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Blacks in Blue

An interview with Renault Robinson



Reader: How do you, as a black patrolman, feel about Attica and all the recent militant pronouncements about the prison system?

Robinson: There have been Atticas throughout history. It just so happens that NBC wasn't interested in them.

Reader: And it doesn't effect basically the way you look at your job?

Robinson: Oh, it has an effect. Since I know that 90% of the people in the prisons are black, and they got there not because they were proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt, but because of other circumstances. And I played a part in it. I put a lot of people in prison who shouldn't be there—only because standards have changed, now. I put a lot of people in jail for smoking marijuana. Kennedy's son didn't go to prison when he got caught smoking pot.

Walking the beat has a way of discouraging ideological questions. This is especially true for the black policeman, caught between the white system which employs him and his people's pressing need for humane police protection. Renault Robinson, Executive Director of the Afro-American Patrolmen's League, has learned during four years of constant harassment, fines, and suspensions just how dangerous political speculations can be.

A quiet-voiced man, his hair kept short enough to satisfy the police department, Robinson has the eyes of a veteran policeman, placid but watchful, almost hooded. In another part of the APL office at 7126 South Jeffery, a dignified black man with a new white cast on his arm is filing a claim of police brutality. A white officer broke his arm in an argument over a traffic ticket. The report seems interminable. Robinson interrupts our interview to explain court procedures, and boredom edges his voice as he repeats the legal terms he learned years ago in Police Academy and has used so many times since.

"Claim of liability … no defense to the resisting arrest charge … this all takes time, you know. Are you sure you'll want to appear in court six months from now when your arm is all healed up?"

Oh, yes, sir. I want to take this all the way."

Reader: Take that guy who was in here tonight, with the broken arm. What is his chance, realistically, of getting through a court battle and ever getting any money back?

Robinson: Well, it might be very little, if you take the cases that have gone before. On the other hand, all it takes is the first case to influence the activities of the officers around the guy who gets stuck.

Reader: This is a big general question—and very hypothetical. If every police offer that arrested a black an was black himself, how much better would the situation of blacks in Chicago be?

Robinson: That's too hypothetical to answer. That's like saying, if the whole city's government all of a sudden was black, would they improve the conditions——

Reader: No, it's not saying that, though.

Robinson: Well, it sounds like it. Clarify it, then.

Reader: What I had in mind was the fact that behind the activities of police officers are the courts and the prison system and everything else that is still very much a part of the white power structure.

Robinson: Yeah, but you can't get to the court unless I lock you up.

Reader: Exactly.

Robinson: And a lot of white kids never get there because a lot of white policemen don't lock them up.

Reader: But you arrest black people. See, when you're making an arrest of a black man, really what you're saying in effect is, "I think you ought to take the consequences that the society that's employing me says you ought to take.

Robinson: No. I'm saying that you can't get to the next step of the system unless I make the decision to put you there. And a lot of whites don't reach that next step because a lot of white policemen don't chose to send them to the next step. So, if the City had all black policemen, maybe a lot of blacks wouldn't reach those steps, either.

Reader: Right. Let's come back to 1971, though. When you're on the streets making an arrest, regardless of the race of the person … 

Robinson: We should be more specific, because very few blacks arrest white folks. Very few blacks are in a position to arrest white folks.

Reader: OK. So you're arresting a black guy.

Robinson: 99% of the time.

Reader: Aren't you saying to him that in some way you agree that he deserves the punishment that your … 

Robinson: No. You're just reflecting on your training, that's all. You're not saying any of that. Most policemen are aware that there's no justice in the system anyway. When you know that a cat can murder somebody and get out of it for a technicality, or that somebody is guilty and they get out of it because they pay the judge, and when you know that the whole thing is rampant, and you know that everybody at court is always poor and that almost never are there any rich people that stand before that bar—you're not under any illusion that there's any justice to it.

Reader: So what are you saying when you arrest a black man?"

Robinson: You're reflecting your training.

Reader: Well, then what's your justification for being a policeman?

Robinson: Now you're trying to make a logical situation out of it. And you can't do it that way. It's like when a soldier kills, then trying to say, "What's your justification for being a soldier?" You know, there's a whole lot of other things that are involved in the equation. It doesn't work that way.

Reader: Seems as though it ought to, though. If you really think that the whole system that people you arrest get hung up on, jail and then the courts and then prison, and then the parole system, really doesn't have any justice in it, then why are you out on the streets being the first step?

Robinson: Well, there is a need for the police. You must remember that. There is a logical and honest and real need for the police. There are just a certain number of people who, regardless of their circumstances, are going to do wrong. And I don't care how "nice" things are, there are still going to be some people who are going to commit crimes. Now, of course, social circumstances force more people to do it, who would not be criminally minded.

Reader: Generally when you arrest somebody, you think of him as a wrong doer, rather than as somebody who's being victimized by his social circumstances.

Robinson: I wouldn't want to characterize what people generally thought about people when they arrested them, because I know that a variety of things go through a policeman's mind. And also there's a relative value in that question.

Reader: Do you think the blacks on the police force are significantly more honest, more free from corruption, less racist, less brutal than the white police officers?

Robinson: That's about 20 questions.

Reader: Yes.

Robinson: I'll answer one of them. I think they're less brutal now. Which means that in the past, they were just as brutal. As far as the other activities are concerned, I haven't really surveyed them that carefully.

Reader: One of the things I was thinking of is a black policeman who makes an arrest in a Latin area. Racism becomes an issue there.

Robinson: It becomes an issue with the Latins, who consider themselves closer to being white than black. It wouldn't be an issue with the policeman.

Reader: Well, one thing you always hear a lot about is conflict between Latins and blacks. You're saying it's mostly prejudice on the Latins' part … 

Robinson: A good example is, all of the police officers on the job who are of Spanish decent consider themselves white in terms of their associations, in terms of groups that that join, until they get jammed. Then the white groups turn their backs. We've had many of them come running to us, and you know we just couldn't do anything for them.

Reader: You would support them founding their own organization?

Robinson: No, I would support them if they made up their minds what they wanted to be, but as long as they want to be white, then they'll have to take the consequences of finding out that they're not.

Reader: What about corruption on the force?

Robinson: Corruption is rampant in the department. In all departments.

Reader: Blacks and whites.

Robinson: Not so much blacks. With blacks it's petty. Whites control it.

The Afro-American Patrolmen's League was organized in 1968 by then black policemen with the announced goal of "elevating the black policeman in the black community to the same image-status enjoyed by the white policeman in the white community: that is a protector of the citizenry and not a brutal oppressor." Shortly thereafter Robinson, the League's Executive Director, received his first of many suspensions from the force. Before the formation of the AAPL, he had an excellent record, with several awards and an "efficiency rating" of 97%.

Reader: If you could give a short personal history of your troubles with the department, just quickly.

Robinson: It's impossible to do that in a short period of time.

Reader: Can you say how many times you have been suspended?

Robinson: Um … no … I really can't. I don't really know. Fifteen thousand dollars' worth.

Reader: That's over a year in salary.

Robinson: It's about a year and 70 or 80 days.

Reader: For what sort of offenses?

Robinson: For not having my hat on, not being respectful, bringing discredit upon the department, improperly loading a shotgun, being late to work, not filling out a report properly, calling a supervisor crazy, things of that nature. I'm now in civil proceedings against the police department—we have a suit in the federal district that's been in court for over a year.

Reader: What's your status now with the department?

Robinson: I'm back on the force now, pending another 30-day suspension. I'm working in the traffic division. It's an isolation thing. Since 90% of the guys in there are white, they think they minimize my effect by keeping me in there.

Reader Are you actually on patrol, making arrests?

Robinson: No. Directing traffic and blowing the whistle. The most ridiculous assignment in the police department, to make $13,000 for standing on the corner and augmenting the traffic signal.

Out of 2300 black policemen in Chicago, 1200 belong to the AAPL despite constant harassment and the danger of suspension. The League considers itself primarily a community service organization—besides efforts to improve the lot of blacks within the department, they also have a brutality complaint referral service, voter registration drives, etc. In an effort to block $20 million in federal funds, the AAPL registered a complaint about discrimination in hiring practices which is currently being investigated by the Justice Department.

Reader: What kind of information do they get on applicants? Do you have to indicate your race on the application forms?

Robinson: Absolutely.

Reader: Isn't that illegal?

Robinson: You should be aware that there are ways of getting around that. You know that no white lives at 47th and Calumet, so whatever you put down, it's obvious. There's no race indicator supposedly on our police records downtown, but we all know they've been coded by a personnel expert.

Reader: To what extent is the AAPL recognized as an organization by police officials?

Robinson: Well, every time a member dies they send me a notice, asking me to pay his death benefits. Other than that, there's been no official recognition.

Reader: Do they ever make any references to the organization?

Robinson: Only in extreme situations.

Reader: All your members are black policemen?

Robinson: Yes. We don't allow white members. We don't have any civilian members.

Reader: Have you had any difficulty about not allowing white members?

Robinson: No white policemen would dare challenge us. It's like a black challenging the legality of no blacks being in the KKK. They consider us that type of an organization, you know what I mean? So they wouldn't dare try and get in. Even though we aren't, and even though we've made a hundred attempts to explain our position to them—in fact, one of our most recent activities is a white police seminar which we've set up just for white police officers.

Reader: How many people come to these things?

Robinson: Not even twenty. We get ten, we get five, we get three. And they're sent, you know.

The man with the broken arm, his report finally completed, shakes hands with Robinson awkwardly, forgetting for a moment the cast on his right arm. He is helped with his coat. "Good luck to you, brother. Tomorrow the ACLU will call, more questions will be asked, and maybe six or eight months from now he'll be answering them all over again in court. Tomorrow Renault Robinson, a policeman who believes that police should protect he people, will spend another day augmenting a traffic signal.

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