- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - When Clarence White Sr. first picked up his police badge and gun in 1953, there wasn’t much talk of the law enforcement profession in the White family household.

Black men in the Indianapolis Police Department were rare. White, who was persuaded to join by an uncle on the force, was among the first in his family to even think about becoming a cop.

And he was hesitant to ever discuss the job with his three sons. Before he left for his shift each day, White would throw a large overcoat on top of his police uniform to dissuade the boys from asking questions about their father’s line of work.

“I thought I was doing that to keep them from trying to follow my footsteps,” said White, now 89. “At the time, police weren’t very well liked because of the atmosphere between police and the public. White police officers, I thought, were very derogatory to us - the blacks.”

White’s overcoat trick didn’t work. Today, the retired captain is one of nine members of his family to have donned a police uniform over the years. Two of them are White’s sons. His third son works for the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.

The Whites were guests at a lunch hosted by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief Troy Riggs on Wednesday intended to honor the legacy of what is perhaps IMPD’s most prominent family of black officers, three of whom still work for IMPD.

“I thought we needed to celebrate our past as we’re planning for our future,” Riggs said.

Riggs and the Whites spoke for about an hour about the history of policing in the family. At one point, the elder White recounted a story to Riggs about pushback he received from the city in the 1950s when he attempted to arrest a white resident.

“Here’s someone that was that bold and that committed to this community,” Riggs said. “I mean, our city’s a better place - our nation’s a better place - as a result.”

The relationship between race and policing in Indianapolis is a long and complicated one, as it is throughout the United States.

The Indianapolis Police Department was one of the first in the country to hire black officers, said historian Leon Bates, a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Louisville’s Department of Pan-African Studies who has been researching black police officers in Indianapolis for years.

But behind that milestone lies an unsettling origin, Bates said. In March 1876, Indianapolis police shot and killed an unarmed black man named Edward Phillips as he ran away from them. Phillips was wanted on an adultery charge. The woman, Bates said, was believed to be white.

Two of the patrolmen were tried on murder charges and acquitted, sparking outrage within the black community. The fallout left city officials in a tight spot, Bates said. For the first time that year, thousands of black men would be voting in a city election.

Two months after Phillips’ death, the department hired its first black police officers.

“John Caven, who was mayor in 1876, partly out of just realizing that the winds were changing, adapted to keep the Republican Party at that time in good graces with the black community,” Bates said. “But after he did that, things kind of got off the rails. And fast forward 100 years, and we’re having some of the same problems.”

In some ways, conversations about race and policing in 2016 echo the ones debated 140 years ago. The shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago set off a national firestorm and prompted discussion about community mistrust and police reform.

IMPD, meanwhile, continues to struggle with diverse representation. An April IndyStar examination of department staffing found that the city’s police force is less diverse today than IPD was nearly 25 years ago, even as the city has grown more diverse.

Since then, the City-County Council approved tens of thousands of dollars for police recruitment - a move seen as a way to help diversify the force.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the Whites stressed a need to improve police-community relations at home.

“I believe that we have to start with communicating on both sides,” said LeEtta White, a retired IMPD sergeant and daughter-in-law to patriarch Clarence Sr. “I do believe that the police department opens up. … It’s just trying to get that communication gap closed, so we’re talking with each other - not fighting with each other.”

White, 56, acknowledged that the department still has a lot of work to do. But she also took pride in noting how far her profession has come.

When White became a police officer in 1982, she said, she faced resistance as a female cop from the department and the community.

“You had a lot of challenges. People wanted to challenge you as a policewoman in the streets,” White said. “You had to hold your own and maintain. But I was shortly received and accepted in the community, as well as with my peers.”

White said she hopes her family’s history in policing shows others how vital police are to a city’s success, along with how important it is for police and communities to work side by side.

“We are a law-abiding family. We do believe in family unity. We do believe in policing our own and taking care of your own family,” she said. “But what we would like to leave behind is the work and the heart that we put into this city for many, many years.”

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/1WyxIf7

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com


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