Benjamin Ward was gruff, blunt, pioneering NYPD commissioner

NYC Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward at a press conference regarding the 77th precinct on Nov. 6, 1986.
NYC Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward at a press conference regarding the 77th precinct on Nov. 6, 1986. Photo Credit: NYPD

Mayor Bill de Blasio credited him with changing “the assumptions of who can lead” the NYPD.

Commissioner James O’Neill called him one of the first NYPD commissioners to recognize community policing.

First Deputy Benjamin Tucker praised him for graduating magna cum laude from Brooklyn College and being on the law review of Brooklyn Law School while being a cop.

Former John Jay College head Jeremy Travis called him a “criminal justice visionary.”

They were talking about the late Benjamin Ward, the NYPD’s first black commissioner, at last week’s dedication of a Police Academy library in his honor. But Ward’s most important legacy is how far the city and the NYPD have come in dissipating racial prejudice, notwithstanding the yammering of today’s black activists and white progressives with little, if any, memory of history.

Mayor Ed Koch appointed Ward in 1984 because, said Koch, Ward was black. Koch was in political trouble with blacks after the 1983 death of Michael Stewart, 25, in police custody.

The problem with the appointment, though, was that the rank-and-file despised Ward. This stemmed from the fatal shooting of Officer Philip Cardillo inside a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem in 1972. Ward, who was then deputy commissioner for community affairs, was falsely blamed for releasing suspects before identifying them to defuse a riot outside the mosque.

Ward was rough and gruff, spoke his mind, and did what he wanted to do. He also forced the integration of blacks, Hispanics and women into the NYPD’s supervisory positions. He got in trouble for answering a question about Hispanics in the NYPD ranks. He said, “In South Africa they say, ‘Don’t give Zulu white bread, give them black bread, because if you give Zulu white bread, tomorrow they will want butter, too.’ ” Koch made him apologize.

Ward also said what many people, black and white, were afraid to: what he called “our dirty little secret.” He meant that most violent crime in NYC was committed by blacks against blacks.

People are afraid to say it in 2017. Ward, who died in 2002, might have changed assumptions of who can lead the NYPD. But among many people, black and white, anti-police biases remain unchanged.