Also in the north, the shooting of unarmed Black civilians in non-criminal or contrived to be criminal circumstances continued through every decade of the 20th century, and there are volumes of documentation to support this fact. The systemic brutal, racist, often murderous treatment of other non-White racial or ethnic groups by law enforcement authorities from the beginnings of the thirteen colonies until today has also been well documented. 

  • The 20th Century - A Brief Overview of the New York City Police Department in the 1970s

The civil rights movement of the 1950s through the 1960s brought about a greater militancy among the country's Black population, and although there had been numerous protests through the decades, this time the anger was visible and frothing. Also, for the first time, there were White organizations and individuals willing to publicly take a position against the many questionable killings of Black citizens by White police officers.

In the early 1970s, there were three infamous incidents of  unarmed Black youths killed by White officers. The ages of the victims were 22, 14, and 10. There was great anger and unrest in the Black community and also among Black police officers. Sergeant James Frazier, a member of the Guardians Association of New York—a Black fraternal organization of Black police officers—made Jimmy Hargrove, the then president of the organization, aware of the following training film that was made by another city's police department and used by the NYPD.

1. A sector car is on patrol and they are approached by a F/B/35 (female, Black, age 35) who tells them a group of youths are fighting. The car responds to the scene. We see four Black youths, approximately 10 to 13 years, fighting each other. As the police sergeant approaches we see a Black youth, 11 years old holding a revolver in the two hand support grip. The youth fires several shots killing the Sgt. The five youths then flee the scene.

The instructor tells us that this scene was an ambush and that 11 year old children can kill and that we should be aware of that. The next scene shows us the child dead. Did a Black child ever ambush and kill a policeman in New York City or any where else in the United States? Could these films have anything to do with the killing of three Black children in the past year?

2. A Black youth, approximately 20 years of age, is standing over a car with the hood open. A policeman approaches. The youth turns with a wrench in his hand and drops it to the ground. The officer asks for his I .D. The youth takes out his wallet and offers it to the officer. The youth reaches into his hair and pulls out a metal pick and attacks the officer. The instructor tells us that picks can be dangerous weapons. How many times have picks been used to assault civilians and police officers? My 20 year old son, who is a sophomore at Colgate University carries a metal pick, not as a weapon, as a comb. I would not want him shot for combing his hair.

3. The instructor tells us that a F/B, green suit, white boots has committed a murder. The film shows a F/B in a green suit and white boots walking toward the camera. When she is about six feet from the camera, we see her reach into her handbag. Because of the length of time and her mannerisms, she appears to me, to be assembling and taking out a submachine gun from her bag. The film shows her take out a compact and look into the mirror. The officer in the class with the blank pistol, withholds his fire. The instructor is surprised that he did not fire because several officers in previous classes had fired. I feel the New York City Police Department should make its own training films portraying situations that have, or may, occur in New York City. It is my opinion that the police department that made these films did so with the primary purpose being to condition police officers to shoot Blacks (italics mine). I think a reevaluation of these films should be made by the Training Div.

To this civilians' eye (mine), the training film not only distorts reality, but it is devoid of common sense premises and conclusions. Everyone knows that an 11 year old child can kill, but so can a five or six year old given the proper circumstances. Also, an eleven year old Black child has never (at least up until that time) ambushed a White policemen in the United States. Such scenarios are reminiscent of the stories told by Vietnam War veterans, not life in the United States. And even if there was an isolated case of an Black eleven year old shooting a White policeman, is it the norm? There are many documented cases of White women shooting White policemen. Are White women put into such training scenarios? The second scenario borders so much on the ludicrous as to be asinine. And again, if everything that could be used as a weapon were confronted with deadly force, then people had better not show a finger nail clipper, nail file, ball point pen, or a pencil in public. In the third scenario, the officer not firing and thus being viewed strangely by the instructor further indicates that the racial norms of the NYPD are no better than the 18th and 19th century slave patrollers. Despite these obvious misrepresentations of reality, despite protests by the Guardians, the film was in use for many months afterwards. Therefore, Sergeant James Frazier was correct when he stated, "It is my opinion that the police department that made these films did so with the primary purpose being to condition police officers to shoot Blacks." It is also logical and accurate to conclude that the same holds for the departments that use the film.

Evidence was compiled to illustrate that Blacks and other non-Whites, under equal circumstances, were much more likely to be killed than Whites.

Betty Jenkins and Adrienne Faison of the Metropolitan Applied Research Center published in May, 1974 a thirteen page report titled An Analysis of 248 persons Killed by New York City Policemen 1970-1973. The report noted that "For the period 1970-1973 2½ times as many blacks as Hispanic surnamed "perpetrator" victims were killed, and 5 times as many Blacks as Whites were killed." The report later summarized that

seventy-three (73 percent of these victims were black (52 percent) or Puerto Rican (21 percent); and 10 percent were known to be white. While white policemen have killed a total of 96 blacks and Hispanics during this period; black policemen and Hispanic policemen have each killed one alleged "perpetrator" during this four year period. And during the four year period from 1970 through 1973, 27 of the blacks, 12 of the Hispanics, and 8 of the whites killed by police were under the age of 21.

The report did not identify the details surrounding each death such as time of day, whether or not the perpetrator was armed, etc. Yet if one assumes that all the perpetrators were armed, the report clearly indicates that given equal circumstances Black and Hispanic persons are much more likely to be shot and killed than White ones.

A short time later police Commissioner Michael Codd responded with the following memo that was inserted into the paychecks of all New York City police officers.

Internal Race Relations: A Policy Statement May 23, 1974

I would like to speak out plainly on a matter of great importance to all of us: the existence of racial antagonism between some members of our department.

I will not pretend it doesn’t exist. Life within the Police Department reflects the larger society outside and therefore it is inevitable that some of our officers will harbor racist sentiments. Thus, following the example set by the rest of society, some police officers in our department have become polarized and have allowed considerations of race to affect their relations with one another. This condition cannot be tolerated in police work because police officers by the very nature of their special responsibilities are obligated to reduce conflict, not contribute to it.

We cannot dictate how a person must feel about another person or group. Despite all reasonable efforts we may not be able to change negative attitudes. But we do have the right to expect right actions, regardless of private thoughts and feelings. Therefore, our policy must be to insist on proper behavior on the part of officers, not only toward the public but also toward fellow officers.

I intend to vigorously pursue this policy. Racial confrontations will be fully investigated and those assigned to such investigations will be held accountable for their accuracy and integrity. Hard decisions will be made, as necessary, based on an objective reading of the facts. Officers who cannot rise above prejudice may be jeopardizing their careers.

Bigotry of any kind has no place in the New York City Police Department. I do not wish to leave the impression that it is widespread or deeply rooted. I believe it involves only a relatively few people. But no matter how small, the problem must be solved. Therefore, this administration will work unceasingly and give full support to all efforts that lead to the achievement of racial harmony within our ranks.

The New York Times called Commissioner Codd’s memo "the strongest policy statement yet issued by the police department on internal race relations." Yet, the memo had no lasting effect on behavior. During the same time, however, a remedy to the problem of racism among White police officers was offered.

The following text is a portion of a letter written by Dr. Kenneth Clark of the Metropolitan Applied Research Center to the then mayor of New York City, Abraham Beame, and police Commissioner Codd.

You, Mr. Mayor, and Police Commissioner Codd, must make it clear to the public and all members of the Police Department that any future irresponsible use of firearms on the part of a police officer will be dealt with immediately and severely. It must be understood by every police officer that this type of killing of citizens will not be tolerated and will be dealt with by immediate suspension—not administrative transfer—and quick departmental trail. The recent departmental trial and expulsion of Patrolman Shea is a step in the right direction, but is not enough.

The training of recruits in the Police Academy must now be modified to reflect the need to deal with this serious problem. Specific courses and programs geared to an understanding of racial and cultural differences and a respect for individuals of different backgrounds must be planned and instituted in the present curriculum of the Police Academy. Rigorous practical examinations in this important area of human relations must be a prerequisite to graduation and certification of a police officer. Those presently in the Department must be required to take similar in-service courses. Higher police officials who are assigned to advanced courses at such institutions as John Jay College must also be required to take and demonstrate their understanding of such courses.

I also recommend strongly that the Department move immediately towards setting up a psychological and psychiatric monitoring commission within the Police Department which will be charged with the responsibility of participating in the screening and selection of every individual graduating from the Police Academy in order to exclude those individuals who give clear and persistent signs of personal instability and sadism. This commission or similar commissions should also be attached to each precinct and should also be charged with the responsibility of periodic examinations and review of officers already on the force who give any signs of irresponsibility, sadism or personal instability which would be likely to lead to the irresponsible killings of human beings. Such a commission of professionals must be independent of the present command hierarchy within the Police Department. They must be of the highest personal and professional integrity essential for functioning with respect for the due process rights of individual officers and an overriding concern for the interest of the general public and social stability.

These are merely some of the plans which must be developed if we are to reverse this intolerable epidemic of police killings. Black and Puerto Rican children are not expendable. The New York City police must be taught to pay them the respect as human beings which whites ordinarily receive. I must stress again that incidents such as the killing of 14 year old Claude Reese, Jr. contribute to that level of frustration and rage in the minority community which increase the chance of collective destructiveness; increase the possibility of mindless, even though self destructive, crimes and retaliations against the police; and result in a general and widespread lowering of respect for the police and other law enforcement agencies in our society.

It is your responsibility to see that this problem is remedied as quickly as possible. Some members of the MARC staff and I are willing to meet and discuss these and other realistic methods of dealing with this grave problem at your earliest convenience.


Kenneth B. Clark

Eventually, the NYPD did include cultural awareness and diversity training into its training curriculum, but a Black, three year veteran officer recently told me, "It's not enough, it just scratches the surface."

  • Conclusion

The NYPD has never instituted psychological testing of its officers geared toward determining racial and ethnic tolerance and sensitivity, and it does not appear that it will do so at any time in the near future. Thus, there is no meaningful attempt to weed out those candidates whose attitudes are prone to create the next victim. There is also no way to effectively deal with those on the force who help create and maintain the current negative climate.

So, although the  above events and the responses to them took place in the 1970s, recent events and headlines across the country and New York City in particular indicate little has changed. Therefore, the unchanging police culture combined with the blind defense of any police action by those in positions of power indicate the  prognosis for all of us, especially Black and other non-White folk, is grim.

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