Shameful inequality persists E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

James Booker doesn’t have to look too far back to remember the bad old days. There was still a “whites only” sign hanging on the precinct house water fountain in 1964 when James Booker joined the suburban College Park Police Dept. But it wasn’t just the water fountain that was off-limits to Booker. Until 1976, black officers were prohibited from joining a state-supported supplemental police retirement fund. Now white officers who entered the fund before that year are taking home hundreds of dollars more every month in retirement benefits than their black colleagues.

There has been an effort to correct the situation, but Booker says even after eight years of trying to get what he’s owed, there’s been nothing in the way of progress at the legislative level. The effort to amend the state constitution and give black officers 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, the battle will move to the courthouse. Georgia State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist, is 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. “We can’t fix everything for everybody,” said state Sen. Bill Heath, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee. Heath, a Republican, says that making retroactive changes to retirement benefits “opens up a can of worms and could destroy the pension system.”

Others say that’s a red herring. The House Retirement Committee chairman, Representative Ben Bridges, who is a retired state trooper, has no such misgivings about giving retired police officers the benefits they worked so hard to earn. The situation reminds many of a time when Georgia’s first black officers, hired in the late 1940s, entered a segregated system. Black officers couldn’t arrest white offenders without a white officer present.

They couldn’t change into uniforms at the station house because of segregated locker rooms and they were barred from wearing their uniforms to work, which forced many of them 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,” former Atlanta Patrolman Johnnie P. Jones told Shannon McCaffery of the Associated Press in a recent interview. Jones is the only surviving member of the original class of eight black officers hired in Atlanta in 1948.

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 was slow going for law enforcement. No one disputes the fact 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,” Robert Carter, current secretary-treasurer of the Peace Officers Annuity and Benefit Fund of Georgia, told McCaffrey.

The fund supplements officers’ municipal or county pensions. Officers make small monthly contributions and the state adds money collected from tickets and fines. Mr. Booker, who worked in the College Park police force for more than three decades before retiring, 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. State Rep. Brooks, a veteran of the two-decade crusade to remove the Confederate battle symbol from the Georgia flag, said this legislative battle is testing his patience.

“I am not hopeful,” he said. “You wonder sometimes are they just waiting for us to all die,” Booker asked.

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