Progress changes focus for black police group

March 23, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

The Douglass High School jazz band cranked out a smooth melody as throngs of well-wishers crowded the Roy Wilkins Auditorium at the NAACP's Mount Hope Drive headquarters. Near the front, dressed in a conservative gray suit, stood the man of the hour Maj. Wendell France.

The 26-year veteran of the Baltimore City Police Department shook hands, chatted amicably and accepted congratulations as the newly elected chairman of the National Black Police Association. A graduate of Lemmel Junior High School and Forest Park Senior High School, Major France is the latest in a growing list of West Baltimore boys Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Del. Elijah E. Cummings, NAACP head Kweisi Mfume who grew up in the '50s and '60s and rose to prominent positions. The major now leads an organization with 130 chapters and some 35,000 members.

Major France the commander of the department's crimes against persons division is a modest, soft-spoken man. But don't let that fool you. The roster of people who came to wish him well is a testament to his leadership ability. Among them were Mayor Schmoke, former police chiefs Bishop L. Robinson and Edward V. Woods, former and current city state's attorneys Stuart O. Simms and Patricia C. Jessamy and Circuit Judge Kenneth L. Johnson.

"We've got a lot of challenges ahead of us," Major France said of the NBPA. "We have to redefine what our mission is as an organization. The traditional advocacy organization may have outlived its usefulness. We find that as we've matured as an organization, we may not be as liberal as we once were."

What's that he said? A black organization? Not as liberal as it once was? How could a man utter such seeming heresy when the current African-American Zeitgeist insists that to be black and to be liberal are synonymous? Major France said it was such new ideas that prompted the NBPA board to elect him back in February at a meeting in Reno, Nev. Specifically, Major France said NBPA may have to re-evaluate affirmative action.

"Clearly, affirmative action has been a big reason why police departments throughout the country have hired blacks and women," the major declared. But now that blacks and women are now not only on police forces but in high-ranking positions, affirmative action may not have the priority it once had.

Major France grew up in Edmondson Village, where four or five black police officers lived, including one next door to him. They were role models, he said, so he had no qualms about enrolling in a police cadet program when he graduated from high school. A couple of white police officers also urged him to join the force.

"One of them now works for me, ironically enough," Major France noted. But it was on the Police Department that he got his first course in American Race Relations 101.

"There was just a lot of racism involved that I had never experienced," Major France said of the department in 1970.

Black officers then had to worry about climbing the promotion ladder or getting assigned to special units. Black officers were more unified then, Major France remembers. In his early days, three police districts shared one radio channel. Black officers in one district kept their ears glued to their radios so they would know when another from a neighboring district went out on a call. They made sure the officer had backup, because they all knew each other by name.

When Major France joined the force there some 300 black officers. Today there are over 1,000. But with the increase in numbers has come a decrease in the unity and camaraderie.

"A lot of the young black officers today spend a lot of time trying to assimilate and be what they're not. They don't know that connectedness. They don't really know each other," Major France lamented. NBPA must now speak out against those "African-American officers who are as abusive in our communities as white officers used to be," the major declared, adding that the conduct of some black officers makes them little better than an occupation force.

Part of the NBPA's redefinition of its mission will be asking how such newer black officers lost sight of the struggle, "because the struggle continues," Major France emphasized. NBPA may also have to undergo a name change. With chapters in London, Ontario, Toronto, Bermuda and Jamaica, the organization may soon be the International Black Police Association.

Black police in London, for example, have the same problem with promotions and assignment to special units that vexed the NBPA in its formative years.

"We always thought [the problem] was restricted to us poor old blacks in the United States," Major France observed. "But it's a problem throughout the world."

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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