How Policing Has Changed For 3 Generations Of Black Police Officers | KUER 90.1

How Policing Has Changed For 3 Generations Of Black Police Officers

May 21, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 6:44 am

In the early 1950s, Clarence White was a rookie policeman with the Indianapolis Police Department, and being African-American, there were rules he needed to follow. He says the department had a gentleman's agreement where black cops could not arrest white people.

White is the patriarch of three generations of African-American police officers in the Indianapolis Police Department. It was a career he initially did not want.

When officers Clarence White Sr. (left) and Albert Finnell joined the Indianapolis Police Department in the 1950s, they had to ride in either Car 27, or Car 29, which told the public African-American officers were in those cars.
Courtesy of the White Family

"I was sort of forced into this," says White. "I tried to join the fire department three times, turned down three times because they said I didn't pass the test."

White credits his persistent uncle, who was already on the police force, for getting him to take the police exam. White said it was the same questions as the fire department test. He passed with a 99 percent.

During that time, White was only allowed to ride in two police cars — Car 27 and Car 29. Those numbers let the public know African-American police officers were inside.

The Indianapolis department had African-American police officers dating back to the 1890s, but White, now 90, was part of the first generation of African-Americans to make rank. He ascended to captain before retiring in 1974.

Despite his role in desegregating the department, he made every effort to keep his sons from following in his footsteps. In the mornings, he says he would throw on an overcoat to keep his sons from seeing his police uniform.

But when his oldest son, Clarence White Jr., now 66, joined the force in 1975, his father kept his reservations to himself.

White Jr., said he started his career on the force during the end of the hippie revolution, when police officers were not well-liked. Public opinion grew worse when the department became embroiled in national scandals involving excessive use of force and the shootings of unarmed black men.

Today, White Jr., thinks police shootings of unarmed black people continues, in part, because of racism in the department.

"I've been involved in a situation where a white officer ... I felt his big issue in working in the community was his dislike of black people. It exists. It will always exist and is something that we have to continually work toward making better," he says.

His nephew Rodney White, 41, also says it will take some work, but these issues can be fixed.

Rodney is still active in the Indianapolis Police Department. Growing up, he was surrounded by police officers, including his mother and father.

When it comes to dealing with police shootings of unarmed black people. He said it will require more training, and a focus on recruiting more officers from the community.

"If you don't grow up in a specific location, and you're not used to dealing with the African-American culture and some of the mannerisms and the way that we speak and the way that we carry ourselves ... You have to actually be around it to really kind of understand," Rodney says.

Clarence White Sr. joined the Indianapolis Police Department during the 1950s. He says he did so with the encouragement of his uncle, who was also a police officer.
Courtesy of Clarence White Sr.

Despite efforts by police departments nationwide to employ more people of color into the force, African-Americans still hold a more unfavorable view of police than their white counterparts, according to Pew Research.

Clarence White Sr., says this point of view is an issue African-American officers still have to navigate while they're in the field.

"Black men and women in the street — when they confront a white officer, it's with the sense that what they say or how they say it, they're going to jail. And the black officers, the same thing happens," he says. "We put on a uniform, and the black community says you represent the white establishment. So we have a problem trying to win them over."

But White Sr. has an approach he used before he retired.

"When I approached a white perpetrator or a black perpetrator, I whispered to him what I was going to do," says White. Sr. "I didn't force anybody — punch him, anything."

He says it's how he would have liked to be treated.

: 5/25/17

A caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly identified members of the White family. They are pictured from left to right: Clarence Sr., Clarence Jr., Rodney Sr., Keith, LeEtta, Rodney Jr., Christopher and Thomas White. In addition, Christopher White's name was misspelled in the same caption.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're starting off a new series this month that's all about family. We're calling it Generations, and it's where we bring together family members who came of age in different eras. And they talk about topics that were important then and are important now.

And with everything happening in the news around policing and minority communities, we thought we'd invite three generations of African-American police officers to join us from Indianapolis, Clarence White, Sr., his son Clarence White, Jr., is also with us. And Rodney White is the grandson of Clarence White, Sr., and the nephew of Clarence White, Jr., and all three are with us now from Indianapolis at member station WFYI. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

CLARENCE WHITE JR: Well, you're welcome.

RODNEY WHITE: Definitely appreciate it.

CLARENCE WHITE SR: Thank you for (unintelligible).

MARTIN: All right. Well, let me start with senior. You started this legacy. What made you want to become a police officer?

CLARENCE WHITE SR: I was sort of forced into this. I tried to join the fire department three times, turned down three times because they said I didn't pass the test. I had an uncle. He seemed to have had a real good career with the department. He come to me wanting me to join the police department. The things - I resisted him for about six months.

He said, well, take the test. I took the test and I passed it - same questions on the fire department was on the police. I passed it with a 99. When I joined the police department, it was kind of iffy. The gentlemen's agreement within the Indianapolis Police Department was we could not arrest a Caucasian. If we did have a confrontation with one, we were to call a superior officer.

MARTIN: I read in one article that you actually used to throw an overcoat over your uniform when you went out to work because you didn't want your kids asking questions about your job. And I take from that you really didn't want them to follow in your footsteps. Is that right?

CLARENCE WHITE SR: That's correct.

MARTIN: How come?

CLARENCE WHITE SR: I won't go into specifics, but I just didn't want them involved in the department when I was there.

MARTIN: Well, they obviously didn't listen. (Laughter) So that leads me to Clarence White, Jr. did you know that your dad didn't want you to follow in his footsteps? And why did you want to become a police officer?

CLARENCE WHITE JR: I was not aware of that. However, when I finished at Indiana State University, I needed a job. And during that time in school was when police officers were not well liked, the '70s, the end of the hippie revolution. And so I figured I could be one of those officers that could make a difference in the street and in the field and come on the Indianapolis Police Department.

MARTIN: Now, of course, I'm going to go to Rodney White. You're still on the job. Why did you want to be a police officer?

R. WHITE: It's just the satisfaction of me going out there and being able to help from one situation to another, even if it's just a smallest change in a tire or helping somebody install a car seat to helping somebody that's just a victim of a crime is just my passion now to just be able to get that done and help people and get joy out of it.

MARTIN: I have to ask because the polls show that there is often a large racial divide in how the public views the police. On average white people are more likely to see the police as being a positive force. On average, you often see African-Americans say the opposite, that often African-Americans are more likely to see the police as excessively violent, as prejudiced, you know, etc. And I have to ask each of you why you think that is? And I'm also wondering if you ever disagree among yourselves about the way the police conduct themselves.

CLARENCE WHITE SR: This is senior. Black men and women in the street - when they confront a white officer it's with the sense that what they say or how they say it, they're going to jail. And the black officers, the same thing happens. We put on a uniform, and the black community says you represent the white establishment. So we have a problem trying to win them over. And the way I treated a person was the way I would want to be treated. In other words, when I approached a white perpetrator or a black perpetrator, I whispered to him what I was going to do. I didn't force anybody - punch him, anything. But you do have that problem with most people that you come in contact with.

MARTIN: Clarence White, Jr., I think maybe I'll ask you this because you're in the middle of the generations here. Why does this issue persist, these police shootings particularly of unarmed black people?

CLARENCE WHITE JR: I actually think that part of it is fear on the part of the officer that's in that area. And, indeed, some of it may be racism, not all, but some. I've been involved in a situation where a white officer that I felt his big issue in working in the community was his dislike of black people. It exists. It will always exist and is something that we have to continually work toward making better.

I've been involved in a situation where an individual pulled a gun. We did not shoot him. Come to find out that it was a B.B. gun, but it looked very real. And there are instances when that happens, and there's questions some time amongst us what would you have done in that situation? I always try to tell the public before you make judgment as to what has occurred since you were not on the scene, let the system play out and see what happens.

MARTIN: Rodney, can I ask you that? Do you think this is an issue that in your lifetime can be fixed?

R. WHITE: I think it can be fixed. If you, you know, don't grow up in a specific location and you're not used to dealing with the African-American culture and some of the mannerisms and the way that we speak and the way that we carry ourselves - and you have to actually be around it to really kind of understand. And I think it can be fixed, but it's going to take some training. It might take a while, but I definitely think it can be worked toward and possibly fixed in the future.

MARTIN: That was Rodney White. We also heard from Clarence White, Sr., his son Clarence White, Jr. They are just three of the eight members of the White family who are in law enforcement in Indianapolis, and I thank you all so much for speaking with us. I do want to thank you for your service, if I may. And, Rodney White, you stay safe out there.

R. WHITE: Thank you very much.

CLARENCE WHITE JR: Thank you.

CLARENCE WHITE SR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.