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Pension with prejudice 

Why Atlanta's Police Pioneers are still feeling the effects of a long-dead racist practice

When he was 28, Howard Baugh Sr. overheard his boss at Center Chemical Co. say that blacks at the business would never make it "upstairs" -- to the ranks of management. The comment was enough to convince Baugh that his job as a shipping clerk at the now-defunct company was a dead end.

That day, he picked up an application to join the Atlanta Police Department.

"I was making as much money as I could make, but I didn't think I was doing enough," Baugh, 76, says. "I just wanted to make things in my community a little bit better."

Baugh's decision to join the force made him a pioneer of sorts -- only the 12th black police officer hired in Atlanta. That was 1953, six years after the department had first opened its ranks to African-Americans. Baugh would soon learn that it was integrated in name only.

Black cops couldn't partner up with white cops, and they dressed in separate locker rooms, in different buildings. Black police officers weren't even allowed to arrest white suspects. The police chief himself was an unabashed member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Baugh, a veteran of Iwo Jima, took it in stride, telling himself, "Be patient. Hold out."

Today, 56 percent of the force is black, and African-Americans occupy the highest positions within the department. Baugh's patience over his 24-year career paid off.

Almost.

Baugh, and dozens of retired or soon-to-retire black cops like him, are still feeling the effects of a blatantly racist policy that lingered until the 1970s. For about 25 years, white police officers contributed to a pension fund that was off-limits to black cops.

As a result, a black retiree's pension today may be hundreds of dollars a month less than that of a white counterpart.

In the past few months, a group of current and retired officers has quietly lobbied the state -- which administers the fund -- to compensate affected officers. The state, though, has made little effort to address the issue.

The arguments of Baugh and others come at a time when the national debate over slave reparations -- whether to compensate black Americans today for slavery in antebellum America and the racism that holds fast even today -- rises in pitch.

The issue of reparations has been contentious for many reasons, no less because slavery itself was outlawed 136 years ago. But the argument for compensating Baugh and cops like him is strengthened by their very presence among us; they're living reminders of a racist past.

"This is far easier than the reparations problem," says Charles Shanor, former general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a law professor at Emory University. The victims can be identified relatively easily and their grievances addressed, he says.

"It's a matter of having the political will to do that."

On Feb. 19, 1953, Baugh's first day as an Atlanta police officer, he wasn't allowed to change into his uniform at the Decatur Street headquarters. Like the other black officers in Atlanta, he had a locker at the Butler Street YMCA -- four blocks away.

On the street, things weren't much better. Although Baugh and other black officers were given guns, badges and uniforms and told to uphold Georgia laws, many of those same laws were passed by a state Legislature determined to keep all African-Americans second-class citizens.

Baugh could patrol only black districts. If he was apprehending a white suspect, he had to radio a white supervisor to come make the formal arrest.

Police Chief Herbert T. Jenkins, like most Atlanta police recruits of his generation, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan -- a membership he once referred to as an ID card with the "in group," according to Gary Pomerantz's Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn.

The differences in power and prestige between white and black police officers were not lost on some members of the black commun-ity, who at a ceremony in which the city's first black cops were introduced to the public dismissively called the black officers "nigger police," Pomerantz writes.

During the late 1950s, Baugh, who had just become the city's first black detective, says two white cops even threatened to kill him, and paid a drunken white woman $5 to sit at his house where the cops could find her when they drove up. Baugh says that in the '50s, for a black man to be seen with an inebriated white female in the early morning hours was all the probable cause a white cop would have needed to haul him away. But the scheme was interrupted when a white supervisor, who had informed Baugh about the cops' intentions, arrived at the scene around 3 a.m. as Baugh was being forced into the squad car, he says.

Despite the prejudice, the second-class treatment, and the loathing the position often inspired among both blacks and whites, being a black police officer in Atlanta meant at least two things: steady pay and decent benefits.

Perhaps one of the most attractive of those benefits -- supposedly open to all cops -- was the Peace Officers' Annuity and Benefit Fund of Georgia.

The fund, started in 1950 by Gov. Herman Talmadge, required a nominal monthly fee -- today it's only $10 -- and assured a handsome payoff upon retirement. Portions of traffic ticket fines help fund the program.

A participating cop retiring today with just 10 years of service could expect a check for $236.90 per month. With a full 30 years of service, the plan tops out at $710.70 per month. The program has more than 11,000 members, and last year it paid out $11 million in benefits.

Today, a board of commissioners administers the $320 million fund. The governor appoints four, three of whom must be cops. One member represents the State Insurance Commissioner.

Baugh recalls that in 1955, he and Ernest Lyons, one of the original eight black cops hired by the city, both tried to join the fund. They were recruited for membership by a white supervisor and handed applications. They thought they were accepted when they received small badges from the Peace Officers' Association of Georgia, which at the time was closely associated with the fund. But about a month later, a supervisor came to collect the badges and return their money. Baugh says he was told the program was "not yet" accepting black officers.

By 1969, when Ray Whitaker joined Atlanta's police force fresh from a stint in Vietnam, black police officers were allowed to do most of the same jobs as their white counterparts, but the department was still largely segregated. Black cops couldn't patrol Buckhead, direct traffic or ride police motorcycles.

And the pension plan was still off-limits, Whitaker says.

Like Baugh, Whitaker, who retired this week, applied to the program because it looked like a good opportunity to secure his future.

"I received their response," says Whitaker, 55. "It said, 'We aren't accepting colored officers at this time.'"

Isaac Jenrette, who joined the APD in 1962, was also turned down. While the situation disturbed him, he says, "It wasn't so much different than what you experienced in everyday life." Jenrette is now a Fulton County Superior Court judge.

During the mid-1970s, Whitaker, who retired as a detective, says the fund was opened up to officers, black and white, who were either denied or failed to apply to the fund. However, Whitaker recalls that for him to "buy in," he'd have to fork over around $7,000 -- an amount that took into account back dues, interest and penalties. Whitaker thinks the exorbitantly high fees were meant to discourage new membership. What's more, an officer could "buy back" a maximum of five years of service. Meaning, if you had been on the force for 15 years, the program would only give you credit for five and that would affect your retirement benefits. Whitaker says he couldn't afford it.

Baugh recalls that when he was finally offered membership, he was asked to pay more than $6,000 up front. He chose not to join.

"There was overt discrimination," says state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, who has been working with the governor's office on behalf of the denied cops. "There's no doubt about that."

The question is, who did the discriminating?

Robert Carter, the fund's secretary/treasurer, says his group is still trying to figure out how black officers were excluded, but he guesses that it wasn't the state program. Instead, he thinks white police officers who belonged to the fund discouraged their black colleagues from joining.

Carter says he's found fund applications from the 1950s and 1960s, and "the question of race is not even on the applications." That, he argues, suggests that the program's administration was not discriminatory, just the cops in the individual department who belonged to it.

Whitaker thinks Atlanta's white cops never made any real efforts to tell black officers about the program. But, he wonders, if it was the city alone that did the discriminating, why isn't the fund able to point to black beneficiaries from other police departments?

And Richard Straut, an Atlanta cop and senior vice president for the Atlanta chapter of the Police Benevolent Association of Georgia, says that not one black Atlanta police officer of or nearing retirement age is a member of the program.

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the discrimination was indeed on the state level. Some white cops encouraged black officers to join the program. Baugh says the white captain in charge of his watch encouraged him to join the pension fund. "He was a right guy," Baugh says. "He just said he wanted good men."

It was the fund, which still doesn't have any black board members that rejected his application.

Whitaker says that as with Baugh, the fund returned the membership dues of Henry Hooks, one of the original eight black police officers to join Atlanta's police force. And DeKalb County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Lewis Graham says he also was turned down for membership during the late 1960s.

What's more, the state legally didn't have to make the fund available to black applicants until 1972 -- the year Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination, was interpreted by the courts to apply to state and local governments -- Shanor says.

Last April, Straut approached Whitaker to ask him why he wasn't a member of the pension fund. Whitaker told him that membership had depended on race.

Straut was initially skeptical, but Whitaker told him to check it out for himself. Straut says that after a phone call to the fund, he learned Whitaker was right: blacks couldn't join the fund until 1976.

Straut, who was shot in the head on the job in 1989 and still walks with a limp, had to fight his own battle against a department that he believes tried to keep him off the job because he was disabled. It explains why he's pushing the state to make amends to black cops like Whitaker. "I got a little taste of discrimination in my mouth, and it was stinky," Straut says. "If I see [discrimination], I'm going to stamp it out."

Word has gotten out that Straut, who is white, has taken on the cause. "My phone's been ringing off the hook," he says. He figures that at least 160 cops were kept out of the pension fund.

Straut is pushing the state to open a one-year window for cops who were denied access. Those cops would than have the opportunity to make one-time $3,600 payments to the fund and be given full retirement benefits. The $3,600 figure comes from multiplying the $10 per month membership dues over 30 years -- the maximum number of years of service covered by the plan. To do that, state law would have to be changed, because the fund allows members to "buy back" only a maximum of five years of service.

Of course, the fund won't be able to afford an influx of new members that it wasn't planning for -- especially amid a struggling stock market -- so the state will probably be asked to chip in some money.

To figure out how much it will take to cover the new beneficiaries and keep the fund solvent, the state must complete an actuary report.

But the fund's Carter says state law prevents the legislature from changing the rules regarding pension funds until the beginning of a governor's term -- 2003 in this case. So the state must change its own laws to even be able to consider adding once-denied black members to the program.

Straut credits state representative Brooks for bringing the issue to the governor's attention, but even Brooks says: "I can't give you a timetable" on addressing the police officers' concerns.

While Brooks suggests the issue would be best solved off the public stage, Straut disagrees, saying that such a tactic would prevent it from becoming a political issue and an embarrassment to the governor.

The time to make amends should be now, Straut says. The governor should push for the necessary changes to state law and make a commitment to right an obvious wrong. If black officers can prove they were denied access to the pension fund, which seems likely, they could conceivably sue the state. That would cost a lot more than the price tag for chipping in money to the pension fund.

"I'm a white guy, and I see that [the inattention by the state] is wrong," Straut says.

Meanwhile, progress has been extremely slow. Barnes didn't answer the initial letters Straut and Whitaker sent to his office, and it took an intervention by Brooks to get the attention of the administration.

Most recently Straut says a call for resumes for prospective fund board members -- it still doesn't have any black members -- recently came down from the governor's office. So there is some progress.

Straut says Barnes knows that he owes his election in 1998, in large part, to black Atlanta voters. Insensitivity and inaction on a matter like this might translate to bad news at the polls, Straut suggests.

For his part, Baugh, who is helping to put a grandson through college at the University of Southern California, says he wishes he had swallowed his pride and taken out a loan to join the program when it was offered the second time. "That money would have been right on time."

Time isn't something the state seems to be worried about.

kevin.griffis@creativeloafing.com

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