SBPD Honors First Black Officer
By Dianne Anderson
Judging by the low numbers of African Americans in law enforcement, even today Black is not Blue in places across the nation, let alone in 1947 when Johnnie Epps was the first and only Black officer in the San Bernardino Police Department.
Around that same point in history, Dr. Margaret Hill was growing up as a daughter of a sharecropper living on a farm where African Americans were relegated to the slim margins of society. It was hard to handle.
Dr. Hill, who sits on the African American Police Advisory Committee, said at the recent tribute to Officer Epps, Lt. Mike Madden mentioned about how hard it was to imagine what life must have been like for the lone Black officer on the force.
“Life for me wasn’t good even though I was where I was expected to be, on a farm being poor and not complaining. Nobody wanted to trade places with me. I didn’t want to be there myself,” she said.
Still, some things have changed and are different today. For starters, she was proud to see at least three African American officers attending the dedication of Officer Epps. And, there is an active African American Advisory Committee now that can help get more Black officers a foot in the door of the department.
“Our committee is to be the [voice] for the community, which means if there are candidates out there that want to be considered for a position, we share that with the chief,” she said.
After three short years on the force, Officer Epps, also a soldier, died at age 25 in 1950 from a car accident on his way to a tour of duty in the Korean War.
Terrance Stone, who also sits on the advisory committee, takes issue with the idea that Black kids shouldn’t be encouraged to join the police force.
Once on the other side of the law, Stone, a past gang member, said that he always gets flack from the community for proposing that more Black cops are needed in the community.
Tragic endings to simple traffic stops could be reduced with a more diversified force, he said, and it is a decent paying job with good benefits. Right now, there are not a lot of African American or Latino officers in the Inland Empire.
“There’s some,” he said. “Police departments say they’re trying to hire more African Americans, but they say they’re not passing all the qualifications, the drug tests, background check, the lie detectors.”
Part of the problem is that more students of color need early preparation in recruiting for law enforcement before they get to high school to keep their records clean if they plan to pursue a career on the force.
Too many kids are already on probation or caught up in the system in their early teens.
In the Explorers program, Stone said there are also very few African American kids because the community is dissuading them from getting into these types of fields.
“If you don’t want them to do this, what do you want them to do? Play basketball, football?” he said.
According to a 2015 Justice Department study, officers of color only made up 27% of the national police force, which included 12% African American, and 12% Hispanic or Latino.
Local towns and cities across the nation are not going to get better if there are no cops that look like people of color, or resemble the community, that they protect and serve, he said.
“You can’t have people that don’t really look like you trying to monitor you in your own community,” he said. “You need more people of color on the force.”