February 13, 2021

On the Difficult Issue of Race, Three Police Leaders Reflect on their Early Experiences, Navigating Their Careers, and Lessons for Others


Dear PERF members, 

As our nation celebrates Black History Month 2021, we continue to grapple with issues of race and equity. This is true in society as a whole and within policing as well.

Thinking about these issues made me wonder what it must have been like to be in a police department four or five decades ago, and how that period compares to today. What was it like to be one of only a handful of Black officers (or supervisors) in a department? How were you treated? What were the opportunities for advancement? And what impact did all of this have on your psyche and your career? 

To get some perspective on these questions, I went to my playbook and called three longtime friends – police leaders I have known for years, who are well-known to many of you. We connected via Zoom last Wednesday night.

During our conversation, these friends shared some troubling stories of the racism and discrimination they faced early in their careers. They also discussed how they managed to overcome the obstacles that got in their way and stay focused on being good cops and becoming great leaders. Their careers provide valuable lessons for today’s new and aspiring police leaders.

Terry Hillard, Chicago Police Superintendent from 1998 to 2003, always wanted to be a police officer. But when he returned to Chicago in 1968 after a tour with the Marines in Viet Nam, the Police Department wasn’t offering an entry-level exam. So he took a job as a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver.  But Terry quit one day, after everyone on his bus, including himself, was robbed by an armed stick-up crew. That experience only cemented his desire to be a cop.

By that time, the Chicago PD was testing for recruits. Terry took the test, scored high, and was hired. Of the 150 officers in his Academy class, only 8 were Black.

Chuck Ramsey also grew up in the Chicago Police Department, reaching the rank of Deputy Superintendent before becoming Police Chief of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department in 1998 and Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department in 2008. Unlike his good friend, Terry Hillard, Ramsey didn’t grow up wanting to be a cop; he wanted to be a doctor.

But when he was a teenager working part-time in a grocery store, Chuck developed friendships with two Chicago police officers who often came into the store, and they encouraged him to apply to become a Police Cadet. Like Terry Hillard’s Academy class a few years earlier, Ramsey’s was overwhelmingly white: just 12 Black recruits out of a class of 200.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., R.C. White said he wanted to be a police officer from the age of 5. That’s when he and his mother went downtown and witnessed a police officer talking to a young girl. When R.C. asked why the girl was talking to the officer, his mother replied that perhaps the girl was lost and the officer was trying to help her. That sold R.C. on policing – the opportunity to help others.

R.C. started as a Cadet in the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a sergeant at the age of 25. He left the MPD as an Assistant Chief in 1998 to become chief of police, first in Greensboro, NC, and then in Louisville and Denver.

What’s remarkable about all three men is how, early in their careers, they faced ugly, bald-faced racism. “There was a time where it wasn’t implicit bias – it was overt,” Chuck Ramsey said. “It was there, and you knew it was there.”

Or as Terry Hillard put it, “Back in the day, you knew if someone was a racist, because they told you so!”

Ramsey recalled an incident early in his patrol days when he was paired with a white officer he didn’t know. At the time, Chicago was just introducing “salt and pepper” cars, as they were called, which paired Black and white officers. As they were leaving the station, Ramsey asked his partner whether he wanted to drive or handle the radio. His question was met with stone silence. So Ramsey grabbed the keys and got behind the wheel.

“We're leaving the station, and I look over at him and see that he’s just staring out the window. I say, ‘Hey man, listen, we’re gonna be together for eight hours, so you want to stop and get some coffee or something?’ This guy turned around, looked at me and said – and I quote – ‘I don’t work with [the n-word].’”

Ramsey made a quick U-turn and headed back to the station.  

“What are you doing?” his partner asked.  Chuck replied, “Man, I'm not working with you. If we get in the middle of some stuff, I need to know I’ve got some backup. Obviously, I can't rely on you.” After explaining to their sergeant that they had a “personality conflict,” the two officers were each assigned one-person cars that day.

R.C. White told the story of how, after becoming a sergeant, he was assigned to the Fifth District in Northeast D.C. There, he quickly befriended another new sergeant assigned to his sector named Mike Fitzgerald, a burly Irish guy who would go on to become the MPD’s Executive Assistant Chief under Chuck Ramsey.

R.C. described what happened next:  “One day in 1977, while Mike and I were working together, the Black captain called me into the station, and a white Captain called in Mike. The Black captain told me the same thing the White captain told Mike:  ‘You should watch yourselves, because you have a friendship that is not really valued by a lot of people.’”

Of course, R.C. and Mike Fitzgerald ignored that advice. In fact, they studied together for promotional exams and rose through the ranks of the MPD. “He’s still one of my best friends today,” R.C. said.

Terry Hillard recalled an ugly incident in 1974 when he was driving home from work. At the time, he was working “Task Force,” one of the few largely integrated plainclothes units that focused on drugs and gangs. “I had an Afro and a big beard at the time,” he said. It was about 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning on the city’s South Side when Terry was pulled over by a Chicago PD transport wagon. “I knew something was up, because wagon guys didn’t make traffic stops.”

When the officer asked for his driver’s license, Terry handed it over, along with his police star and ID.  The officer then asked Terry if he had any weapons; Terry produced his department-issued service weapons. At this point, the officer dropped the weapons on the street and placed his ID on the hood of the car. When Terry protested, the officer said, “I know you’re a police officer. But you ain’t the real police. You’re never going to be the real police.”

Terry immediately drove to the district station, filed a complaint, and the officers received five-day suspensions.

As disturbing as these stories are, it’s amazing and inspirational how all three men responded. They were angry, but none of them allowed themselves to become embittered by their experiences. They had faced discrimination that was humiliating and demoralizing, but they didn’t let those indignities get under the skin, which is obviously what the instigators were hoping for.

Instead, they used those experiences as motivation, to work harder and aim higher. That was an important lesson that helped to shape the rest of their careers. You remember the experience, but you don’t let it embitter you. I know all three of these men, and throughout their careers, all of them displayed an incredible work ethic – something that is demanded of all police leaders, but especially for leaders of color, who often face more scrutiny and skepticism than their white counterparts.

“Those experiences helped make me who I am,” Chuck Ramsey said. “Those things are part of the foundation of who you become later. They’re what made me study harder, push harder, because I wanted to prove people wrong.”

All of them talked of doors being closed on them, only to find new doors open.

For Terry Hillard, it happened early in his career. Fresh out of the Academy, he was assigned a foot beat on Rush Street, an entertainment area on the edge of Chicago’s Gold Coast. It was a plum assignment for a rookie cop.

Terry did what he was directed to do, which involved following up on community complaints. One day he got a complaint about illegally parked cars outside a restaurant. Terry began writing tickets, and when he had burned through his ticket book, he headed back to the station to get another one.

A supervisor challenged Terry for ticketing the illegally parked cars. It turned out that the politically connected restaurant owner was not pleased with his customers getting tickets. Terry was soon reassigned from Rush Street to nearby Cabrini-Green, a public housing complex with serious problems of crime and violence.  Terry used his new assignment to learn about the challenges facing public housing residents, and the difference that cops could make in disadvantaged communities. He used those lessons throughout his career.

For Chuck Ramsey, the “closed door” experience happened later in his career, in 1998. Ramsey was a finalist for Chicago Police Superintendent, a job he had prepared for his entire career. When Mayor Richard M. Daley chose Terry Hillard, Ramsey was happy for his close friend, but also disappointed.  

“That was the worst day of my career, but it turned out to be the best,” he said. “That was my dream job, but when I look back at the experiences I gained in D.C. and Philadelphia, the people I've met, the things that I’ve done – none of that would have happened had I gotten the job in Chicago.

“My energy was renewed every time I went to a different city. It gave me another breath of life, if you will. And so that was a positive thing,” he added.

In reflecting on their careers, all three men talked about the importance of relationships – including the people who looked after them early in their careers, and the people they looked after later on.

Terry Hillard remembers a Task Force supervisor, an Irish cop who exhorted him to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and go to college. For R.C. White, it was a lieutenant who organized promotional study groups for Black officers, at a time when the MPD was 65% white and very few Black officers were getting promoted.

What’s remarkable about all three men is how, even as they reached the pinnacles of their profession, they remained other-directed, not self-directed. All of them spoke of the importance of legacy, of reaching out to and mentoring the police leaders who would follow them.

As Chuck Ramsey says, your legacy is not about you – it’s about what you have done for others. For example, when he first arrived in D.C., Chuck remembers encountering Cathy Lanier, a new lieutenant who was obviously talented but whose formal education had stopped with a GED. He encouraged her to go to college, and then sent her to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. He gave her increasingly challenging assignments, including heading up the MPD’s Special Operations Division, to prepare her for the future. Cathy went on to have a remarkable tenure succeeding Ramsey as MPD chief and is now the Senior Vice President of Security for the NFL.

R.C. White said one of his proudest accomplishments was helping to develop and mentor at least 10 people who are now police chiefs. “If someone asked me what my legacy is, I would say it’s the 10 individuals today who are police chiefs, from small departments to large departments, who I helped get there in some way. When you talk about leadership, I think part of our responsibility is to find people you can develop, help them understand what policing is all about, so they can become a good chief one day.”

After an hour, as we were ending our conversation, something struck me. All three of these men faced tremendous obstacles, many resulting simply because of the color of their skin. But confronting the obstacles made them stronger and more determined, as they climbed the ladder to their next assignments and ultimately the position of police chief.

I think there’s a lesson here for everyone. Things may not be as overt or shocking as they were in the past, but racism (and sexism) still exist in our society, in all walks of life, including policing. But it’s encouraging that decades ago, these friends didn’t allow racism to define or constrain them. They found ways to overcome it and keep moving forward. All of us need to show similar courage and strength in confronting the inequities that exist today.

I want to thank Terry, Chuck and R.C. for taking time on a Wednesday night to share their experiences and insight. I am proud to call them friends. The policing profession – men and women of all races and ethnicities – should be grateful for their wisdom and leadership.

One more thing before I sign off. Don’t forget about PERF’s Virtual Town Hall meeting this Wednesday, February 17, from 2:30-3:45 EST. We’ve assembled a panel of medical experts and police and union leaders to answers your questions about COVID-19 vaccines and how agencies are rolling out the vaccine to their personnel. You can register for the meeting here.

Have a relaxing weekend, and I hope to see you online on Wednesday.