Retired black police seek pension parity

Black Pension Denied
J.L. Booker, who served 32 years with College Park Police Department, holds an old photograph of the department's two first black officers. Booker was denied entrance to the police pension fund and seeks a remedy from the state legislature. John Amis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A "whites only" sign was still hanging on the precinct house water fountain in 1964 when James Booker joined the suburban College Park police force. He soon learned it wasn't the only thing off limits to Georgia's new black recruits.

Until 1976, black officers were blocked from joining a state-supported supplemental police retirement fund. Today, white officers who entered the fund before that year are taking home hundreds of dollars more every month in retirement benefits than their black counterparts.

The now-retired black officers have been lobbying hard to change that, but eight years after they began an effort to amend the state constitution and give them credit for those lost years is stalled in the Legislature. The Georgia Constitution prohibits the state from extending new benefits to public employees after they have retired.

If lawmakers don't take action in the final weeks of the legislative session, the battle will move to the courthouse this spring, said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist leading the officers' campaign.

"I was hoping we wouldn't have to go this route, but litigation appears to be our only option," Brooks said.

Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, said he knows of no other state with a similar pension situation. "Only Georgia is shameless enough to still have this out there," Hampton said.

The Georgia House has twice passed an amendment resolution but it has gone nowhere in the state Senate. An amendment requires a vote of two-thirds of each chamber as well as approval by voters.

"We can't fix everything for everybody," said state Sen. Bill Heath, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee.

Heath, a Republican, argued that making retroactive changes to retirement benefits "opens up a can of worms and could destroy the pension system."

The House Retirement Committee chairman, state Rep. Ben Bridges — a retired state trooper — has no such misgivings.

'We were under siege'
Georgia's first black officers, hired in the late 1940s, entered a segregated system rife with daily humiliations. They couldn't arrest white offenders without a white officer present. They couldn't change into uniforms at the station house, or wear their uniforms to work, forcing many to switch clothes in the locker room at the local black YMCA.

Some white officers ordered to partner with a black officer called in sick until they were reassigned.

"It was pure hell," said former Atlanta Patrolman Johnnie P. Jones, the only surviving member of the original class of eight black officers hired in Atlanta in 1948. "The enemy was the white police officers and the enemy was the black citizens. We were under siege."

The numbers of black officers slowly rose in the 1950s and 1960s as the civil rights struggle raged through the South. Although the federal Civil Rights Act signed in 1964 outlawed employment discrimination, change in the ranks was slow.

Officials don't dispute that participants in the police retirement plan before 1976 were almost exclusively white.

"That appears true but we weren't keeping those kinds of records," said Robert Carter, current secretary-treasurer of the Peace Officers Annuity and Benefit Fund of Georgia.

Law fails to address up to 200 officers
The fund supplements officers' municipal or county pensions. Officers make small monthly contributions and the state adds money collected from tickets and fines.

Booker, who worked in the College Park police force for more than three decades before he retired, said he would be pulling in an extra $770 more a month if he had been allowed to join the fund at the beginning of his career.

Instead, at the age of 76 he is still working part-time directing traffic to make ends meet.

Legislators did enact a partial remedy in 2006, passing a bill allowing current officers who were employed before 1976 to buy into the fund for those earlier years. Only four did, Carter said. And that law didn't address the estimated 100 to 200 black officers who had already retired.

Brooks, a veteran of the two-decade crusade to remove the Confederate battle symbol from the Georgia flag, said this legislative battle is testing even his patience. "I am not hopeful," he said.

And time is running out, as some retirees have died and others are ailing.

"You wonder sometimes are they just waiting for us to all die?" Booker said.