Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In 1971, the Boston Police Department created an exclusively African-American unit to police the city’s black neighborhoods. Would this work today?
The myriad calls for policing reform in cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Ferguson have included initiatives seeking more racial diversity across the forces. All three of these cities have police departments that are much whiter than the populations they serve. But would relations with communities of color really improve if there was more racial symmetry between police departments and the cities they work in?
Boston Police commissioner Edmund McNamara put this question to the test back in 1971, by creating an all-African-American unit within the city’s predominantly white force—one of the oldest police departments in the nation. Reporter Allison Manning wrote about the history of this “short-lived, very successful tactical police unit” for Boston.com.
Despite Boston police having a black cop on the force long before that was common in any city—Horatio J. Homer, appointed in 1878, years before Samuel J. Battle and Wiley G. Overton became the first black officers in New York City—race relations within the department had not smoothed by the 1970s.
“Either they didn’t like you, or you weren’t the right color,” said Preston Williams, one of the officers appointed to what was dubbed the “Soul Patrol,” to Boston.com.
It was an experiment with affirmative segregation, three years before Boston would become posterized as one of the most virulently anti-desegregation cities in the nation—even when compared with cities in the former Confederacy. The African-American unit was inherently separate and unequal: The 34 members among its ranks constituted just half of the total number of black cops among the 2,700-plus strong Boston police. Its creation was urged by local NAACP leaders who, much like calls heard today in Baltimore and Cleveland, were concerned about crime in their neighborhoods but had low confidence in how white police had been handling it.
Some white Boston police opposed the unit under principles of race neutrality. “Black or white, we’re all police officers first,” Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association chairman Daniel J. Sweeney told the Globe back then. (Irish members of the department would create the Emerald Society two years later, which included more than half of the police force.)
But other white Boston police leaders considered the all-black unit an instant success for racking up record arrests in the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods they were assigned to. The black officers claimed that it was their easy relationship with black community members that fostered those high arrest rates, “operating like an early version of community policing,” writes Manning.
Today, the Obama administration and the U.S. Justice Department have been calling for more community-policing initiatives in cities across America, especially those where communities of color have expressed outrage with police practices.
But does having more police of color on force lead to better community relations? Not necessarily. New Orleans has one of the most racially balanced police forces in the nation. Yet it was still discredited by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 for discriminating against black residents.
It seems lately that solutions to police problems have been less about racial integration and more about the integration of police in general back into the communities they are oath-sworn to protect and serve.