Police pioneers break barriers for blacks

February 14, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

When 18-year-old Herman Charity joined the Howard County Police Department on July 8, 1968, he fulfilled a childhood dream and a desire to serve the community.

What he didn't expect was to become a pioneer.

He didn't know he was becoming the first black person to join the department as a community service officer that day. In time, the Jessup native also would become the department's first black corporal, first black sergeant, first black detective, first black vice and narcotics officer, first black internal affairs officer, and in 1971, the first black named "Officer of the Year."

At first, some officers made racist comments and jokes, and others said blacks weren't welcome, he recalled. Some thought blacks shouldn't ride in a police car. Sometimes people in the community called him names.

"I considered leaving early on," said the Morgan State University graduate, who majored in psychology. But one of two white officers who acted as big brothers persuaded him to stay. "He told me not to leave or I would make it harder on other blacks.

"I weathered the storm," he said.

Nearly 25 years later, Sergeant Charity, 43, a patrol squad supervisor on the 263-member police force, is among 34 blacks in the department, and is one of four in high-ranking posts.

Gaining respect wasn't easy. He was the only black for three years.

"The biggest problem was proving that blacks could do the job," he said.

Being the first, he inspired others. "When blacks in the community saw a black in the Police Department, they decided to apply," Sergeant Charity said.

In the mid-1970s, when there was about a handful of black officers, someone distributed Ku Klux Klan literature in the briefing room. Upset, Sergeant Charity filed a complaint with his supervisor.

That kind of racism, and discrimination in hiring and promotions, prompted him and six other blacks to form the Howard County Association of Minority Officers in 1978 to address their concerns. He served three times as the group's president.

Pressure to change the department's status quo also came from the outside when the Rev. John Wright, president of the local NAACP, wrote a letter in 1984 charging then-Chief Paul H. Rappaport with racism and discrimination. He cited the low numbers of minority officers as proof.

"The outlook was very dim for the advancement of blacks" back then, Mr. Wright said recently.

His public attacks prompted the county's Human Rights Commission to conduct a study on the department's personnel practices.

Despite an affirmative action program the department established in 1974, the study found evidence of bias against minorities.

After the complaints by Mr. Wright and the Human Rights Commission, change began to occur, and the department began aggressively recruiting minorities.

The department's first black captain, Capt. Richard E. Hall, was promoted to lieutenant in 1987, almost a year after critics complained that former Chief Rappaport did not recruit and promote minorities.

Today, Chief James N. Robey says promotions are based on merit, not race or sex. He said he believes more minorities will become supervisors, and he wants more women and minorities to apply to the department.

"I want a police department that reflects the community it serves," he said. Blacks make up almost 12 percent of Howard County's population and about 12 percent of the police force.

The total minority population in Howard County is about 19 percent.

William Herndon, the county's affirmative action administrator, said that among 872 remaining applicants for the next academy class in March or April, 25 percent are minorities. A record 1,400 persons applied.

Sergeant Charity and other black officers want more minorities in supervisory positions and in special divisions. Only five blacks work in special divisions.

The highest-ranking black officer is Captain Hall, who is commander of the patrol division. He was promoted to captain in May 1991 after becoming the department's first black lieutenant. Sergeant Charity helped recruit his childhood friend in 1973.

"We're changing, slowly changing," said Captain Hall, 43, who headed the 1986 child abuse investigation of Sandra Craig. "Racism is still present. It's in a more covert form.

"In the community, officers still are faced with being called a 'nigger,' " Captain Hall said. "A black and [a] white officer can still go on a call, and people will automatically gravitate to the white officer."

For decades inside the department, officers were promoted through the all-white "buddy system," which left bitterness, Captain Hall said.

"Each time you got promoted, you always heard, 'He got promoted because he was black.' And you always feel you have to put forth that extra effort to be accepted," he said.

Today, "there's much more emphasis on our performance," Captain Hall said. "We feel like we've come a long way.

"Any color melts away and they look at my performance. They see me as a captain, not as a black captain."

But Sergeant Charity offered: "I don't think officers ever lose sight of your color, but you gain their respect."

Chief Robey, who appointed Captain Hall, said both men "reflect the best" in the department.

Officers Ricky Johnson and Kevin A. Burnett, who head the 28-member minority police association, said they want to see more minorities on the force because they are likely to be sensitive to the minority community.

"We have a long way to go as far as I'm concerned," said Officer Burnett, a former minority-recruiter for the department. He said that when the county slashed the department's budget two years ago, recruiters were transferred to the streets.

On the streets, Officer Johnson said, is where blacks jokingly tell the uncommonly seen black officer: "Brother, I'm glad to see you."

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