Integrating Baltimore's police force

Baltimore's first black police officer was a woman: Violet Hill Whyte, appointed in 1937.

The rioting in Baltimore this week over the unexplained death while in police custody of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, brought comparisons to recent events in Ferguson, Mo. But unlike Ferguson, where whites make up the majority of the police force and leadership despite an overwhelmingly black population, Baltimore's mayor, state's attorney and police commissioner are black, as is a large portion of the police force.

But it wasn't always that way. Baltimore had to battle systemic prejudice to integrate the force.

The story emerges in the files of the Institute of Public Administration, a nonprofit founded in the early 1900s to teach municipalities the methods of honest and effective government though budgeting, audits and investigative surveys. According to the records, in the archives of the Baruch College Library of the City University of New York, the Institute was hired in 1941 to survey the organization and crime-fighting effectiveness of the Baltimore Police Department. Leading the survey, under the group's eminent director, Luther H. Gulick, an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was Bruce Smith, regarded as the nation's top police expert.

In Baltimore, Smith stumbled into a racial minefield.

As a borderline Southern city, Baltimore had long resisted the efforts of African-Americans to join the police department. One commissioner in 1898 called it a "humiliation of Anglo Saxon blood" for "colored policemen" to arrest whites. According to the 1996 book "Black Police in America" by W. Marrin Dulaney, after much agitation, a first African-American candidate was allowed to apply in 1920 and passed the physical exam but was then excluded.

In 1931, Walter White, national executive secretary of the NAACP came to Baltimore to press the case for black police officers, joined by The Afro-American, Baltimore's crusading black newspaper founded by John Henry Murphy Sr., an ex-slave, in 1892 and then run by his son, Carl. Samuel J. Battle, the first black police officer of consolidated New York, appointed in 1911, visited Baltimore in 1933 to help recruit black applicants, but again none were accepted.

Yet the campaign produced surprising results in 1937 when the city's new police commissioner, William P. Lawson, appointed a black woman, Violet Hill Whyte, followed shortly afterward by four black men.

That was the situation when Bruce Smith arrived in Baltimore for his survey.

According to the IPA files, Carl Murphy of the Afro-American and Edward S. Lewis, secretary of The Urban League, asked James W. Hepbron, managing director of the Baltimore Criminal Justice Commission to invite Smith to what Hepbron called "an off-the-record informal talk."

Murphy and Lewis pressed Smith on whether his report would call for more black policemen. How Smith answered became a matter of sharp dispute.

According later to Hepbron, "Smith replied that that the survey was not concerned with race, creed, color or sect, except as they would be essential to the performance of a specialized job." But he said Smith added that the report "would probably contain recommendation for the appointment of Negro policewomen in connection with crime prevention work."

(In fact, the report did call for an increase of black policewomen "to be assigned to the handling of cases involving negro women and children.")

But Carl Murphy gave an entirely different account of the meeting in a letter of protest to Smith's bosses at the IPA: "At a small conference, Mr. Smith told us that he doesn't believe colored police ought to be appointed to the force in any American city because white people resent them. In addition he said that policemen ought to be as inconspicuous as possible. For that reason he doesn't approve of policemen who are giants in height, extra stout, or colored."

Walter White of the NAACP followed up with a similar protest.

Luther Gulick of IPA took Smith's side, telling White he misinterpreted Smith's remarks. "It is perfectly clear to me that there is a controversy now going forward in Baltimore with reference to the appointment of colored police," Gulick wrote. "This is a social and at times a political problem, and not an organizational, administrative, or financial problem. It is therefore outside the field of our technical concern."

He suggested Murphy was trying to draw Smith into the dispute "or at least to stir up some 'copy.'"

The furor eventually dissipated. The report came out, giving Baltimore generally good marks for its policing. But it gave little regard to the value of a diversified force. And it wasn't until 1984 that Baltimore appointed its first African-American police commissioner, Bishop Robinson.

Yet charges of racism, brutality and scandal continued to bedevil the department.

Ralph Blumenthal reported for The New York Times from 1964 to 2009. He can be reached at http://www.ralphblumenthal.com.

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