One hundred years ago, Samuel J. Battle was sworn in as the New York Police Department's first black officer.
Today, the majority of the police officers at the nation's largest department are minorities — and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says it is this diversity that makes the NYPD so effective.
"In recent years our members have driven crime down to levels not seen in more than four decades," Kelly said Tuesday in a speech to graduating cadets. "They are successfully defending the city against acts of terrorism, the quality of life has improved in every borough and public regard for the department has never been higher."
There are 3,856 black police officers, 1,236 Asian officers and 6,290 Hispanic ones in the department, compared with 10,091 white officers. Police officers are out on patrol and generally engage the most with city residents. A little more than half the overall department — which includes the top brass and higher ranks — is white, with 26 percent Hispanic, 16.5 black and 4.9 Asian.
As the NYPD has grown increasingly diverse, its relationship with city residents has changed. The last major racial flashpoint for the NYPD was arguably more than a decade ago in 1999, when four white officers killed an unarmed African immigrant in a hail of 41 bullets in the Bronx. The shooting sparked protests nearly every day for weeks around City Hall, where demonstrators accused police of trampling the civil rights of blacks and Latinos.
There were smaller-scale protests following the police killing of another unarmed black man, Sean Bell, and the wounding of two friends in 2006 after Bell's bachelor party in Queens. While Bell and his friends were black, the officers involved are Hispanic, black and white. More recently, the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactics have caused friction, with the department stopping about a half a million people annually, mostly black and Hispanic men.
In the past decade under Kelly's tenure, the department made major recruiting efforts at Army bases and historically black colleges to help boost minority ranks.
"I think it's the most diverse police force in the world," Kelly said. "We have hired recruits in the last five years born in 88 countries. We've had no class in the last five years that had no fewer than 50 countries represented in the class. We're proud of that; we think diversity is our strength."
And it all began with Battle.
The son of former slaves from North Carolina, Battle left the South for New York City when he was a teenager. He was working as a red cap at Grand Central Terminal, carrying bags for the wealthy and powerful, when he decided to become an officer.
"I knew everybody — the president, the governor, and all the society people," Battle said, according to an oral history given to Columbia University's Oral History Collection in 1960.
He was refused entry into civil service schools in order to take the exam for police officer, so he bought a book and studied at home — and aced the test.
"As I left headquarters, the commissioner told me I was appointed and talked to me personally," Battle said, according to the oral history. "He said to me that he was proud to know that I was a New York City policeman: 'You will have some difficulties, but I know you will overcome them.'"
During his 30 years on the force, Battle often endured threats, racism, hazing and marginalization from white officers. He was forced to sleep in a separate room from the other officers at the Harlem precinct during overnight tours. But he rose above it and kept moving up within the NYPD, becoming the department's first black lieutenant in the 1930s.
The intersection at West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, near where the Harlem precinct is stationed, was renamed in his honor in 2009. Battle lived on nearby 138th Street. He died in 1966.
Kelly spoke at the graduation for the NYPD cadets, college students who do administrative work at the department and have the option of joining the police academy after they graduate.