When you think about law enforcement and fire emergency services in Los Angeles County, very rarely do the names Sam Haskins, J.B. Loving, Robert William Stewart, James L. Garcia, and Van Davis come to mind.
They are not names that you hear or read about everyday in the news, but just the same, these men paved the way for the Black men and women working in law enforcement and fire emergency services today in Los Angeles.
Sam Haskins, born a slave in 1840 from Virginia, was employed as a Fireman for the city of Los Angeles and assigned to LAFD Engine Company #4 in 1888. In 1889, J.B. Loving became the first African-American Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff hired by Sheriff William A. Hammel. This was followed by the L.A.P.D.’s hiring of Robert Williams Stewart in 1895. In 1953, James L. Garcia and Van Davis were hired as Los Angeles County Fire’s first “Black Firemen.”
Over time, as these agencies grew along with the number of Black personnel they employed, Black employee associations were established to address issues of concern within the workplace.
From internal racism to the not-so-routine promotion of Blacks from Captain to Commander, improving employment and advancement opportunities, as well as the overall recruitment of Blacks—with a focus on Black women specifically—the Black employee associations relative to L.A. County’s four main law and fire agencies continue to represent Black employees both in the community and on the job.
And while many will say that we’ve come a long way since the days of the first Black hire at these agencies, the presidents of these respective organizations hold firm that we’ve still got quite a ways to go.
Captain Brent Burton serves as president of the Los Angeles County Stentorians. Founded in 1954 by African-American firefighters of both the Los Angeles City and Los Angeles County Fire Departments, the Stentorians have over the years addressed issues of segregation and discrimination within the Fire Department.
He feels that today while there still issues of institutional racism as it relates to Blacks, the biggest threat to Blacks in the County’s Fire Department is the retirement of today’s Black firefighters and the recruitment of new ones.
“I came up in L.A.P.D.’s Explorer program,” he explains. “By the time I was 15, 16 years old, I was already mapping out my career with the Department.”
He takes specific issue with the lack of Black female hires today.
“We have people who can pass these exams, the question is who does the picking, the selecting to be in these classes. That is our issue. We have people who apply to be firefighters and they put different obstacles in their way. You have to go out here and take this test and pay for this test. You have to have a card that says you a have a year of certification. But then we’ll have Black women who take those tests and get on our entry level list hopefully to take the next step which is our written exam, and they [the Department] won’t even call them. That just baffles me. It’s mind boggling to me when they know we are deficient in Black women in the Department and they let these sisters just die on the list. And so then they go elsewhere, most likely law enforcement, and we lose a lot of good women that way. I believe this is why out of 3,000 there are only two Black women firefighters today with the County.”
For Blacks currently inside the Department, Captain Burton says that a lot of the Department’s promotional systems are invalid.
“The Los Angeles County Fire Department currently employs a total of 3,000 of which 210 are Blacks, and two are Black women,” he explains. “There are only nine Chief Officers out of 100; that’s less than ten percent. Out of 700 Captains, only 50 are Black. So we’ve still got a lot of work to do inside the Department especially as it relates to our promotional system and Blacks.”
But the issues within the Department are only part of the problem. The other part is engaging a new generation of firefighters from within the Black community.
City of Los Angeles’ Fire Department Firefighter/Paramedic Troy Westbrook, credits having a mentor for getting involved in public service.
“I worked with Captain Armando Hogan, who is now a Battalion Chief. He’s the one who got me involved with the Stentorians and it’s something that I will never be able to repay him, only by giving what he taught me to others. We help people of all races and genders. It’s a pretty self-less organization and that’s why I am proud to be a part of it.”
Firefighter/Paramedic Westbrook hopes to help bring more Blacks aboard with the City’s Department.
The L.A.P.D.’s some 1,100 Black personnel are represented by the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation -- an organization that was started in 1968 to address the issues and concerns of Black police officers in the Department. Its president, Sgt. Ronnie Cato, is a 29-year veteran of the L.A.P.D.
“Law enforcement was a good career but I didn’t come to law enforcement with shiny eyes like I loved the police and this is what I wanted do,” explains Sgt. Cato. “I didn’t like the police when I coming up. Young Black man coming up in Compton being stopped by the police—all the complaints I hear now, I had those complaints when I was coming up in Compton .”
So Sgt. Cato decided to make a change from within “ L.A. ’s Blue Machine” by becoming a police officer for one of the most notorious police departments in the country.
“When I first came on, I didn’t want anything to do with the Black Police Officer’s Association because I thought it was weak. I thought we had a bunch of handkerchief Negroes meeting together doing nothing. Just meeting to meet because they didn’t want to do anything to make their white counterparts upset.”
Eventually Sgt. Cato did get involved and is now serving in his ninth year as president of the L.A.P.D.’s Black Police Officer’s Association, the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation.
Lt. and Watch Commander Bill Martin is president of the Black Peace Officer’s Association of Los Angeles County (BPOA). His biggest issues concern the recruitment, retention, and promotion of Blacks in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. He got involved in the Black Peace Officer’s Association 20 years ago and is serving out the remainder of his two-year term.
“We always need to remember the lessons of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin,” he explains. “I too joined the Sheriff’s Department because I wanted to make a change.
I joined the Black Peace Officer’s Association because that was the vehicle inside the organization to make the change so that things would be better for men and women of color.”
“This is not a cakewalk when you step forward and articulate dreams for other people and responsibilities for organization’s, it is not necessarily conducive to the continued progress of your career. I’ve been very very fortunate I’ve worked every assignment I’ve wanted to work. Have we improved? Absolutely. Are we still reforming? Absolutely. Do we still need to continue to do so? Absolutely.”
All of the men agree that when it comes to recruitment efforts in the Black community for law enforcement and fire service careers, that it’s the fire department that gets the full wave from people in the community while law enforcement officers still get the single finger wave signaling there are still some issues as it relates to perception of the role of Blacks in their respective agencies. A perception they hope to begin to shatter by becoming more visible and vocal via their organization’s in the community.
Between the Fire Department, L.A.P.D., and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department all admit there’s no shortage of scandals and reasons why Blacks might not want to consider a career with their agencies.
From the recent dog food eating incident with the City’s Fire Department in which Black firefighter Tennie Pierce was fed dog food in his spaghetti, resulting in a $1.5-million settlement with the City to avoid trial, to the still missing Mitrice Richardson, who was released by the Malibu-Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department in September 2009 never to be seen again, they’re not blind to the fact that careers in law enforcement aren’t traditionally looked upon with favor by Blacks but still believe that Blacks are needed in these agencies—especially to bring about change.
“It’s very hard to be peace officer and not preach revolution,” says Lt. Martin. “It’s very easy to be branded and misunderstood when all you want is what is good for your people and if it’s good your people then it’s good for the country. I am very very Pro-American. I am very very Pro- United States, but I didn’t go into this blindly at all.”
On the issue of missing Mitrice Richardson, Lt. Martin looks down and says, “I think about her every day.”
Troy Westbrooks with the City’s Fire Department says, “No firefighter comes to work and thinks they are going to be fed dog food and I don’t think it’s humane. It’s unfair and it’s hard to put a dollar amount on somebody’s integrity.”
He believes that if you’re going to have these rules and regulations and policies and procedures, supervisors need to adhere to them, referencing to the fact that it was Pierce’s supervisor at the Westchester Fire Station who fed him the dog food.
When it comes to recruitment among Blacks in the L.A.P.D. Sgt. Ronnie Cato doesn’t believe that just because 10 percent of L.A. is Black that only 10 percent of police officers should be Black.
“ L.A. isn’t 90 percent white, so why should the Department be? That philosophy just doesn’t make sense.”
All agree that the good fight goes on. This means educating from within their respective organizations and representing for the Blacks in their Departments as well as to giving back to their community, the Black community, by mentoring Blacks and grooming them for a career in service—a career that comes with full medical, dental, vision, and pension plans, sick leave and disability benefits, and vacation and holiday time off.
“Those early pioneers in law enforcement and fire paved the road for us,” says Captain Brent Burton who also oversees the African-American Firefighter Museum on 14th and Central Avenue in Los Angeles, “we owe it to our ancestors and our community to make sure that Blacks are treated fairly on the job as well as to ensure that when our time is up and as we prepare to retire that we’ve helped cultivate a new generation of service providers and leaders in our field.”
To reach the L.A.P.D.’s Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation and to find out more about recruiting efforts by the L.A.P.D., go here.. To reach the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Black Peace Officer’s Association visit here. The Los Angeles City Stentorians can be reached here, and the Los Angeles County Stentorians are here.
Unexpected and unapologetically Black, at Jasmyne Cannick, is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the worlds of pop culture, race, class, sexuality, and politics as it relates to the African-American community. She can be reached at www.jasmynecannick.com.