Montclair’s early Black police officers left a proud legacy (Letter)
Retired Deputy Chief of Police Roger Terry, a former councilman at large, and I were conversing on Dr. Martin Luther King Day, pertaining to the original Black Montclair police officers who paved the way for those African American officers serving the township today. Before paying tribute to these officers, I would like to share some thoughts that I believe many readers of Montclair Local can relate to.
I was born and raised in Montclair’s Fourth Ward, a predominantly Italian American and African American community. I was the only son in a poor, one-parent Italian American family, having lost my father to cancer when I was 7 years old, leaving my young mother a widow. I remember my mother always instilling honesty and respect in me, and my younger sister. My mother always gave of herself regardless of what might have been done to her, saying “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”
In those days, an Italian American had only two things besides the love of family, God and country to survive — his or her word and credibility. I learned to keep both. As chief of police, and a leader, I assumed responsibility for showing the way and setting the direction, adhering to the core belief of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior for a police department approaching its work, and how this relates to the community it serves.
There are basic principles of effective living, and people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn to integrate their principles into their own character. In re-learning fundamental truths for effective living, it is apparent that much of what is viewed as innovative today is merely the re-learning of old, nearly forgotten fundamental truths. These fundamental truths that need no justification: integrity, truth, fairness, dignity, respect, humility, and love. They are essential guidelines for human behavior and conduct in 2021, and beyond, just as they were preached by Dr. Martin Luther King 60 years ago. During my tenure as chief of police, it was my distinct pleasure and honor to serve, using the basic principles I’ve just spoken of.
In tribute to those African American police officers who paved the way for those serving today, I salute and honor them.
Auburn Peterson, George Wanamaker, Howard Page, Bob Geddis, Garis Leslie, Buster Fitzgerald, Alden Brown, Daniel Hobson, Bobby Kittrell, Bobby Richardson, Arnold Bostic, John McGill, Alvin Smith, Ralph Ellis and Bill Mcpherson. Roger told me it was hard being a Black police officer in those early years, and that they were looked down upon by certain people in the Black community as traitors not to be trusted, but gradually that changed over the years with them getting the respect they deserved. I can relate to that, as I was once accused as being part of the Mafia because of my Sicilian heritage. I believe all these men are deceased. I honor them for their service to the Township of Montclair.
For those Black officers serving today, be proud of your police heritage.
Thomas J. Russo
Former Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety for the Township of Montclair
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