Seasons of Change: Celebrating Black History in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department
By Marie Carrie Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
“I never would have imagined this. Never in my wildest dreams,” stated Ft. Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderly. Over the course of the evening these words would be repeated numerous times by FLPD officers past and present.
On Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, the FLPD and its Neighborhood Action Team (NAT) commemorated Black History Month with a program entitled Seasons of Change. The event took place at the new Sistrunk Substation and the focus was on recognizing and celebrating the achievements of Black Americans in the once all white, and once very racist police force.
Immediately following the opening remarks, pledge and invocation; the Dillard High School Step Team gave an energetic performance that motivated and prepared participants for the exciting program to come.
Chief Adderly was the first to address the mixed crowd of elders and youth, dignitaries and citizens, officers and civilians. As the first Black Police Chief in the history of FLPD, it was fitting that he gave the audience its first glimpse into the incredible changes that have taken place.
“Back in the 80’s when we were riding around, we never thought that we would see this; a Black Police Chief, a Black Assistant Chief, a Black Major, a Black Captain, all in charge of District 2.”
In fact when guest speaker Donnell Bryant, former FLPD Sergeant, first started with the force in January 1983, he had 54 people in his police academy class and only four were of color. Even more alarming, there were only 13 Blacks in the entire police department.
“In order to know where you are going, one must reflect over whence you came,” said Bryant and that theme was carried on throughout the night in the remarks of Marsha Ellison, NAACP president, Fort Lauderdale Branch; Commissioner Bobby DuBose (personally responsible for spearheading the establishment of the FLPD substation on Sistrunk); Nina Justice, president of the Black Police Officers Association and Willie Jones, former FLPD Sergeant and Captain.
“Without the Black Police Officers Association, without the people that stepped up and took on the task back in the day in 1980, you would not have what you have here. When I started with this agency in 1980, I would never have dreamed this event; recognizing Black History and the Black police officers and that it would be taking place right here on Sistrunk Blvd. It’s a dream come true for me,” shared Willie Jones, the first Black mounted police officer in Fort Lauderdale.
While Jones holds the honor of being the first Black mounted police officer, it is Kermit McCoy and Richard Stebbins that hold the honor of being the first Black police officers ever to serve in the FLPD. The year was 1952 and though very little is known about their experiences, it is clear that their sacrifices paved the way for the tremendous changes that took place over the next 60 plus years.
Nina Jones, a current FLPD officer and President of the Black Police Officers Association, is a physical example of the changes that have taken place. As a little Black girl, Ms. Jones dreamed of being a police officer as she stood outside her grandmothers Fort Lauderdale house.
“Every time I saw a police officer I would wave because I was just so proud of seeing what the police officers did and the fact that they were in our community.”
Despite her idolized view of policemen, Nina did notice something strikingly different between herself and them. “Every time I saw a police officer I never saw one that looked like me.” And many long-time residents of West Fort Lauderdale noticed the same thing.
This reality did eventually change, but the process to get there was far from easy and retired officer McKinley Smith played a prominent role.
McKinley Smith, the first African-American FLPD Sergeant and Captain was not only in attendance at Wednesday’s celebration but he was repeatedly credited and honored by current and former officers for his remarkable role in knocking down the barriers that Blacks faced in the department.
Donnell Bryant stated, “As long as I live I will never forget McKinley Smith. That was my hero.”
Before joining the police force, Smith was a Vietnam Vet and recipient of 3 purple hearts. Known as militant and out-spoken, Smith made it his mission to become educated and use his “mouth” to change “business as usual” in the FLPD; business that unfortunately was openly racist at the time.
Smith remembers, “I felt that if other Blacks around the world were getting killed and Blacks before me were getting hung. I could afford to go against all those white folks to make some changes in the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department and I re-fused to sit there and openly al-low them to mistreat a Black person.”
Smith’s actions had a direct impact on the climate and culture of FLPD. For example, the way in which Black suspects and co-workers were described and discussed on the police radio and in the police department significantly changed during Smith’s tenure. When he was first hired, Blacks were consistently referred to in demeaning and degrading terms. Smith decided to hold the department and the individuals accountable for changing this behavior. Ultimately, they did!
While racism is far from eradicated in the FLPD, the pro-gram Wednesday night showed that tremendous progress has been made. The Seasons of Change began years ago with officers like McKoy, Stebbins, Evans, Davenport, Smith, Bryant, and Jones; and continues today with officers such as Justice, Blackwood, Reeves, Thompson, Smith, Gittens, Salters, Williams, Adderly and many others proudly wearing the blue!
If you would like to learn more about the history of Blacks in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, please visit the Sistrunk Substation and enjoy the exhibits, artifacts and pictures on display now.