5 cops to celebrate during Black History Month
These five law enforcement officers paved the way and continue to inspire
By PoliceOne Staff
The defining characteristic of a police officer is dedication. No matter what obstacles stand in their way, cops rise to the challenge for the privilege and honor of wearing the blue. In recognition of Black History Month, we’ve gathered five inspirational examples of African American LEOs who paved the way during a difficult era for law enforcement and black Americans. These stories of unwavering dedication to policing serve as strong examples all LEOs can aspire to.
1. Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves joined the ranks of law enforcement in pre-statehood Oklahoma, after he became a free man following the Emancipation Proclamation. He was hired as one of 200 deputy U.S. marshals to track down fugitives hiding in Indian Territory, becoming the first deputy U.S. marshal appointed west of the Mississippi river.
The 6’2”, 180-pound lawman quickly made a name for himself as an expert in firearms and detective work who could track down outlaws that seemed to consistently elude his fellow marshals. The most feared cop to patrol the territory, “The Indomitable Marshal” survived multiple gunfights and assassination attempts. As a former slave, Reeves was illiterate, but that did not get in the way of his outstanding work as a law enforcement officer. Reeves would memorize his warrants and writs, and reportedly never arrested the wrong person in his 32 years as a deputy U.S. marshal. Some say the character of the Lone Ranger was inspired by Reeves’ life.
2. Georgia Ann Robinson
Georgia Ann Robinson was the first black female police officer to work for the Los Angeles Police Department, and may have been the first black female LEO in the country. A recruiter reached out to her in 1916 based on her work for community organizations throughout the city and her obvious passion to help her fellow citizens. Robinson started out as a volunteer before becoming a full-fledged officer when she was hired as a jail matron in 1919. She also worked as an investigator in juvenile and homicide cases, and set up a much-needed women’s shelter in the city during her time as a cop.
When her career was cut short after she was blinded by a jail inmate, Robison continued to work with the community through the women’s shelter and by teaming up with the NAACP in the fight to desegregate the LA school system. In 1954, when a journalist asked her about her LE career and the incident that ultimately blinded her, she said she had “no regrets.”
“I didn’t need my eyes any longer. I had seen all there was to see,” Robinson said.
3. James Wormley Jones
Buffalo Soldier James Wormley Jones fought valiantly in World War I, then made history upon returning home as the first African American special agent for the Bureau of Investigation (what is now known as the FBI).
The agency was drawn to Jones because of his expertise in explosives – which he gained during his time in the Army – and his experience as a cop in D.C. prior to the war. Jones worked undercover for the anti-terrorism General Intelligence Division, which was formed after a series of terrorist bombings and led by future FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
4. Lloyd Sealy
Lloyd Sealy was an officer who earned many firsts during his 27 years with the New York Police Department. As the department faced riots and accusations of excessive force against African Americans during the ‘60s, he became the first black officer to command a Harlem precinct. He would later be the first black assistant chief inspector and the commander of 11 Brooklyn precincts. He was considered a calming presence in the community during volatile times – his steady leadership acting as a bridge between civilians and the predominately white officers who made up the NYPD at the time.
In his later years, he taught at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was also one of the founding members of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
''To black officers in particular he was an inspiring model of what a top- notch policeman can be,'' Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward said at the time of Sealy’s death in 1985. ''He was tremendously valuable to this department.''
5. Willie L. Williams
Willie L. Williams was the first African American LEO to become top cop for both the Philadelphia and Los Angeles police departments. In Philly, where he was commissioner for four years starting in 1988, he’s credited with implementing the then-novel idea of taking a community policing approach to law enforcement, boosting diversity within the ranks, and decentralizing the agency by establishing small police stations throughout the city.
He then brought his skills to the LAPD, where he was chief during most of the ‘90s – a time fraught with racial tension between the public and LEOs in the City of Angels. Williams came into the department on the heels of the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing five-day riot that left over 50 people dead and more than 2,000 injured; he’s largely credited with what was the daunting task of calming police-community relations.
"There were young officers who realized that as a result of his achievements, it was possible for us to do [something] similar," Police Commissioner Richard Ross said at the time of Williams’ death in 2016.
Former Philly Mayor Ed Rendell said Williams bridged a gap “that was omnipresent for years and years, [with] minority communities thinking the police were not their friends."
These history-makers overcame challenges – no matter how daunting – to proudly protect their community. Who are the trailblazers in law enforcement that inspire you? Share your picks with us in the comments section.