The Common Reader: What led you to a career in law enforcement?
Wayne Davis: The long and short of it is that I was about to leave the military, was looking for a job and pretty much happened to be in the right place at the right time. The backstory however, is as follow: I graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1960 with a degree in Business Administration, an ROTC commission and a commitment to serve at least three years active duty. I had done well enough in military science studies to qualify for a regular army commission which was the same as Military Academy grads received and which obligated me to three years rather than the two years that reserve officers must serve. My intent was to make the military a career as the opportunities in the civilian world for African American college grads in that time frame were limited. After two years, I concluded that I didn’t want a military career but had to serve another year. I was considering testing for the New York Police Department as several in my neighborhood had but was approached by a civilian employee at my base of assignment who inquired about my plans post discharge. I had no prospects but had contacted several African American social service organizations for assistance. A few of the major corporations were looking for one or two African Americans for their junior exec training programs, and organizations like the Urban League were searching for acceptable candidates. This civilian associate said he knew someone at the local FBI office and would make an inquiry. I was soon contacted by an agent from the local office, furnished the lengthy application and scheduled for an interview. Clearly I was interested because the FBI had a certain cachet which, from my standpoint, was almost otherworldly. What I didn’t realize at the time but found out quite a number of years later (I can flesh out how I gained this knowledge if you want) was that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had no fully qualified African American Special Agents and was under pressure by the Department of Justice under Robert F. Kennedy to diversify its professional ranks. The first two fully qualified African American Special Agents entered on duty together in the summer of 1962. It took a full year before the next two, myself and another entered on duty in the summer of 1963.
TCR: Did your race pose any barriers or problems for you in getting established with the FBI?
WD: My race posed no problem/barrier completing training school though the firearms regimen was rigorous. The atmosphere in Detroit, my first assignment after completing training school, was initially at least a different story. As the first and only African American in the Detroit FBI office I was initially avoided by most agents on the squad to which I was assigned until due to a degree of good fortune, I demonstrated that I was up to the job. It followed then, that my assistance was requested by agents throughout the office on their cases. (If you’re interested, I can flesh out the good fortune that led to my being fully accepted).
Clearly I was interested because the FBI had a certain cachet which, from my standpoint, was almost otherworldly.
TCR: Do you feel the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement got better or worse during the course of your career?
WD: I believe the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement did get better though it is difficult to quantify. And certainly, with the incidents that are in the news on almost a daily basis involving conflicts between police and members of minority communities, there are many who would disagree. In support of my view is the diversity seen in not only in the ranks of state, county and city police departments but up to and including “top cop” positions of chief, commissioner and superintendent. The practice of community policing has, I believe, been a factor in the improvement of relations, but there is still a continuing battle to establish trust between law enforcement and minority communities. The FBI has made leaps and bounds in the employment and promotion of African Americans and now has outreach programs in which minority community leaders are identified and invited to attend a several week FBI familiarization course.
TCR: Were you ever criticized by other African Americans for going into law enforcement?
WD: I don’t recall being criticized, though I’m sure that experience may be unique to the individual. I was listening to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey on a local public radio program recently and his response to that question was that he did receive some criticism though my impression is that it wasn’t pervasive. I do recall several instances of discouragement rather than criticism from older African Americans when it became known that I was in the application process. One, a Lt. Col. in the army reserves doing his two-week commitment suggested I not follow through on the application process as he didn’t think much of the FBI. My recollection is that he may have owned a couple of liquor stores and while discouraging me from moving forward in the hiring process, he certainly wasn’t offering me employment in one of his retail establishments. The other who had known me as a youngster tried to steer me into the teaching profession instead.
TCR: There has long been a rumor that J. Edgar Hoover was a black guy who was passing for white. Have you heard that rumor? Do you put any stock in it?
WD: I’d heard several rumors, but not that one. And no, I don’t put any stock in it.
TCR: (In following up, Davis elaborated on answers he gave to earlier questions.)
WD: There follows the backstory on the the parenthetical in answer one: There were blacks who carried Special Agent credentials in a few field large offices. They didn’t however, possess the basic qualifications for Special Agent, were not hired for the position and were not graduates of the FBI Academy. They were appointed as Special Agents by J. Edgar Hoover because of long and loyal service when the pressure ratcheted up. They conducted limited investigations and were chauffeurs for Hoover when he visited those offices. In New York James (Jimmy) Young handled some minor investigative matters and assisted on others, while Harold Carr, also in New York stayed in the basement of the office and looked after the Director’s limousine. In Chicago Carl Mason handled some minor investigations and assisted on others but also drove Mr. Hoover whenever he was in that locale. In Los Angeles, Jesse Strider and his son Bob performed the same functions and in Miami, Leo McLaren did likewise. At FBI Headquarters (FBIHQ), there were several blacks who because of long and faithful service received Special Agent credentials, but for all intents and purposes were messengers. Among those was Samuel Noisette who was stationed outside Mr. Hoover’s office and was the last person you saw before entering the Director’s office. Sam was a fine gentleman, a talented painter in oils and carried Special Agent credentials but had never fired a weapon. (I have a vignette about an interaction with Sam that I’ll relate at some other juncture) This is not a criticism of these men, only statements of fact. They did what they could with what they had.
At FBI Headquarters, there were several blacks who because of long and faithful service received Special Agent credentials, but for all intents and purposes were messengers.
By 1970 with seven years service, having conducted criminal investigations in Detroit (’63-’65) and Newark (’65-’67) and domestic intelligence investigations in Washington Field Office (’67-’70), having been recognized several times for exemplary service and having served as a relief supervisor, I was promoted to the position of Supervisory Special Agent and assigned to FBIHQ. In 1972 after I had been at FBIHQ two years, Director Hoover died and was succeeded on an “acting” basis by L. Patrick Gray, a former Naval Officer and minor functionary in the Nixon Administration. Given the FBI’s slow progress in hiring minorities for the Special Agent position, Hoover’s policy of not hiring women to the position, and wanting the directorship on a permanent basis, Gray ordered the hiring of women as agents and a re-emphasis on minority recruitment for the agent position. As part of this emphasis he ordered the the assignment of a black Special Agent and an agent of Hispanic origin to the Personnel Section of the Administrative Division to put a face on minority recruitment efforts. I was one of only two black Supervisory Special Agents in the FBI at the time, both assigned to FBIHQ, had a solid background of investigative experience, some degree of knowledge on how the organization operated and what it was looking for in agent prospects. Consequently I was selected. The Administrative Division was the most powerful division in the FBI and I suspect remains so as the FBI has a centralized personnel management system and all hiring, firing, transfers, promotional and disciplinary matters organization-wide have to be approved there. All FBI files are closely held if not sacrosanct and personnel records, even more so. I thought if I was being reassigned to assist in moving the organization forward with regard to minority hiring, it would help to know what our efforts had been in the past. Assignment to the Personnel Section gave me license to access the files I thought I needed. One of the files contained a series of communications between the Department of Justice (DOJ) which is the FBI’s parent agency, and the FBI’s Administrative Division, which was essentially speaking for the Director. While the specific dates of the memoranda escape me, It was clear that the DOJ under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Attorney General 1961-1964) was applying pressure to the FBI to hire blacks for the agent position. In one series of correspondence the DOJ asked why the efforts to hire blacks had been unproductive. The response from the FBI was that none had been found who met the qualifications. The memoranda went back and forth in this vein until finally, the DOJ, clearly dissatisfied that any real effort was being made, instructed the FBI to lay out its efforts, identify by name and other data, those blacks who had been surfaced and furnish the reasons they did not qualify. Say what you want about Hoover, (and certainly much can be said), he was not a stupid man. He realized the jig was up and wasn’t going to be revealed as furnishing outright false information to a superior. As indicated earlier, the first two fully qualified blacks entered the FBI Academy in the summer of 1962 and myself and another, the following year. When I and my colleague were well along in New Special Agents Training, another African American whom I believe was a Howard University Law School graduateI appeared in a later class. My understanding was that he washed out for failure to successfully complete the firearms portion of training.
Say what you want about Hoover, (and certainly much can be said), he was not a stupid man. He realized the jig was up and wasn’t going to be revealed as furnishing outright false information to a superior.
Fleshing out the parenthetical in Answer 2: The Detroit Field office had a reputation, unofficial and probably undeserved, as being one of several disciplinary assignments. If an agent was assigned to his office of preference and got into trouble (easy to do under Hoover) he might be reassigned to the Detroit Office among several others. It was however, a fine training ground for Special Agents right out of training school. I was told later by a veteran agent in the office that sometime earlier an agent assigned to Detroit right out of training school who happened to be Jewish (very few in the FBI in that time frame) ended up writing a book about his observations which caused major problems for the office and several supervisors and agents. The fact that I was “different,” as had been this Jewish agent, caused others in the office to give me a wide berth. I encountered no hostility, but was viewed as “possibly trouble” and someone to stay as far away from as possible. Newly assigned first office agents would generally team up with each other but I worked alone. A few weeks into my tour in Detroit I went out to apprehend an “armed and dangerous” fugitive in one of my cases. I located him, handcuffed him, pulled him out of the residence I had traced him to and got him into the back of the car. I didn’t however, feel it was safe to transport him alone so I put out a call on the car radio (no cell phones in those days) explained the situation and requested assistance in the transport. Three or four cars responded to assist and upon arrival seemed to view me with some newfound respect. Word apparently spread fast at the office as when I arrived and began processing the prisoner, I sensed agents and support staff whispering among themselves and glancing at me surreptitiously. My supervisor called me into his office and while complimenting me on the apprehension, quietly chastised me for taking such a risk. In addition to the foregoing incident, I soon developed an informant, a prostitute who was knowledgeable in narcotics and Mann Act matters whom I could task to dig up information to assist in investigations. Again this information spread and agents throughout the office began requesting my assistance in their cases. I was assigned to the Bank-Robbery/Fugitive/Major Theft squad which worked closely with the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD) Robbery squad. At some point relatively early in my tour in Detroit I was instrumental in solving a string of seven or eight bank robberies and received a monetary award for my efforts. Not long thereafter J.Edgar Hoover, looking for good press to combat claims of discrimination in the hiring blacks, mentioned me and Jesse and Bob Strider in an article in a New York newspaper as examples of Negro Special Agents doing fine work. The DPD Robbery squad had two African American plainclothes officers assigned, which they referred to as their “colored team.” My supervisor, recognizing that essentially I still worked mostly alone, and desiring his own “colored team” contacted FBIHQ and requested that another black agent be assigned to Detroit. The response from the Administrative Division was “you send us one, we’ll send you one.” In other words, with the pressure still on to hire blacks for the agent position, the Detroit Office, despite the city having a substantial black population, had not recruited any blacks. In my almost two years in Detroit, while there was a slow trickle of blacks to other offices there was not another black agent assigned to Detroit.
The fact that I was “different,” as had been this Jewish agent, caused others in the office to give me a wide berth. I encountered no hostility, but was viewed as “possibly trouble” and someone to stay as far away from as possible.
By the way, if you go to Ebony.com and negotiate your way through to the September 1962 issue you’ll find a piece on “The Negro in the FBI” which spotlights Aubrey Lewis (deceased) in training at the FBI Academy and pretty much ignores his classmate, James Barrow. It also propagandizes the status of others mentioned above. Yours truly shows up twenty years later in the December 1982 issue and the piece contains a very much dated family picture in which your colleague, Professor Adrienne appears.
WD: Here is the FBI Director’s speech given at Georgetown University. It is, in my view, very good and “gutsy.” I worked for four FBI Directors, not including the “Actings,” and never saw a speech like this from any of them. Essentially he’s saying what Eric Holder, the current AG was saying when he said the American public were cowards for not talking about the hard things. I will be surprised if he doesn’t get a lot of flack because the news media will select only certain portions to publicize.
TCR: Thank you for this very interesting speech. This leads me to ask you generally about profiling. I assume that police must profile if they are going to deal with crime. If a crime is committed you, as a law enforcement person, can’t go around thinking that anybody could have committed the crime. You have to narrow the field of your investigation, right? So wouldn’t profiling be based on the data that has been collected over the years about what sort of people are most likely to commit what sort of crimes? So profiling, it seems, would be essential to police investigations. How else could you do it? Unless police investigations were going to be like security at the airport, where everybody taking a plane is assumed a possible terrorist until you get cleared through the screening. But you couldn’t conduct police investigations like that, could you? If a murder happens in a neighborhood, you can’t investigate every single person who lives in the neighborhood. That would take a lot of time and be real inefficient, wouldn’t it? But the profiling winds up hurting young black men because a disproportionate number of them commit crimes, so the whole group comes under suspicion.
WD: I believe we’re examining the problem from different perspectives. In most major metropolitan areas there is/are substantial black neighborhoods characterized by high youth unemployment, drug dealing and general street crime. Most, if not all street crime in those neighborhoods, is committed by black perpetrators. (Neither a close reading of the Director’s remarks nor my previous sentence refer to a majority of crime in general in the United States being perpetrated by blacks.) While police officers looking into criminal activity in black neighborhoods may have unconscious biases, the officers still must put together court-worthy cases. That is, find the actual offenders. In this regard, profiling an entire neighborhood would not make sense. Witness statements would clearly play a large role, as would previous similar criminal activity and information from informants. If it is reported for instance, that a slow-moving car full of young white men was observed driving through the neighborhood just before the young black man was gunned down, that lead will have to be followed up along with identifying the “usual black suspects.” Who would the “usual black suspects” be? Those who had an issue with the victim, perhaps infringing on another’s drug territory or having designs on someone’s woman. The profiling would come into play from a standpoint of “rap sheets” (arrest records) of who has been arrested or served time for this type of crime in the past and whether or not they could account for their whereabouts. Murders for the most part (and there are exceptions) are committed by people who have a connection to the victim. So, would the whole neighborhood come under suspicion? Not likely. Slight exaggeration, but I can not envision all the local black men coming under suspicion and asked for alibis. A neighborhood grocery store robbery might easily be committed by someone who lives in that vicinity and maybe even has shopped in that store. Again, who lives in the area and has a history of criminal activity. If your argument is with “profiling” then you have to appreciate what profiling in crime solving entails. I would argue that in criminal investigations, the “profiling” is done logically and reasonably, that is by detectives after the fact. Not scattershot by essentially accusing everyone. In “hot pursuit” matters where, for instance, a bank or store has been robbed and authorities respond immediately with the only description immediately available being that it was a black male of a certain height and build wearing dark clothing, the responding officers may unfortunately stop anyone meeting that general description which is a pretty broad net to cast. … and God help him if he happens to be running (trying to catch his bus to get to work) but in a high crime area. An article appeared recently in the local paper quoting a black man living in [the Philadelphia suburb] Wynnewood (Don’t know if you remember but Wynnewood is on the Main Line) who on his way to work, was stopped twice by two sets of police officers looking for a bank robber. The only similarity was that he was black, as was the robber and was in a predominantly white area. He requested that they radio their counterparts and tell them he’d already been stopped. I would agree that this might have demonstrated a bias or amounted to profiling, if you will. Long story short, crime solving is not hard and fast. Sometimes you must “scoop up” an armful of logical suspects and discard those who it is determined are unlikely to be involved until you can winnow things down and make a solid case. If such methodology is regarded as profiling, and I’m not sure I agree that it is, then so be it.
As an aside, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, in addressing protest demonstrations against police overreaction, said “there have, since the beginning of the year been forty murders of young black men in black neighborhoods. Why hasn’t there been outrage about that?” Sounds like you may have a similar problem in St. Louis. He is by the way, a very good Commissioner and has made a priority of routing out problem police officers.
Sometimes you must “scoop up” an armful of logical suspects and discard those who it is determined are unlikely to be involved until you can winnow things down and make a solid case. If such methodology is regarded as profiling, and I’m not sure I agree that it is, then so be it.
TCR: Would you recommend law enforcement as a career for African Americans?
WD: I know my response is long-winded and probably an equivocation but my answer is, “Yes, and no.” It is pretty much the same response I would give regarding a career in the military. Any life pursuit in which the stakes are raised concerning surviving to a ripe old age deserves careful scrutiny. High School grads with few other options, I believe, might find a career in a police department rewarding and, in fact, I would hazard a guess that most police departments are so staffed. The upside is that twenty years or so and retirement with the opportunity to pursue another post-retirement career has some attraction. The downside, of course, is that regularly, your life is at risk probably at higher odds that in other pursuits. For a college grad however, it would in my view, be a last resort. A college grad would be doing the same work and facing the same risks as high school grads. Another view however, is that advancement in a police environment might be easier for a college grad to accomplish than those with lesser education. The job of local police departments in fighting crime and criminals is largely preventive. Differentiating between local and federal law enforcement career pursuits however, I’d have to say I would, without hesitation, recommend the FBI. Why? Because the FBI, while technically law enforcement and subject to some risks, is an investigative body and, like it or not, has a certain cachet, higher qualifications and for the most part hires those who are “a cut above” as Special Agents, yours truly excepted. Secret Service, another top-flight federal organization gives me some cause for concern. Jurisdictionally, they have responsibility for investigating counterfeiting matters, but are best known for presidential protection.
I believe the latter carries with it substituting your life for that of the president, which does not thrill me. Also, recent public disclosures about heavy drinking and consorting with prostitutes while on a presidential protection assignment in Latin America, and heavy drinking just prior to returning to the White House and interrupting a crime scene investigation, make me question the caliber of their personnel. That said, however, I have over the years, met a number of Secret Service agents, mostly in the executive ranks and they, without exception, were all a class act.
TCR: If you were running a law enforcement agency, what would you do to make sure unarmed men and women are not shot or humiliated during encounters with the police?
WD: The answer to this question is difficult. I’m not certain that you can absolutely make sure officers on the street don’t go too far. Adequate training and insuring officers are intimately familiar with department policies, etc., are always cited as answers to this question, but in the final analysis and on all too many occasions, the power accompanying wearing the badge and carrying the weapon win out over treating people and breakers of minor laws with respect. If I had a model, it would be Commissioner Charles Ramsey of the Philadelphia PD. (If you Google him you’ll see what he’s all about.) I also think a lot of William Bratton, the NYPD Commissioner. Implementing change in large departments though, may be like changing the direction of an aircraft carrier. It can’t be done on a dime. There are long-standing attitudes to wrestle with, police unions to do battle with, arbitrators’ decisions that overturn attempts to dismiss, etc.
I’m not certain that you can absolutely make sure officers on the street don’t go too far. … in the final analysis and on all too many occasions, the power accompanying wearing the badge and carrying the weapon win out over treating people and breakers of minor laws with respect.
TCR: What do you think law enforcement will be like in the future?
WD: The future of law enforcement? The positive change I have observed, and I believe it will continue, is the high levels of educational attainment among major city, top law enforcement executives and their assistants. Higher educational levels bring with them more enlightenment and a broader view of things … though frankly, I have met some people who are smart as can be, but still do not know what’s going on. The frequency of police overreactions caught on digital devices makes me wonder if things will ever get better. Thank God for cell phone cameras. Patrol car dashboard cameras and uniform worn cameras are worthy and effective technical advancements though they add substantially to the expense factor. Also, wily officers know, if they want to take questionable actions, to do so out of camera range.
TCR: Do you think there has been a police slow-down in cities like New York and Baltimore, where the crime rates have shot up in recent months, as a result of protests against the police there?
WD: From what I’ve read about police patrolling in Baltimore since the disturbance, which frankly is not much, it seems that a “tread lightly” approach is in effect, probably directed by, or at least accepted by, the political structure. My sense of things, and that’s all it is, a sense, is that the governing bodies are afraid that normal (or aggressive) policing in West Baltimore, which was essentially a high crime area, might be fodder for media coverage and cell phone videos that might set off more disturbances. From the few interviews of residents I’ve seen, there appears to be a dearth of police presence in that area. By the way, as I’m sure you know, the former police superintendent was heavily criticized and subsequently fired several weeks ago, ostensibly for not being aggressive enough in addressing the looting during the disturbance.
The positive change I have observed, and I believe it will continue, is the high levels of educational attainment among major city, top law enforcement executives and their assistants. … though frankly, I have met some people who are smart as can be, but still do not know what’s going on.
In my view, the New York situation has a different slant. I believe the slowdown by the NYPD is (was) a direct result of the strong NYPD union response to New York Mayor DeBlasio saying his son, who is biracial, wears an afro and would be identified as black could consequently be easily, as have others, victimized by police. The head of the police union came out strongly in opposition to him and his statement as anti-police and encouraged an assemblage of police to turn their backs on him during a speech.
Even in light of the killings of blacks at the hands of police ostensibly acting under color of law police, for the most part, seem to believe they are acting appropriately and not being appreciated for the difficulty of the job and not supported by citizenry they are sworn to protect.
On the question of campus police being armed, I’ve emailed you a well thought out article on the subject written by an accomplished Chief of Police. The bottom line I derive from his arguments is “it all depends …” I too believe that no “one size fits all” when debating this issue. Personally, though, I think there are too many guns out there, some even in the hands of “supposedly qualified” law enforcement officers. And on too many occasions, once those officers feel their authority is questioned, even when the exercise of that authority is questionable, the power that accompanies the badge and weapon may cause tragic mistakes in judgement. Overall, I’m troubled by the frequency of minor violations of law that escalate into the deaths of black people. In the Cincinnati incident, I have to wonder why a university police officer was enforcing a traffic violation on a municipal thoroughfare. And even if he was on university property, did there exist a threat to his life?