In 1898, African-Americans in Baltimore demanded that the city’s all-white police force hire black officers. The police commissioner issued a curt reply: No. Employing “colored policemen” would result in the “humiliation of Anglo-Saxon blood,” he warned, especially if a black officer were to arrest a white citizen.
I’ve been thinking about this episode during the recent crisis in Baltimore, where six police officers have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Three of them are black, leading some observers to contend that the killing of Gray — who was also African-American — was “not about race.”
But when it comes to urban policing, everything is about race. And nobody understands that better than African-American police officers, who have faced brutal discrimination across our past. As we seek justice for Freddie Gray, then, we also need to insure just treatment of the accused black officers.
Resistance during Reconstruction
Before the Civil War, whites-only police forces helped maintain slavery by arresting African-American runaways. A few Southern cities started to hire black police during the Reconstruction era, prompting white outrage and resistance across the former Confederacy.
In New Orleans, critics worried that an “Africanized” police force would not defend laws that segregated blacks on streetcars. And in Vicksburg, Mississippi, seven recently hired black officers were forced to resign after whites protested. “Law enforcement means domination,” one politician explained, “and the white man is not used to being dominated by negroes.”
In the cities that retained black police officers, they were only allowed to patrol in African-American communities. But even this limited black police presence was too much for the white South, which removed the handful of African-American officers after Reconstruction came to a close.
In the urban North, where party patronage machines were at the height of their rule, some political bosses hired black police in order to lock in the African-American vote. But that drew the ire of white policemen in places like Detroit, where the entire force threatened to go on strike if blacks were employed.
So Detroit established a numerical ceiling for African-American police officers, who could never exceed 3 percent of the force. Other cities kept blacks out of policing via specious medical examinations, which could only be challenged by an outside doctor — if the candidate could afford one.
Civil rights struggles after WWII
African-Americans stepped up their efforts to desegregate police forces after World War Two. Protesting in front of Atlanta’s city hall in 1946, 300 black veterans noted that they had served their country in the fight against Nazi Germany — but they could not serve their city as police officers.
Southern cities relented during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s, hiring small numbers of black officers. But black police were still relegated to African-American communities and prohibited from arresting whites, or even from issuing speeding tickets to white motorists. Some cities also barred black police from wearing their uniforms when they traveled to and from work or when they appeared in court, lest white citizens take offense.
These invidious rules fell away in the 1970s and 1980s, when urban police forces began actively recruiting minorities. But blacks remain underrepresented among police, especially in smaller cities. In Ferguson, Missouri, the majority-black city where the police shooting of Mike Brown sparked riots last year, only 5.6 percent of police were African-American.
And even in cities that made more progress in hiring black police, African-American officers continued to suffer discrimination. Spurred by a lawsuit the early 1980s, which required the city to hire more minority and female officers, the percentage of blacks on the Baltimore force rose from 19 percent in 1984 to 44 percent in 2007. But another lawsuit alleged that black police were disciplined more harshly than their white peers. The city settled the case in 2009, agreeing to pay $2.5 million to over a dozen African-American officers.
Given this history, it’s fair to ask what role race has played in the prosecution of the Freddie Gray case. Of the six defendants, only one — the African-American driver of the van that carried Gray — has been charged with murder; the other officers face less serious charges, including manslaughter and assault.
That might be because the van took Gray for a “rough ride,” which inflicted mortal injuries on him. But it might also be because its driver was black.
Let’s be clear: Nothing justifies the police killing of Freddie Gray, which should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But the law has been tilted against black police officers, for as long as we have employed them. We can’t erase that ugly history. But if we rush to judgment, we could end up repeating it.