Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Black Cop, White Cop

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
            The other day I was working on identifying and cataloging a collection of unlabeled photographs of Elmira Police officers from the 1950s.  It was pretty slow going but there was one man I thought I knew right away: Wilbur Reid.  From 1953 to 1959, Reid was the only black officer in the entire Elmira Police Department.  *** Correction:  According to Reid's son, the man in the photo is actually not Wilbur Reid.  If anyone knows who he actually is, I would be much obliged if you'd let me know***
See the difference?
            In recent months the often troubled relationship between police and communities of color has been in the forefront of our national consciousness.  Problems include racial profiling, excessive use of force and a mutual lack of trust.  There are many steps which need to be taken to begin to deal with these issues, but some feel that having a police force which is more representative of the community it serves might help.  Historically speaking, how has the Elmira Police Department reflected the diversity of our community?

            Over the last 150 years of its existence, the Elmira Police Department has been very white.  The first black police officer was John Washington.  He was appointed to the police in 1876 by Mayor Turner and served for 13 years before retiring in 1889 at the age of 71. Washington was a giant of a man who was frequently called upon to carry home drunks.  At the time of his retirement he received a special commendation from the police commissioners for his service. 
John Washington, ca. 1880
            Washington would be the last African American on the force for over 50 years.  In October of 1947, the civic affairs committee of the Elmira chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) petitioned the city Council asking for the appointment of blacks to the police and fire departments.  “In other cities Negroes are so employed and it is generally conceded that Negro policemen are very valuable in the city.  Negroes are citizens and in a democratic society should have representation,” the petition read.  The Council agreed and encouraged blacks to apply for the next round of civil service testing, with the understanding that veterans would receive preference.  In 1953, Wilbur Reid passed the test and became Elmira’s first black police officer in the 20th century.

              He left the force in 1959 in favor of a more lucrative job as a medical technician, but the department went on to hire three new black officers during the 1960s: Robert Harriel Jr. (1964-1986), Arthur Keith Sr. (1964-1974) and Joseph Muson (1969-1970).  Following Harriel’s death in 1986, the department was once more completely white.  In 1998, it began a campaign targeted at recruiting blacks, Hispanics and women.  It was also around this time that the department struggled with protests and lawsuits alleging racial discrimination and profiling by police.  Following the incidents, the department conducted a series of community conversations in order to improve communications and allay fears.  In 2006, they hired their first 21st century black officer.  There are currently 2 black officers on the force. 

Elmira police, ca. 1970s


  1. Excellent choice of topics. Getting the facts on the public record is a very good thing. Thank you.

  2. It's a disservice to people of color in Elmira to be disccriminated against constanty with racial profiling, and pulled over for DWB driving while black. It's ironic that Caucasian women in elmira are married with children to black men. There is a high percentage of mixed couples and children in Elmira and not one african american policeman, no african american. Businesses to speak of. I've noticed corning doesn't have any african american police either
    It makes a person wonder why and what relief is available to remedy the obvious discrimination problem.