In the prologue of The Thin Black Line by the late Chicago Police Commander and mystery writer Hugh Holton, he mentions almost off-handedly that the first black officers were in New Orleans in 1805. These free men of color were called on to administer a particularly ironic brand of law enforcement: catching runaway slaves. As documented in another book, Black Police in America by W. Marvin Dulaney, Holton suggests that free blacks--some of mixed race--were part of the city guard and constabulary as early as 1803. Holton goes on to point out these black police, who had no powers of arrest over white citizenry, wanted to be seen as loyal to, and as much as possible a part of, the white power structure rather than be identified with their brethren in bondage.
Or as comedian Richard Pryor would so aptly opine, "Black cops had to do more shit to keep their jobs than white cops."
Often black cops had to repeatedly demonstrate to their white fellow officers that they were willing to be as hard on the black community as the white cops were. That racism and a kind of split personality pervades the world of blacks in law enforcement is a subtext in The Thin Black Line but, as Holton's very brief mention of the black slave catcher's dilemma indicates, it isn't the main focus of the book. This is not a heavy-handed sociological examination but an enlightening and entertaining set of interviews with men and women cops, parole officers and prison personnel.
As in a mystery novel, all the information to solve the puzzle isn't readily available to you. In the Editors Note in the front of the book, Robert Gleason, who completed the book after Holton's death, relates a story that isn't in the author's description of his law career. Gleason relates that when Holton, a Vietnam vet, returned home to Chicago, he applied to the police department in early 1969 and was turned down. In fact, 16 out of the 17 black applicants were turned down for flat feet and heart arrhythmias--ailments, Gleason notes, that are measured subjectively and largely unprovable. Hugh Holton went back home, put on his army uniform, and returned to do a second physical. He told them that if he was healthy enough for combat, surely he's healthy enough for the Chicago PD.
One of the white guys seeing this says, "Hell, Hugh, I didn't know you were a Vietnam vet. Forget about it. You passed."
If Gleason hadn't put that telling anecdote in, then you wouldn't have the full picture. Similarly, it's only by reading the interviews that you discover Holton's father, Hubert, was also on the Chicago PD. The senior Holton doesn't recount all the shit he undoubtedly had to put up with when he joined the department in 1955, the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He doesn't go on about how he, like a lot of blacks who came north, was part of the huge migration from the Deep South (he was born in Louise, Mississippi) to the industrialized north seeking a better life. In the matter-of-fact tone of the other cops interviewed, he only notes that there were a small number of blacks on the force when he joined. He goes on to talk about the units he worked in, and that he and a white cop were the first salt-and-pepper team in a particular area in Chicago. We later learn in Hugh Holton's interview that, at one point, father and son served simultaneously as commanders--the only time this has ever happened in the Chicago Police Department.
Or take La Verne Dunlap, one of the first female, let alone black, officers hired in an unidentified rust belt town north of Gary, Indiana in 1971. Before becoming a cop she was traveling with a band in 1969 and was harassed by local law in a Mississippi town for swimming in the hotel pool. "I thought if I ever became a cop," she said, "I would put a stop to that kind of injustice."
The subjects in The Thin Black Line offer varying takes on their law enforcement careers. Some love the job and some, by the time of their interviews, had moved on to other arenas. Some, like Roger Tucker of the Philadelphia Police Department, are keenly aware of that tortured lineage begun long ago in New Orleans. "I also considered my police work to be mercenary work because I was policing my community for the majority of society." But his and the others' observations are not there to preach from a soapbox but to document how these professionals did their job and took some measure of satisfaction of being part of that thin black line.