The once relevant Black Shield attempts to rise again from the ruins.

Black and Back 

The once relevant Black Shield attempts to rise again from the ruins.

The Black Shield brain trust: Vice presidents Dalton - Preston and Juanita Black, and President Lem - Griffin. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The Black Shield brain trust: Vice presidents Dalton Preston and Juanita Black, and President Lem Griffin.
In 1969, Ron Reynolds tried to get hired as a Cleveland police officer. The young truck driver arrived for his interview unwisely attired in a black leather suit and sporting a trendy Afro.

Later, Reynolds learned his interviewer considered him "subversive." He didn't get the job.

"All I had going against me," he maintains, "was a large Afro and a black leather suit."

The Black Shield Club, an emerging organization of black officers, told Reynolds to contest his rejection. Meanwhile, its members worked behind the scenes, contacting politicians and pressuring police officials. It took the Black Shield a month of lobbying, but the department eventually hired Reynolds. By the time he retired in 1997, he had ascended to the post of Fourth District commander.

Formed as a social club in 1946, the Black Shield was baptized as an advocacy group at the height of the civil rights movement. It pushed for equal opportunity in a department that rarely hired or promoted blacks. It also became a symbol of pride.

But as the jets of rage cooled in the late '70s and racial fairness began to take root in hiring, promotion, and disciplinary matters, the Black Shield became less relevant. By the time current president Lem Griffin joined the force in 1989, new black officers were actually told not to join, he says, because of a perception that the group had become listless.

Not only did Griffin join, he became president of what is now the Black Shield Police Association in January. Now he and other officeholders are attempting to restore the organization to its former prominence.

They have a long way to go. Only 58 percent of the 638 officers of color are members. Yet the need for a black police association seems to be as crucial as ever. Police race issues have sparked recent investigations by the city, the FBI, and now the Justice Department. Griffin wants the organization to return to being "the voice of the membership."

The hype, however, hasn't quite met the reality. The organization trying so hard to shed its social club stigma is still headquartered in an East Side bar with a big-screen television and a clock set 15 minutes fast. During a recent interview, Griffin and Second Vice President Dalton Preston, dressed in suits and ties, kept themselves busy by folding invitations to a fall dinner dance.

The two officers admit that the new Black Shield is very much a work in progress.

For inspiration they look to Reynolds and two other retired officers, Allen Potillo and Fred Johnson. The chatty, well-rested gentlemen recall a department whose culture incubated racial intolerance within its ranks. White officers beat black suspects without fear of reprimand. The word "nigger" seethed out of the police radio. Black officers were often assigned to patrol the most dangerous beats alone, while white officers were sent in twos.

Back then, some black officers fought perceived racial injustices with their fists, seeking respect from white colleagues who saw only black or white, instead of blue. But real change didn't occur until 1972, when black officers took their outrage to court. The Black Shield filed a lawsuit that eventually led to hiring and promotion mandates.

Who benefited from the Black Shield's activism?

"Every single officer that got hired after the lawsuit," claims Fred Johnson, who was the Black Shield's president in 1972. "That changed everything."

Since the mandates expired in 1995, the old-timers fear officers of color have been losing ground. The number of black officers in a department of 1,810 has decreased from nearly 28 percent in 1996 to less than 27 percent today.

"If something is not done in the next 10 years," Reynolds warns, "the department is going to return to the same position it was in before, when there were very few blacks."

To revitalize the group, the new leadership has found it must fight not only "the stigma of the social club," but also the stigma of being a politicized organization.

The reputation of the Black Shield suffered during the summer of 1999, after the group's prior leadership championed Mayor Michael White's investigation of organized racism in the department. The group's former president, Anthony Ruffin, backed up claims made by the mayor's "secret sources," who reported racist graffiti throughout police districts. "When it comes out, it will blow your mind," Ruffin assured reporters.

But he, like White, had no proof. Sources say Ruffin didn't have time to gather it. The mayor swept him into the controversy before he could get the Black Shield executive board's support. When the allegations of White's sources became tenuous, so did the Black Shield's support of Ruffin.

Early this year, Internal Affairs had the final say in the matter. It determined that organized racists were not at work in the department. Interviews released after the investigation revealed that Ruffin had failed to produce a single officer to corroborate his earlier statements. (Ruffin declined comment.)

While Griffin and Preston do not deny Ruffin's assertions, they do bemoan the wasted opportunity. At a time when both local and national attention is focused on racial profiling, police brutality, and other issues with racial dimensions, the association ought to have opinions and be able to support them.

"Our organization was cast in a bad light," Griffin says. "If the organization would have been more unified, things would have turned out differently."

Following the investigation, Black Shield membership reached an all-time low of 320. And in January, Griffin unseated Ruffin as president.

Interviews with officers at the Fourth District revealed confidence in the present leadership. Some noted improved visibility in the community. Others applauded leaders for coming to their aid in disciplinary hearings. Preston boasts of 49 new members this year.

"We have people who are articulate, aggressive, and with no political agenda other than the Black Shield," notes Sergeant Randall Burgeon, a member. "In the past, we had people who looked at what they could get out of it and sold the Black Shield down the river."

Preston and Griffin are starting to be the "voice" of their membership. In the past, reporters calling the group's office were greeted by an answering machine that no one seemed to check. These days, the two officers, with pagers and cell phones, are accessible virtually any time of the day.

Yet the Black Shield as an outspoken advocacy organization is still emerging. It won't be easy in a political environment like Cleveland's, where media attention is often focused on the long-running feud between the mayor and the police unions. (Black Shield members also belong to the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association and the Fraternal Order of Police, which negotiates contracts for the rank and file.) One reason the Black Shield often shied away from the spotlight in the past was to save it from the inevitable taking of sides. This is the conundrum: Support the African American mayor and draw the wrath of the police unions, or support the police unions and alienate the mayor.

Aside from backing the hire of new recruits who passed the botched Civil Service tests, the Black Shield still hovers in safe territory. This summer, members encouraged children to trade their toy guns for movie coupons, raised money for a boy's funeral, and planned an education program for schools. They've also taken member complaints to top brass, including a recent allegation that black officers are drug-tested more than their white counterparts. But such concerns aren't raised with bombast.

"We've taken the position with the administration that there's enough fighting already," Preston says. "And a hand has been extended to us."

For how long depends on just how activist-oriented the Black Shield becomes. The old-timers can attest to that.

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