Caught in the crossfire

Patricia Hill is the executive director of the African-American Police League, a community organization of black police officers and civilians committed to improving police service in black communities.

Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz

Patricia Hill is the executive director of the African-American Police League, a community organization of black police officers and civilians committed to improving police service in black communities.

For six years, women scarcely walked the streets of 75th and Dorchester, intimidated by neighborhood crime and the area’s poor lighting at night. During the day, the sound of soda cans crackled under pedestrians’ feet while candy wrappers littered the sidewalks.

For Patricia Hill, a retired police officer and former bodyguard for Harold Washington, cleaning up crime-filled streets went beyond stern policing measures. It entailed an investment in the community—bargaining with an alderman to get the street light on Dorchester, digging into her pockets to buy trash cans when the city wouldn’t, and purchasing a building to house the nonprofit that would allow these efforts to continue.

It’s through her personal investment in the community that Hill empowers the African American Police League as its executive director. The group’s primary goal is to mend the distrust between the black communities it serves and the predominantly white police force entrusted to protect residents. The league is also the city’s only non-profit organization that advocates for black police officers, particularly when it comes to disciplinary hearings and issues of legal and financial counseling.

Through the league Hill has published her first book, “Black Ain’t Blue.” She calls it an “indictment on America” because in it she gives a historical perspective of American law enforcement, illustrating why black people distrust the police. Her goal is to create a paradigm shift by stating the contradictions in the policing system so that the problems in the system can be corrected.

“Is the will there to correct the problem? If [the police department says] yes, then you have to give up some things to fix the problem,” Hill said. “It’s called giving up a little power.” The book is available at aapoliceleague.org, the organization’s website, and at area bookstores, including Afrocentric Bookstore, Underground Bookstore and Afri- Ware. Hill is also a regular writer for the Chicago Defender newspaper, writing “The Black Watch” column.

An activist from the age of 16 and contender for the 1968 U.S. Olympic team in the long jump, Hill began her career as an educator in the Chicago public schools. She had been there 12 years when, in 1975, she rejected the city’s invitation to be among the first group of women to join the Chicago Police Department. She changed her mind after Washington became mayor and joined the police academy.

One of her assignments was at the Cabrini-Green public housing development. She volunteered for the assignment, wanting to combat a surge of drive-by shootings. Under the auspices of the African American Youth League, she jump-started a Little League baseball program that was featured in the movie “Hardball.” The program took in children between ages 9 and 15 who were most likely to be pressured into joining gangs. In order to play, kids had to go through classes that taught them self-respect and conflict resolution. Shootings fell over a two-year period.

Hill’s commitment earned her the title “Mama Pat” among those in the communities she worked. But Hill also became a controversial figure to her peers, exposing the dark history of the police department’s relationship with its own black officers through the African American Police League and challenging the opinions of her peers.

As their shepherd, Hill has connected the public to the police by extending membership to non-police officers. The expansion also boosted current membership to 1,600. Hill sat down with The Chicago Reporter at the league’s headquarters on the corner of 75th Street and Dorchester to share her view of policing strategies based on her 20 years of experience on the force.

For whom does the organization advocate?

Citizens who’ve been abused by the police contact us and we advocate on their behalf. We advise and service them. We try to also stay out there publicly in terms of informing the public in regards to their rights and the duties and responsibilities of the police. We do that in a lot of different ways. We have had a newsletter off and on for the last probably 15 years. I’ve had at least a column in one of the newspapers so now I’m writing again for the Defender, it’s called The Black Watch. Periodically we also put out flyers about community events and hold meetings once a month for those that wish to attend.

Do you have to be a police officer to join?

[In 1994] we opened up our membership to civilians, not just police now. That’s helped a lot. The civilians that have been involved get more informed and educated and they’re not intimidated by being in coexistence with the police or interacting with the police. At first some of them run. Then they see, OK they really are here for us. So there’s always the suspicion you know.

What’s the overall goal of the league?

The primary goal of the African American Police League is two fold: One is to improve the relationship between the African-American community and the police department. Secondly it is to bring parity to African-American police officers equal to that of white officers, or other officers.

What’s the context for all the mistrust between the black community and the police department?

During slavery you had to have a law enforcement system because slavery was legal. It was the law. So every time you have laws you have to have someone to enforce those laws, and the laws were enforced by groups called slave patrols. Slave patrols actually represented the first organized policing system in America.

So if you deal with the origin of policing in America and its relationship to black people you can understand why we have this adversarial relationship in 2007. If you look at the 13th Amendment, [slavery] is still not outlawed. So slavery is not illegal in America. So now what do you do? You re-enslave people. And what entity do you use to re-enslave people? The slave patrols. And who are they? The police department.

The prison industrial complex is highly profitable. I mean it’s on the stock market now, people are investing in it and you have all this privatizing of it—all the clothing, the food, the janitorial services. And then you look at how it provides jobs. Where are most of your prisons? In your rural communities in America that have no other means of jobs or employment. There are no coal mines, there are no steel mills. There’s no railroad. We create the jail so they can feed their family. And who’s the commodity? Black men and women and children. So America has never let go. It cannot get away from this whole thing of slavery, this free labor concept. That’s all it is—it’s free labor.

What do you think it will take to get to the point of equity in policing strategies?

It’s kind of hard getting to that point because right now what you have is a culture and a philosophy of policing. So whoever is on the police department generally buys into that to be a police officer you have to be strong. We have a saying that if, when you come on this department, you don’t have an identity, it will give you one.

Unfortunately, that happens to a lot of black officers. They’re not certain of who they are. They don’t understand the role that they are supposed to play in regards to their community as a police officer so they take on the culture of the dominant culture, which is anti-African American.

So a lot of things that you see happening now, that you see manifesting on the street, are a result of the training. I’ve spent many times applying to be an instructor in their training academy. Of course, they refused me.

Would the situation be better if more African- American officers were on the force?

Well, it probably would be if there were more, simply because…officers bring their culture and it’s just insane for black officers to be violent against their community when they’re in the majority. I mean, basically every black officer lives in the black community. Many black officers, when they don’t have their uniform on, are regarded as just another black person in the community. Even on the job, you’re just another black person in the uniform. So the thinking behind more black officers is that they would be more inclined to have a greater affinity for the African-American community, which is the dominant community in Chicago.

What do you envision the league accomplishing in the next 10 to 15 years?

We want to continue to build the numbers. Right now we’re dealing a lot with the brutality cases that are in the community. In 10 to 15 years, I would hope the organization would be more published in terms of documentation and educating our officers… I would hope every African-American officer would become a dues payer, but our objective is to become more visible.